Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur and Escape from Language

My relationship with Jewishness is untainted by any feelings of ideological obligation. That is to say, I belong to this people and community (sort of, more or less), I participate in their rituals (very occasionally), I share some deep values (not necessarily the obvious and articulated ones), but I will be damned if it will determine how I think. Like any other body of learning, I treat it as a resource that I will make use of as I see fit, not a framework that I have to fit myself into. 

This sounds both a bit naive and a bit like bragging, but I’m just trying to be accurate about how things are with me. I’ve never been able to comfortably wear an ideological or identity. In a way it’s annoying that I am a radical non-joiner. Some people manage to make themselves nice lives out of being Jewish, or being an anarchist, or scholar, or activist, or whatever. I resist being anything. I suppose even that becomes an identity eventually.
“I decided I’d rather starve and live on the edges of nowhere than do anything at all, than become anything labeled.” – Bukowski (a saint of illegibility)
Given that I’m not a counterculture hero or anything close, but rather a middle-class guy with a family to support, I do in fact have a quite labeled work identity (and resume and LinkedIn profile and all the rest). It’s a real enough aspect of me; I don’t mind (much) inhabiting the role and selling it on the marketplace. But a holy day is a point where I can step back from it and place it in its proper perspective. Taking off from work is just a superficial aspect; it is taking a day off from the everyday structural illusions of the world, the better to put them in their proper place.

There’s a lot of talk about the soul this time of year – how to purify it, is it going to be inscribed in the Book of Life, etc. Like a good materialist with cognitive science training, I am deeply dubious about the very concept. Yet someone or thing is being dubious, no? If nothing else, language and grammar force an identity to come into being.

Yom Kippur begins with the Kol Nidrei, an odd bit of legalistic performative Aramaic that has the emotional force of prayer, and an interesting and controversial history that I was unaware of until recently. It is a release from vows, and has been interpreted by anti-semites to mean that Jews can’t be trusted.
It refers to vows assumed by an individual for himself alone, where no other persons or interests are involved. Though the context makes it perfectly obvious that no vows or obligations towards others are implied, there have been many who were misled into believing that by means of this formula all their vows and oaths are annulled. – Philip Birbaum via Wikipedia
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the reconstructionist movement, tried to get rid of it but failed. The emotional force of it and its connection to the ritual proved too strong; and for many Jews it is the most moving and holy ceremony of the calendar.

My own interpretation, which is no doubt overly influenced by my own particular obsessions, is that the Kol Nidrei is a fundamental and irreplaceable counterweight to the usual Jewish obsessions with language and law. It is not so much a release from vows as a release from language, a temporary ritual acknowledgement that for all our word-worship, words are an imperfect and inadequate tool to face reality and life, and most of all the sacred. Like many other religious and meditative practices, the Kol Nidre is a form of language whose function is to move beyond language.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Proposed Extensions to the Booleans

A quasitechnical nonproposal (ref):


true because I say so
true because God says so
hidden truth
ultimate truth
penultimate truth
self-contradictory truth1
true in all possible worlds
true even in impossible worlds
ironically true
true because the powerful have decreed it true
true despite that the powerful have tried to make it false
necessarily true
too beautiful not to be true
true for me but not for you
true for you but not for me2
true for all practical purposes
truth eventually universal; but for now unevenly distributed3
true for anybody with a shred of self-respect
truth of the master
truth of the slave
truth of the parent
truth of the child
forbidden truth
really forbidden truth
unspeakable truth
unbearable truth
truth nearly but not quite dead from overexposure
mostly true
sort-of true
occasionally true
conventional truth
conventionally unconventional truth4
self-aggrandizing truth
self-effacing truth
true because least improbable alternative
bought and paid for truth
casualty of war truth
official truth
underground truth
tentative truth
overbearing truth
true irregardless
true to truth itself
true despite all appearances



1 h/t G. Spencer-Brown's imaginary values
2 h/t "Bob" Dobbs: “I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to
4 aka "SlatePitch"

Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day Nonpost

Labor Day is a day when laborers are not supposed to labor. It is an artificial holiday, created explicitly to separate US labor from the international labor movement, which still celebrates on May 1. Since I am now a member of the blogging proletariat, this particular post is excusing itself from the task of making a point, and is going to ramble and drop links.

I Believe in America

Labor Day Is a Scam To Keep You Poor and Miserable Forever

Developers are the Autoworkers of our Generation (Hacker News discussion_)

Tech CEO autistically offers to automate someone’s job away

The discussion on that last one got me thinking…A good developer is constantly automating the boring parts of their job so they can focus on the more interesting parts. What is a compiler, or a continuous-integration server, but a way for developers to spend less time on repetitive tasks?

It is always striking to me how much software has improved in this respect, and how little. Yes, tools like Wordpress make it possible to set up a website in minutes, where it would have taken a month or so in the past. But the basic tasks of coding don’t seem any easier. Languages have not improved much in the 30+ years I have been doing this professionally, nor have editors or debugging tools (actually things have gotten quite a bit worse since the peak of powerful programming environments, the Lisp Machine, but that is a flame for another day). Revision control systems have improved, but not radically. You’d think we’d have systems that could go from intention to powerful software engine almost instantaneously by now, but no, it’s still an incredibly tedious process. Software seems stuck on a plateau, which is good news I guess for us developers, we just haven’t made ourselves as obsolete as we should have.

Of course the real money is in automating other people’s jobs. That is happening and I believe will accelerate in the next decade, which would cause labor unrest and a resurgence of Luddism if people had any guts, but mostly they don’t. Of course this has been happening for a long time:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

– Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) (and no, I am not a Marxist but I am very fond of this passage)
The developer/entrepeneur/VC nexus is like the Victorian bourgeois raised to the nth power. Move fast and break things! If the old labor and socialist movements were a response to the rise of industry and the destruction of traditional ways of life, well, we are still waiting for an adequate political solution to the social churn caused by software.

Mitigating the effects of accelerating technological change doesn't sound so hard in theory. I don’t have any trouble imagining what that response should be. The goal is to have a world where the creative entrepreneurial spirit can thrive, but without the side-effects of destroying people's lives.  How about for instance: a guaranteed minimal income; changing our model of education from its industrial model to one of continuous learning; greater wealth equality and more democratic workplace cultures? All good ideas, but with essentially no chance of happening given the currently broken political system.

As a software person I feel our field should have some social responsibility for these issues – given how much we are damaging people’s livelihoods, we should also be working on the fixes. However, we don’t really have the talent or inclination.

Perhaps that is changing. Software may be eating the world, but as it does it gets changed in turn. The more artists, activists, and other people who are not in the generic tech-nerd mold get involved with software, the better (and I say that as pretty much a generic tech-nerd myself). The more important software is, the more important it is that it reflect the full spectrum of human needs, desires, and abilities, not merely the narrow parts of that it currently serves.

Previously. Also there are some obvious links between this topic and my recent guest post on I/Thou, the explicating of which is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some work songs (Spotify link).

And I should add that I have almost no personal complaints about my current employment, at least, none that have to do with this post. I'm pretty firmly in the camp of eaters rather than eaten and hope to stay that way.