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Been Reading, Q2 2015

(c) Ben Orlin (2015)

Increasingly, people seem to interpret complexity as sophistication, which is baffling – the incomprehensible should cause suspicion, not admiration. Possibly this results from the mistaken belief that using a mysterious device confers [extra] power on the user.

– Niklaus Wirth

'I’m afraid I don’t understand that' was a reply uttered in those days with great self-righteousness, the implication being that what you had said was deficient in true ordinariness... It was felt to be a very strong defence, not only intellectually but also morally. (“You are confused or pretentious, or both; my inability to understand is proof of virtue.”)

– Jasper Griffin

1/5: No.   4/5: 4/5: Very good.
2/5: Meh.   4*/5: Amazing but one read will do..
3/5: Skimmable.   5?/5: A possible 5/5.
3*/5: Mind candy.   5/5: Encore. A life companion.

Had my Final exams, but that didn’t stop me doing these, for reasons of perversity.

I wonder about books that would take me a full 3 months to read. Infinite Jest seems to take people at least this long (not me, cause I'm a fanboy who flatters himself as living very near to DFW's own native frequency). I’ve just gotten the LessWrong bible, but that is more of a single happy month, to be administered whenever one feels that human history is futile... There's the giant crunchy formal bastions: Kendall’s Advanced Theory; University Physics; TAOCP. (Though, as DFW points out, the reason these would take 3 months is not their difficulty, really:
If you said, ‘I spent the whole night in the library, working on a sociology paper’, you really meant that you’d spent between two and three hours working on it and the rest fidgeting and sharpening and organising pencils and doing skin-checks in the mirror and wandering around the stacks opening volumes at random and reading about, say, Durkheim’s theories of suicide.


  • Rip it Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 (2006) by Simon Reynolds.

    Exhaustive essay on art and/versus pop, politics and/versus aesthetics, intellect and/versus passion, and on how seriously music should, in general, be taken. He reads post-punk as far wider than the sombre anti-rock art-school thing people usually take it to be – so he includes Human League and ABC as post-punks with emphasis on the post: His scope is total: everything’s here (except for oi, hardcore, Ramonescore – i.e. the people who failed to make it past punk). Reynolds divides the genre in three broad camps:

    1. modernists (PiL, Cab Vol, No Wave, industrial, SST prog-punk),
    2. New Pop and synth,
    3. retro-eclectics (two-tone, Goth, Northern Soul).

    He has more critical acumen than any of the mooks in the brainy bands; more love than the fey melodists. I have lived in the post-punk woods – too jaded and too hopeful to be a punk – for getting on a decade, and I thought myself a connoisseur: until now I was not. Full review here.


  • Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World (2005) by Bruce Schneier.

    Some hard lessons taken from computer security are spun out into a general theory of Defence. His language is sometimes a little banal, but there is a fully worked-out and rigorous model of the world underneath, without deference to the creeping establishment or the splurging radicals.

    3*/5. [Library]

  • Algorithmics: The Spirit of Computing (1991) by David Harel.

    A thing of beauty: Harel’s attempt to write a work of computer science that doesn’t date. The general abstract introductory matter. The field is hugely consequential: different algorithms for the same task can differ in performance by massive orders of magnitude. Bible quotations book-end each chapter and give this a frisson of something other.

    4/5. [Library]

  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) by David Foster Wallace.

    Draining, scarifying, funny, hyperactive, elevating. ‘Content warning’, as we now say. For instance, the person described in this passage is one story’s hero, a remarkable and powerful agent:
    [her] prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcana, emotional incontinence, flamboyantly long hair, extreme liberality on social issues, financial support from parents they revile, bare feet, obscure import religions, indifferent hygiene, a gooey and somewhat canned vocabulary, the whole predictable peace-and-love post-Hippie diction…
    i.e. He comes up with a perfect encapsulation of a facile social trend, but throws away his anger about it, makes us realise that our efforts to be tasteful / rational / grown-up are, here, making us small. DFW was an early mover in the revived Third Culture<> we can all enjoy: writing about the technical in terms of its meaning. But he was different: his syncretism came out of the negations of high postmodern theory, rather than the usual humanists with science backgrounds.
    Or like just another manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a metadimention and commenting on the fiasco itself.
    ‘On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand’ made me cry long.


  • Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2009) by Donella Meadows.

    I was a tad hostile to this at first – mostly because her field bred a generation of pseuds who use ‘reductionism’ as an insult (rather than as an ontological term or useful way of thinking, instances of which denote the highest achievements of the species). This is the power behind the quotation from Niklaus Wirth, above. It is an attempt to make holism rigorous; given holism's deep intuitive appeal for people, the attempt is worthy attempt. But let's get clear:
    “REDUCTIONISM” (to the pseud): The claim that complicated or immeasurable things do not exist.
    “SYSTEMS THEORY” (to the pseud): The only way of understanding things is as a whole. Everything else omits and so isn't full.

    REDUCTIONISM (ontology): The claim that complicated things are made of simpler things. Only the simplest of them are physically real; the rest are mental models of their interactions.*
    REDUCTIONISM (methodology): The attempt to isolate causes and treat phenomena in terms of their most basic units (whether quark, string, person, transaction).
    SYSTEMS THEORY: When things get together, they exhibit features the individual things don’t.
    So stated, there is no conflict between good old reduction and shiny systems thinking. But Meadows distils the juicy bits into <200pp here, and freely admits that systems theory has an intractable indeterminacy built into it, and says this, too:
    Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is “out there,” rather than “in here.” It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for… the technical fix that will make a problem go away.

    Serious problems have been solved by focusing on external agents — preventing smallpox, increasing food production, moving large weights and many people rapidly over long distances. Because they are embedded in larger systems, however, some of our “solutions” have created further problems… Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless.

    That is because they are intrinsically systems problems – undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.
    Systems talk is not just interdisciplinary, but meta-disciplinary. But it can rarely resolve empirical questions in the way that physics does. In saying, probably rightly, that a flow could go either way, depending on the state of the rest of the system and neighbouring systems, you lose or sideline crucial power to find out a single cause's influence, and thereby know more or less exactly what to do to the system. In other places, knowledge comes from isolating causes. A reductionist can agree with all the clever diagrams in this, happily concede that they illustrate the gnarly problems of collective action and other ecosystems very clearly, and not give up their peerlessly successful ontological stance at all.


  • * Also PHYSICALISM: Everything is made of physical things. (However, the physical may be stranger than you think.)


  • The Conquest of the Useless: Diaries from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (2004) by Werner Herzog, transl. Krishna Winston. I have a weird relationship with Herzog. The films’ typical tone and message (Nietzschean tragicomedy) doesn't really appeal to me. I watch them – and I watch them all, even since Dinotasia – for their literal and figurative voice: his relentless Teutonic ecstatic absurdity. I watch, waiting for that voice to roll out and make me hurt or laugh. (Since his humour is only sometimes on show, I am often laughing at him – and yet, out of mawkish brutalism, through my irony, rise the most affecting scenes I’ve ever seen: the beach shot in Cobra Verde; the clouds in Heart of Glass; the wandering penguin in Encounters; above all the final shot of My Best Fiend.)

    These diaries show him to be more thoughtful, rational, contrived and poetic than I had guessed. His sincere interest in the locals’ territorial plight, his physical participation in the set construction and management, his absorption in the suffering of jungle animals, his incongruous bright-eyed interest in mathematics, his astonishing codependency with Kinski, are all deeply disarming. The prose takes some getting used to, since the plain unflinching goth awe of it is the kind of thing we are primed to mock. It is well worth acclimating to: each entry is both bleak and hilarious, and the translation is rapturous and pellucid. There is such a lot of death.

    He certainly views the natural world right: as overwhelmingly a place of horrifying and pointless suffering, cooed over by rationalising pseuds from cars. There’s not a lot of technical info here, or explanations of the crew’s role or background; there's no timeline or context added; nor even very much about the film at all. But who cares? This is incredible as nature writing, dream journal, and logistical poetry.


  • Preliminary Assessment of Linux for Safety-Critical Systems (2002) by RH Pierce.

    UK government commissioned this to sanction what was happening already. Clears it for SIL1 and SIL2, and SIL3 is said to be accessible after some more testing. Because this report has a very specific aim, it actually provides a very clear introduction to the Linux movement and the technicalities of OS safety, both.


  • Reread: What the Hell are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley (2006).

    Hilarious, abject, shoddy. Magical realism if magic were shit and made you look an idiot. Voices from the last bus and the dawn of time, from dank cells and strip-lit service stations. Against institutional art and other pretences, and against indifference, and against no fun.


  • Authorship and the Art of David Lynch (2012) by Antony Todd.

    Pompous and shallow, with less intellectual content than the Rotten Tomato summaries of the films, let alone the films. (“Chapter One: Towards a Textual Historicity.”) Wields critical-theory Freudian shite to justify writing a book without any real discussion of the films, or the films' themes, or even any real biographical aspersion of Lynch-as-seen-in-his-films. Instead there is second-hand gossip dressed up as historical context and post-structuralist intertextuality (“Jaussian reception theory”: the discussion of reviews, ad campaigns, corporate manoeuvring). Materialism (in critical theory): the position that both artwork and authors are irrelevant to the study of the artwork.
    Let us, then, register modern auteurism in a reception practice whereby the authored film can compete for the reader’s attention in a coming together of inter- and extra-textual determinations through which the modern film spectator composes the aesthetic text for herself or himself...
    I’m not suggesting Todd is dishonest, or intentionally vague: instead, I think film studies has deluded this man into thinking he’s doing intellectual work when he shuffles these words around.


  • Note for your calibration of my opinion: I was very much looking forward to this book, and so I fell far. Also it’s been a while since I read any academic Arts work that didn’t strike me as hollow and fatally decoupled from the work at hand. Let alone its coupling to the world. I will strive to cherry-pick in future.

  • Neptune’s Brood (2013) by Charlie Stross.

    Extended essay on the macroeconomics of space bitcoin and the Graeberian lightness of debt. Also dead good breakneck fun, as always. Protagonist is a historian of finance and a gentle soul in ravenous space capitalism. Set in the Saturn’s Children world, with perhaps too much in common with that book (a powerful, psychotic matriarch antagonist; economic pressure as main plot driver; a serially manipulated and unviolent lead; space travel is shit). But good.

    Note: He devises a species of terrifying scavenger, the ‘Bezos worm’, which fall upon the wounded in vast packs, and incorporate their prey into their intestinal lining, to steal their genetic essence and thereby ease future cannibalism.

    3*/5. [Library]

  • Aloud: Sentenced to Life (2015) by Clive James.

    Poems written in the lengthening tail-end of his prognosis, mostly to his estranged wife. Plain, Classical, of cycles and renewal, death as travel, and the similarity of ends to beginnings.
    Her sumptuous fragments still went flying on
    In my last hours, when I, in a warm house,
    Lay on my couch to watch them coming close,
    Her proofs that any vision of eternity
    Is with us in the world, and beautiful
    Because a mind has found the way things fit
    Purely by touch. That being said, however,
    I should record that out of any five
    Pictures by Kogan, at least six are fakes.
    Some rage: against Assad and his torturers, against unreflective environmentalism, against obscurantism (Laura Riding or Gabriele d’Annunzio). Black humour relieving the strain of being wise and stoical.
    On a hard day in the Alhambra
    The Sultan sent an apple
    To the virgin of his choice.
    The logo on your Macbook
    Is an echo of the manner
    In which Alan Turing killed himself.
    Wanted to love this, but it is just good. It really picks up halfway through. His simple ones about e.g. Oxfam shops / action films are better than the cosmic ones. Best are ‘Plot Points’, ‘Echo Point’, ‘Transit Visa’, ‘Event Horizon’, ‘Nature Programme’, ‘The Emperor’s Last Words’.

    4/5. [Library]

  • Object-Oriented Software Engineering (2005) by Lethbridge and Laganiere.

    Software engineering is just a fancy word for design. It consists in getting a long way away from your code – procedural, data, architectural, set-theoretic abstraction – which I resented at first, but which is far more important than it looks. UML is a rigorous, machine-readable graphical logic. Rather than lines of code, design patterns are the real units of serious work. This book is exoteric to fuck (infected by the ‘stakeholder’ bureaucratese bug) and occasionally the examples are not illustrative, but all right.

    3/5. [Library]

  • The Decline and Fall of Science (1976) by Celia Green.

    Sullen Objectivist parapsychologist rant, aimed at convincing someone to give her £10m (“Considering how much there is to be done in this subject, that much would be reasonable”). Somehow this blared forth from elite trappings, Hamish Hamilton. Behold the ancient sneer:
    In the early days of psychical research, that is to say, during the short period before the volume of activity in the subject petered out on account of the decline of civilisation...
    Chapter 1 is “The Decline and Fall of Civilisation”. 6 and 7 get the declines of physics and medicine out of the way in 22 pages. Chapter 14: “Psychokinesis”. Chapter 17: “Conclusion, for the Particular Attention of Millionaires”. So I admit I picked this up to laugh at it: the first page has Green declare herself an unappreciated genius, followed by pages of largely inapt aphorisms:
    When people talk about ‘the sanctity of the individual’ they mean ‘the sanctity of the statistical norm’.

    Women are the last people to entrust with children. Those who have repressed their own aspirations will scarcely be tolerant of the aspirations of others.
    ‘Social justice’ – the expression of universal hatred.
    (Though I like ‘Democracy: the idea that everyone should have an equal opportunity to obstruct everybody else.’)

    2/5, extra point for entertaining sheer aristocratic woo. [University! Library]

  • The Philosophical Programmer (1998) by Daniel Kohanski.

    Damn! Would have been fantastic to read first, before the stress and sheer pace of How To Program overcame the space I had in mind for What It Is To Program. Gentle, brief, happy introduction to the totally basic elements and history. Not abstract or sweeping enough for its stated aims, though. See Floridi for the grand social/phenomenological bits, Dennett and Minsky for its relevance to all thought.

    3/5, but 4 for noobs. [Library]

  • Reread: This is Water (2006) by David Foster Wallace. I’ve seen a whole lot of hatin’ on DFW lately – here, here, here, here. But who else marries the syrupy plain with the thrilling theoretical arcane? Could anyone fail to understand the obvious, masked point of this little lecture? (Roughly just: “It requires constant work to divert yourself from egotism and irritation; this work is the point of education and the essence of maturity.”)

    The audience titters throughout the recording; this grates on me. It’s the forced, knowing laughter you hear in theatres (or wherever large groups of upper-middle class people gather). I submit that it’s this feature of DFW’s audience that Ellis and TLP hate. I don’t know if reading DFW makes me any less self-obsessed and disdainful, but actually it feels like it might.

    5/5. [Here]


  • Aloud: Human Chain (2010) by Seamus Heaney.

    As ever, it’s of hands, eels, parents, wakes, digging, kennings, regret, the RUC, Cuchulain, and Caesar. Fully half are in memoriams. You have to be brave or famous to write this plainly. Plainness can be mistaken for absence of technique – ‘here, I could do that’ – but here it is very, very obvious that I could not. Feel your tongue:
    It’s winter at the seaside where they’ve gone
    For the wedding meal. And I am at the table,
    Uninvited, ineluctable.
    A skirl of gulls. A smell of cooking fish.
    Plump dormant silver. Stranded silence. Tears.
    Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish.
    And leaves them to it, under chandeliers.
    And to all the anniversaries of this
    They are not ever going to observe
    Or mention even in the years to come.
    And now the man who drove them here will drive
    Them back, and by evening we’ll be home.
    Best are ‘A Herbal’, ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Loughanure’, and ‘Route 110’, an odyssey about buying a second-hand copy of the Aeneid and then trying to go home.

    4*/5. [Library]

  • The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (2011) by David Foster Wallace.

    What to say?
    Fifty fragments: unintegrated, contradicting, only some of the time amazing. Themes are as you’d expect: self-consciousness, freedom, duty, routine; the awful effects of unconstrained self-consciousness, freedom, duty and routine; the death of American civics; ‘the horror of personal smallness and transience’; the repugnance we feel for pure virtue; the extraordinary fires that are alight beneath some people. But, where in Jest these were expressed through (burdened with) drug slang and pharmacology, valley-speak, advertising dreck, and calculus, here we get accountancy minutiae, surely intended to repulse us. Yet the style of most of them is far less mannered than his finished work, which style we might call Valley-Girl Post-Doc.
    The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.

    It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting.
    Institutional tedium – the default state for developed-world adults – is a profoundly important thing to address, one it takes (still will take) an unusual mind to illuminate for us. But Pale King is actually not a Kafkan tale of the monstrous and growing horror of bureaucracy; actually he is deeply impressed and convinced of the value of the people and their work, in large part because of its inhumane strictures, and lack of glory, and unpopularity. "Big Q is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one." (Though if ‘corporate’ is there read merely as meaning ‘maximising’, the distinction can be a misleading one.)
    To me, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ and ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way… I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
    I tried to read them as short stories rather than chapters. This half-works. Actually the entire book was an intentionally fruitless setup – the major agonists all off-stage and everyone else just enduring. Stand out bits here. A couple of intentionally unconvincing first-person authorial inserts – “I, David Wallace, social security no…” – which affirm the reality of the garish IRS underbelly he fabricates, puts him in the scene. Fragment #8 is a horrifying Cormac McCarthy lyric, childhood psychosis. One (#22) is a hundred-page monologue, the character repetitive, rambling and conceited, but also the most developed and affecting. Of this wreckage we are given to read. What to say? That you’d have to love him, that you should.

    X / 5. [Library]

  • Introduction to Speech and Language Processing (2005) by Coleman.

    ‘A Tutorial on Hidden Markov Models’ (1989), by Lawrence Rabiner. etc.
    Hidden Markov models are interesting: they let us get at things around corners. In my case, the corner is linguistic accommodation.

  • Eloquent Javascript (2011) by Marijn Haverbeke.

    Verbose, thoughtful and extremely well-implemented. Part of a growing tradition of artful tech textbooks – Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby, Learn You a Haskell, . Hides the specific things you need to know about JS – its mad liberal syntax, semicolon insertion, functors, – among a My First Programming. But no harm in seeing what one knows already. 4/5, 4* for noobs. [Here]

  • The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944) by Neil Gunn.

    Odd anti-rationalist fantasy on the model of TH White. (What’s the word for the pre-Tolkien, pre-swords-and-sorcery model of fantasy?) Everything is oblique, from the discussion of Auschwitz at the start, to the Kafkan bureaucracy seated in a pastoral landscape. I admire his portrayal of the totalitarian Administrators: when defeated, they are not destroyed but put in their place. There are also passages like this:
    …to achieve the blessed intention, something practical had to be done. Things could not be left in the hands of the Administrators. In the story of man, that had been tried times without number and always it had failed. (The revolving Earth, pitted with its tragedies, cried in a far voice from the midst of space: ‘You cannot leave me to politicians.’)

    But administrators are needful, are necessary. To fulfil their high function they work with the cunning of the head. But to leave destiny to the head is to leave the trigger to the finger. And after the trigger is pulled they cry above the desolation – (and the desolation was terrible to behold): ‘We will make a new earth, and share the fruits thereof and the fishes of the deeps.’ But what happens?

    The fruit is processed and the salmon is canned.
    A good children’s book: pure of heart and finely weighted. But too didactic for me.


  • John Dies at the End (2005) by David Wong.

    There was a time, as yet unnamed, before self-conscious Social Media but after broadband. It can be sketched out in its totems: LimeWire, ytmnd, Something Awful. In this time was JDatE born. Slapstick body horror, and you’ll know already what you’ll make of it from that description. This is scarier than it is funny, but not a huge amount of either. I’m very happy that he was anointed and raised by the internet, that the gatekeepers were evaded. But.


  • American Hippopotamus (2013) by Jon Mooallem. Blasted through this nonfiction novella with great delight; so much astonishing Victorian detail, so much damn fun. The story of two hardcore spies, American and Boer, who ranged over the eC20th, blowing things up and meeting presidents and dissing Churchill’s fitness level and mining by hand as an anti-fascist action and striking oil and maybe killing lords – who campaigned together to bring an invasive species in to eat another invasive species and introduce a new meat animal to America. Duquesne to Burnham:
    To my friendly enemy, the greatest scout in the world, whose eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.
    So damn fun, and, in the last instance, also deep. Mooallem reproaches us for having clicked on American Hippopotamus to make fun of the men. But:
    Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times...

    These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen — consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.
    Simple, thoughtful, astonishingly well-written.


  • Consciousness and the Novel (2005) by David Lodge.

    A grab-bag as thoughtful, friendly, and sensible as you’d expect. He’s certainly much, much more trustworthy than other humanities academics, on either title topic. Main question: what implications do the new cognitive and biological sciences have for yr subjective life and art? How damaged would the great novels be by decentring and anti-human stuff? (Aside from the long and thoughtful opening essay, inspired in large part by Dennett, we are given a jovial bunch to consider: Dickens, Forster, Amis elder and younger, James, Updike, with Roth and Kierkegaard the outliers.) Closing interview, with Craig Raine, is seriously stilted, but it’s because he doesn’t want to play the invited game, waffling deepity. And so this book: refusing to hide from the reality of the mind, and succeeding in holding up books against that reality against great odds.


And did I seek the Kingdom? Will the Kingdom
Come? The idea of it there,
Behind its scrim since font and fontanel,

Breaks like light or water,
Like giddiness I felt at the old story
Of how he’d turn away from the motif,

Spread his legs, bend low, then look between them
For the mystery of the hard and fast
To be unveiled, his inverted face contorting.

Like an arse-kisser’s in some vision of the damned
Until he’d straighten, turn back, cock an eye
And stand with the brush at arm’s length, readying.

– Seamus Heaney