Skip to main content

Been reading, Q4 2014

Cover of Colin Farrelly's 'Introduction to Political Theory' – unsigned.

Human beings differ from other animals because they are sufficiently intelligent to wish that they could stop working and reasoning – and free enough to toil harder than other creatures to pursue both these aims in order to eventually enjoy free time.

It follows that Homo faber and Homo sapiens are only contingent consequences of the truly essential Homo ludens. The fact that philosophers do not typically endorse this view only clarifies why they rarely qualify as champions of common sense…

– Luciano Floridi

Aa our knawledge is hauflin; aa our prophesíein is hauflin: but whan the perfyte is comed, the onperfyte will be by wi. In my bairn days, I hed the speech o a bairn, the thochts o a bairn, the mind o a bairn, but nou at I am grown manmuckle, I am through wi aathing bairnlie… In smaa: there is three things bides for ey: faith, howp, luve. But the grytest o the three is luve.

– I Corinthians 13, via William Lorimer

Formal education is really interfering with my studies.

1/5: No.   4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Meh.   4*/5: Amazing but just once, probably.
3/5: Skimmable.   5?/5: Reconfiguring, will be back.
3*/5: Mind candy.
5/5: Encore, the highest praise.

  • Anthologie Prévert (1981) by Jacques Prévert.

    Hooray for the only poems I can read in French! Nursery rhymes, but with razorwire not far beneath. The simplicity (loads of basic nouns repeated dozens of times – “oiseaux” and “roi”, “oiseaux” and “roi”) makes me look look nervily over my shoulder – for the real attacker. ‘Chant Song’ is so gorgeous, daft.


  • Andromache (1990) by Douglas Dunn.

    Epic verse sounds pat to me, and doubly so when it’s forced to fit dialogue: mumming couples expositing couplets. (“I’ll kill myself. That final ploy shall save / My honour. Then I’ll give back from the grave / What I owe Pyrrhus.”) Not Dunn’s fault – the pentameter’s solid, but 3/5 is the highest I can give epic couplets cos I am limited and jaded. And he agrees: “It was a bloody hard piece of work… and I think it was universally agreed that I didn’t fully succeed.”


  • The Regulars (2004) by Sarah Stolfa.

    Very exposed and yet kind portraits from a Philadelphia bar she tended. No action soever, just an ordinary sleazy goofy beauty. All worth it. Foreword from Jonathan Franzen is full-on ‘eh’.


  • Antifragile (2012) by Nassim Taleb.

    The most ambitious and messy book in his four-volume Incerto. This is vast, chaotic philosophy of resistance, equal parts artful and rigorous. Every other page has something worth hearing (for its iconoclasm, or a Latin gobbet, or catty anecdote), if not something globally and evidently true. (I think he is right about 35% of the time, which is among the highest credences I have for anyone. I only think I am 40% right, for instance.) The core point, repeated a couple of hundred times for various domains:
    In real life, many systems deteriorate without an irregular supply of stressors (non-fatal negative events), and actually benefit from them by overreacting and building spare capacity. By robbing such 'antifragile' systems of stressors, modern approaches to managing them do damage in the guise of helping out.
    There's a whole bunch superficially wrong with the book; I discuss my gripes in more detail here. But it talks about everything, is historically wide-eyed, relentlessly rational, and often funny. Also the method-worldview-style it suggests might be one way to stop life crushing us utterly.


  • Aloud: The Stairwell (2014) by Michael Longley.

    Flickers between the Classical general and the wattle-byre specific. All really personal – but not in the universally interesting melodramatic way. It is personal in the way that hanging around the vestibule of a friend of a friend of a friend’s house when one didn’t know they were dropping past and one quite needs the toilet is personal. Also, it’s full up with the (apparently haute Irish?) obsession with Attic Greece. One or two amazing ones – see “Amelia’s Poem” at the bottom of this.


  • Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction (2001) by Luciano Floridi.

    Whistle-stop hyperbole in the way of Continentals, but grounded by its technical knowledge and uncliched owing to its techno-optimism (which is uncliched in this genre of writing):
    The history of modern thought has been characterised by an increasing gap between mind and reality. It is a process of epistemic detachment which has been irresistible ever since it began, and quite inevitably so. Knowledge develops as mind’s answer to the presence of the non-mental. It is the means whereby the subject establishes a minimal distance, and emancipates itself, from the object. The rise of dualism and the escalating interaction between traditional knowledge, as an object, and innovative knowledge, as a further reaction to it, has led to the emergence of a new world.
    Notice the skilled and non-fatuous use of phenomenological blah! Chapter 2, his fast and very formal discussion of Boole, Gödel and Turing, took me about half a week. The tiny concluding chapter – in which he locates computers in the history of human freedom, as Hephaestean handmaids – makes me giddy. Slightly dated where it talks PC specs, and he loves a goofy neologism (“egology”, “corporeal membranes”), but grand, sceptical, grand, supervenient.


    (His ‘Informational Nature of Personal Identity’ and ‘Turing’s Three Lessons’ are

  • Surviving (2009) by Allan Massie.

    Drunk or ex-drunk Anglos bitch around Rome. Some of the literary references are a bit much (“The boy was reading Stendhal; how bad could he be?”) but the nasty driving fatigue underneath is good. Has a really ugly binding and font, so I’ve compensated the score in case I am shallow.


  • Aloud: ‘The’ ‘“Rubaiyyat’” of ‘Omar Khayyam’ (2014) by Vanessa Hodgkinson.

    I use those apostrophes advisedly. Gaudy and hectic word-association, with only tenuous formal or thematic links to Khayyam, but fizzing with verve of its own. (Vine is a video fragment public diary; Wine is an excellent Windows emulator.) Teeming with clumsy nerdy ephemera, but I think it will be worth reading in 10 years. Let's see. Works much better aloud.


  • Rationality for Mortals (2008) by Gerd Gigerenzer.

    Yet another volley in the ‘rationality wars’. GG sets himself against the heuristics and biases folk (though note he is also not of the fatuous constructionist camp which says, roughly: ‘it’s impossible for everyone to be irrational, because reason is only social, so we are the measure of it’) by minimising the apparent irrationality uncovered by the cognitive sciences in the last little while. Key claims:
    1. Heuristics are not just faster or more tractable, but better than Bayesian formalism.
    2. People are not flawed Bayesians but natural frequentists.
    But though his work on presenting natural frequencies is super-important, and his points about actual decisions always being 'ecological' (rather than a mathematical problem) I suspect he's (still) 1) attacking a straw version of Kahneman-Gilovich-Slovic-Stanovich: no-one is saying that perfect, everyday Bayesian algorithmics is attainable by humans; nor are the misconceptions in table 1.1 (p.9) ever stated so strongly. Also 2) GG's evidence on e.g. the framing of the conjunction fallacy doesn't replicate. But anyway this is well-argued, well-written, scientific in the highest sense, and wrong? Read this instead.


  • Reread: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853) by Herman Melville.

    One of the Frankensteins, those endlessly interpretable load-bearing columns dotted around literature. Of negation, dignity, irrationality, silence, impermeability. What is Bartleby, if not just depressed or hyper-lazy? Well there’s the defensive Stoic catatonia, or wu wei; Bartleby as crypto-proto-Marxist; Bartleby as waning Übermensch, squatter monk, annoying Christ; Bartleby as dissociating schizophrene or autist; Bartleby as Death of Dead Letters; Bartleby as PTSD ghost; Bartleby as all our inarticulate idiosyncracy; as utter Other – “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” Some people (e.g. Blanchot, Hardt & Negri, Setiya) view him as heroic, but he’s more hallucinogenic and morbid: he lacks everything but refusal; he throws his life away. And that’s a living death, a non-human void (“I never feel so private as when I know [Bartleby is] here”).
    So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.
    That copyists are an extinct breed only adds to the seething flavour; it is possible that OCR and distributed Captchas could have minimised Bartleby’s suffering - that the condition the piece wrangles with isn’t eternal. What would Bartleby be today? Not, I think, an Occupier; rather a impassive backstreets bookshop owner, or a kombucha stallholder or whatnot. I prefer to read Melville’s voice - waffling Victorian persiflage - as an assumed decoration for the windbag lawyer’s voice (however much Moby Dick shouts otherwise).


  • Question Everything (2014) by New Scientist readers.

    132 lovely earthings of sky-high theory. Not much new to me, but was vital as refresher course and mind candy. The tacit connections between the answers are the real thing – for instance, I guessed (wrongly) that synchrotron radiation and Cherenkov radiation were based on the same mechanism, and feel very happy that a quick and public disconfirmation was available. Here (and Quora is apparently very good becuase of its paywall).


  • The Blunders of Our Governments (2013) by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.

    Insofar as anything is uncontroversial in politics – the most mired of intellectual backwaters – this sticks to uncontroversial blunders. So we only get the internally incoherent or screwy policies like Suez; poll tax; ERM Black Wednesday. (The book’s larger point is that there are more and more of these to come, because of the shape of Westminster’s gears.) A compressed, formal style – hiding its anger, so ministerial ignorance and snobbishness gets called "cultural disconnect" – but constructive and schadenfreudish too. First chapter is a list of state successes (green belts, social housing boom and sale, Clean Air, seat belts, vaccinations, minimum wage, smoking ban, swine flu prep) included as a counter-libertarian tonic before launching into the peaky blunders. (This first chapter actually made my chest swell.)


  • The Reith Lectures 2014 by Atul Gawande.

    Cool stories, world-changing practical interventions - but indifferent philosophy. Of systems, fallibility, humaneness. As with other systems theorists like Meadows, I accept the general swing – ‘this shit is hard; the pieces don't show the whole’ – but don’t see how their proposals are actually different from classic reductionism (that dirty word which is in fact clean practice). A checklist is a reduction of a chaotic array of options into atoms of action! A system can only be specified if you understand what are interacting. The points about treating patients like humans are presumably right but not that simple to implement without first lessening medics' workloads a whole lot?


    (Cites ‘Towards a Theory of Medical Fallibility’ (1975) by MacIntyre and Gorovitz. 4*/5.)

  • Reliable Essays (2001) by Clive James.

    Mostly haute subjects here, always bas on crap. He: brags about having spotted Heaney’s ambit very early, points out the fatal ideological flaws in both Mailer and Greer, fiercely challenges translations from the Italian, the Russian, the German; summarises every major photography book of the late 70s; shows that liberalism and classicism remain standing, “less bad than all the others” even after the sustained insult of C20th Theory; and other such generalist feats. The titles of the last two sections – “Almost Literature” and “Practically Art” – are scale models of both his style and critical mission: to raise the foully sunken, or shield the great assailed.


  • Dictionary of Received Ideas (1870s) by Gustave Flaubert.

    Stuff White People Like plus Speak your Branes, but minus two hundred years. This is Flaubert being bitchy about C19th France bourgeoisie/hipsters: the contradictory and petty zeitgeist. I myself have used 'alabaster' to describe a woman, whoops.


  • In one sitting in a hotel café: Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle.

    Scrunched-up, guileless portrait of outcast youth via choose-your-own-adventure and emotional reconstruction. Though first-person, it circles the ruined protagonist Sean warily, not looking directly at him in his isolation, powerlessness, and very occasional gratuitous joy. A couple of those Darnielle lines resonate out from the hurt and 80s ephemera – “[All I knew of Lance were] the parts he hadn’t been able to stop himself from mentioning, the pieces of himself that flew naturally from him like sparks from a torch”, “…No shortage of things still left to do” – but JD is not so concerned with making the narrator lyrical; in fact a large theme is that Sean (as with Lance’s folly) is mundane and inexplicable, even to himself. Out of character. And, as always with Darnielle we get the quiet or defiant or perverse or poetic appreciation of the devalued (p.186!). (Alan Bennett: “Oh, I’m unhappy, but not unhappy about it”. Darnielle:
    the Sean who built the [game] is as distant from me now as the Sean who blew his face off is from both of us. All three live in me, I guess, but those two, and God knows how many others, are like fading scents. I know they’re still there. I could find them if I needed them. But I don’t need them, and one of them survives only in bits and pieces. They certainly don’t need me. They are complete just as they are.


  • The New Testament in Scots (1967 CE) by William Lorimer.

    In the form that survived, Scots is a uniformly profane language – not in the sense of profanity, but as in worldly and comic and demotic. Some of that opinion is classist stereotype; it certainly wasn't true four hundred years ago (the devotional poems of Dunbar and Henryson stand up to the sacred efforts in any language); but most is real, down to Knox's decision on a legally-mandatory bible in English, but even more to the cultural capture of the nation’s Anglicised elites, but even more than that to the simple dictates of shared economic activity, over three hundred years: i.e. we gave English our sacred talk, then we gave English our intellectual talk, and then trade talk, and law talk, and all their formal accoutrements. Until only the informal and proletarian was left. Atweill, the kitsch prevails (“Hoots ma wee bonnie lassie! Ahiiii wid wauk fyv hhundrid myles”). When Lorimer wrote this, the dialectisation of Scots, and the cutesy granny-aff-a-bus process wasn’t so advanced - but this is the register we moderns read it in, unless we are rural and lucky.

    (Nasty but probable thing I once heard a linguist lecture on: relatively few languages develop the scientific-philosophical register and benefit from its sharpening vocabularies. He reckoned that only nine ever have, fully: Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Russian, German, French, English. Scots definitely had speakers sophisticated enough, in its High Medieval heyday, but the internationalist use of Latin precluded it.)

    Lorimer saw a Bible translation as one of two conditions that would revitalise Scots. (The language, rather than the dialect Scots English.) (The other big brick being the great Dictionary.) Well, we have both now, and they are not enough. I think the argument for bringing back languages is only superficially the humane one, since language is for communication first, and our condition is more and more a global one. (I find it difficult to fault Katja Grace’s analysis: the standard arguments fail, and the present matters more than the past, because it is where value actually happens.)

    Lorimer translated it straight from the Koine Greek over a full decade, finishing the second draft just before his death. The art comes in his rendering the apostles with their own voice and distinctive idiolect. (Paul is, here as ever, a nasty little man: smug and litigious.) While I’m very glad this exists, the book itself can do little for me, whatever language it’s wearing. (Nothing takes me further from religious awe than the actual things we said God said. Hauflin’ indeed.)


Amelia, your newborn name
Combines with the midwife’s word
And, like smoke from driftwood fires
Wafts over the lochside road
Past the wattle byre – hay bales
For ponies, Silver and Whisper –
Between drystone walls’ river-
Rounded moss-clad ferny stones,
Through the fenceless gate and gorse
To the flat erratic boulder
Where otters and your mother rest,
Spraints black as your meconium,
Fish bones, fish scales, shitty sequins
Reflecting what light remains.

- Michael Longley.