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Behaving

Doorslam, and doorslam. I sit here in her bag - forgotten in the fracas - for a good few days. You pace the flat, caged, cursing softly to yourself. The wait doesn't bother me; I've been meaning to practice my Vipassanā. (If I am not misled by vanity, I am by now past the second dhyāna, a newborn sakadāgāmi, joyously re-observing oneself-in-the-world, my very consistency that freedom from doubt that precedes perfect equanimity.)

You fart. You think to yourself that farting loudly expresses freedom, but it also wears off some of the thin polish she put on you. Avoiding that idea, you fart to joke: "The door slams! A beat. Fart." Hack at the slamming door and slumping heart with an ironic edge. (But those cut the bearer.)

Days blur. Between mantras I come to know you, see you trying to live: burning the beans, late for work by 1, 2, 3 hours, tripping on your trews as you speed out the loo to grab your phone in case it's her. Seeing it isn't, you just lie t…
Recent posts

How to Talk about Books you Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

There are too many books; among those worth reading at all, most are best skimmed; others are best interpreted via interpreters; you only see part of the possible meaning of the books you've read; and you've forgotten almost anything about even those. So relax and talk about the 'virtual' book, the idea of it, the version of it that you and your interlocutor inadvertently generate between you.

The title sounds like vacuous click-bait (indeed, a friend who later wrote his thesis on Bayard initially thought I was recommending something like this fluff). But it is instead all of the following: a thrilling act of virtuoso postmodern over-reading, a serious look at intellectual status and neurosis, a really interesting phenomenology of books, a glowing review of a dozen writers (including my beloved-but-low-status Greene and Lodge), and sheer backwards-land satire.

I found it liberating, not because I go round pretending to have read things (a free-rider in literary …

The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey

As a young man my ideology was a kind of dull, reflexive socialism. Good-hearted maybe, but neither clear nor honest. McCloskey got to even me via my contempt for neoclassical macroeconomics and null-hypothesis significance testing, which she critiqued twenty years before the Great Recession and the replication crisis, respectively.

Then she shocked me with the contrary title of this, the first volume in her epic economic history of moral development. This was thrilling, too: I've been most things in my life: a positivist social engineer, a Joan Baez socialist, a man. Now I'm a free-market feminist, a quantitative postmodernist, a woman. I'm not ashamed of these changes of mind.
Besides long meditations on the pagan and Christian virtues, it holds a serious discussion on Groundhog Day, and is the best telling of the maligned, vital Great Transformation story. Triumphant and funny and trembling with erudition.

In one sentence: The origins of the modern world an…

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

Hilarious, patrician, blunt account of the worst of her many journeys, to: Guomindang China 1941, the U-boated Carribean 1942, East through West Africa 1949, liberal Russia 1966, hippie Israel 1971.

She generalises a lot (e.g. she categorises each new tribe she meets by their average attractiveness and prevailing smell; she calls ‘racial’ what we’d deem cultural traits; like many WWII vets, she insists on using the word ‘Jap’). But her discrimination is more usually discriminating, making just distinctions. She’s fair, keen to empathise - I said it stood to reason that we must smell in some disgusting way to them.
Yes, said Aya, they say we have the ‘stale odour of corpses’; they find it sickening.

This cheers me; fair’s fair; I don’t feel so mean-minded – a point you can find in p’Bitek, among others) and holds colonialists and bigots in far higher contempt (“it seems conceited to foist off our notions of religion, which we have never truly practised, onto peop…

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Hits hard, leaves marks. The same ignoble, epistemically pinched, economically realist sci-fi written by the Strugatskys or Stross. I love it so much that even the Rogerian psychotherapy at its core doesn't annoy me; that even its 90% focus on one spoiled and abusive bastard is a merit of it. Spoilers everywhere. Physics and sin. No shortage of things left to do.

In one sentence: Dreadful human being reflects on his dreadful actions while dead aliens look on.Number of reads: 3 since 2002.Galef type: Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something .To be read when: overconfident.

The Abolitionist Project by David Pearce

(c) Toby Ziegler (2006), The Hedonistic Imperative
Atrocious, agonising things are happening to people like you, me and our loved ones right now. The full horror of some sorts of suffering is literally unspeakable and unimaginably dreadful. Under a Darwinian regime of natural reproduction, truly horrible experiences - as well as endemic low-grade malaise - are both commonplace and inevitable. Chapter Two argues the moral case for stopping this nastiness. Since 'ought' implies 'can', however, it must first be established that scrapping unpleasant experience really is a biologically feasible option... from an information-theoretic perspective, what counts is not our absolute location on the pleasure-pain axis, but that we are "informationally sensitive" to fitness-relevant changes in our internal and external environment. Gradients of bliss can suffice both to motivate us and offer a rich network of feedback mechanisms; so alas today do gradients of Darwinian d…

The Culture by Iain Banks

(c) Don Davis
In one sentence: A psychologically realistic utopia (that is: a flawed one), nestled in a soft opera of space operas.Number of reads: 3 since 2005.Galef type: Theory 2 - model of what makes something succeed or fail &
Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something.
Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.To be read when: you don't think we have anywhere to go. Or on a train.

The two worst omissions from sci-fi are social development and software development. Banks covers the first so memorably, so thrillingly, that the series is a permanent touchstone for me - even though none of the books is so, so great to make this list alone. Banks was always quite open about how didactic his sci-fi was; it is saved by his inventiveness and psychological realism amidst technological fantasy.

This scene had a large effect on me as a child: 'Of course I don…