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pessimal miscellany

From 2008: the first original philosophical argument I remember making:

  1. Searle: "all purely syntactic systems lack subjective experiences."
  2. Searle: "I have subjective experiences."
  3. So Searle: "I am not a purely syntactic system." (modus tollens, 1&2)

  4. The only system that Searle has knowledge about the subjective experiences of is himself.
  5. So if Searle is not a purely syntactic system, he has no knowledge of what it is like to be a purely syntactic system,
  6. He cannot therefore cannot assert premise 1. (5 & the knowledge account of assertion).
  7. If Searle is a purely syntactic system, (1) is false. (by 2)

  8. Therefore premise (1) is either unwarranted or false. (by 6&7)

(These days I wouldn't use infallibilist knowledge as the baseball bat I did; I'd go at him with probabilism instead. And I'd do something against Searle's odd dichotomy between representational machines who are 'pure' syntax vs those which are fully semantic. But it is pretty entertaining as it is.)


Reviving a dead metaphor, "You're not pulling your weight". Had never considered the sound mechanical argument behind this snark. Consider the ideal rocket equation :

\Delta velocity = \begin{tabular}{l} exhaust\\velocity\end{tabular} \times \ln \ \frac {total \ mass}{final \ mass}

If a team's output in a given period is its velocity, and if we add your mass (salary + the inherent marginal co-ordination burden of larger teams) to the 'final' (payload) mass, then you are not pulling your weight if your mass is greater than your specific impulse (actual work accomplished / helpful ideas contributed). If you don't push your weight, you decrease the rocket's velocity. Measuring one's actual productivity is scary and unflattering and illiberal.

Ok, human teams are maybe unlike rockets in a couple ways (e.g. rockets are easier to steer; if they really followed Tsiolkovski, large organisations would achieve almost nothing - as opposed to the present output of almost nothing per capita) but I enjoy this.


medical students forget roughly 25–35% of basic science knowledge after one year, more than 50% by the next year, and 80–85% after 25 years...

- based on this and this.

How much of what they learn in school do average adults remember later? It's not awfully well-studied, but: perhaps less than 10%. Heavens, how does society not collapse? Well, most obviously: because we have search engines instead of knowledge. But how did society not collapse before them, then?

The dreary answer is that most people's lives do not actually depend on their own (or the masses') abstract knowledge; rather they depend on artefacts with only a few other people's knowledge embedded (and, now, sometimes with no-one's knowledge embedded.)

Or, how about: in order to accomplish stuff, you must know a lot of things but you needn't know it all at the same time. (Or: the space complexity of an intellectual life is surprisingly low.) Also the pompous suggestion by educators that they don't just impart information, but teach people 'how to think' is - surprisingly - not refuted by the available evidence.


What are the conditions of evil?

  • Socrates: "There is only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance". But we know that ignorance is not necessary for evil.

  • Schelling: "whoever has... not the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good." But it's not clear that agency is necessary for evil.

  • Kant: "In regard to his natural obligations, nobody can be in error; for the natural moral laws cannot be unknown to anyone, in that they lie in reason for all..." But this is obviously wrong.

  • Kant: "Morality is thus the relation of actions to the autonomy of the [good] will... An action that can coexist with the autonomy of the will is permitted; one that does not accord with it is forbidden. A will whose maxims necessarily harmonize with the laws of autonomy is a holy, absolutely good will." But honest and good people can commit evil.

  • Kant: "the habit of regarding the absence of vice... as virtue - must be designated a radical perversity of the human heart". But having the wrong values is not necessary for evil.

  • Bostrom: "Evil may not even require the merest negative feeling or evaluation."


The usual way people have their minds blown by cosmology is simple scale; our infinitesimal size seems to imply infinitesimal importance. But we are roundly unsuperlative creatures:

i.e. We live in the bottom-left corner of almost everything. (This is not surprising; only the ways we deviate from galactic average need explanation; it would be stranger if we already existed at galactic maxima.) For now.

* Except the world's top man himself:
It's not as simple as saying "a point-mass black hole" - Mathematically there is not a theoretical limit to gravitational field strength, sir! The black hole's singularity is precisely a point at which the (semi-Riemannian) scalar curvature is singular. Physically of course, I doubt anything is infinite - so the singularity would be realised physically as being some batshit insanely big scalar.

(That actually begs an interesting question: in a suitable decomposition of the spacetime: is the Riemannian scalar curvature necessarily also singular? I'll investigate! It's probably too difficult for me though!)

There's a fringe view that I absolutely love, that the black hole's singularity is just an artefact of manifold theory - and if we moved to a coarser, algebraic description of spacetime physics, it wouldn't occur at all.


There are, we know, genes that greatly increase your risk of systematic, consuming, unbearable sadness. The theory of diathesis lets us deal with the fact that genetics is rarely the neat deterministic, monogenic thing we had hoped. But there may be less obvious diatheses - 'genes for sadness' - just because there are thousands of the bastards that could combine to produce human tragedy.

Consider recent work by Albert Tenesa and co.: they claim to have found genes for attraction-to-people-of-the-same-height-as-you. Stature is extremely heritable; if one had tall parents and Tenesa's height-attraction prodrome: you might find an extremely tall person attracted (only) to implausibly tall people.


What the world needs now is abstract sexuality visualisation software.


identitarianism* (n.): Belief that a person's group memberships are the most important thing about them. (Or whose acts imply this.) It is the hypernym which covers nationalism, filial piety, racism, and internet social justice.

Identitarian intellectuals have one very great advantage: their worldview shares in the strongest and most universal feature of human life: obsessive and exclusive tribalism. This is also their great horrifying feature for the same reason.

Research into what frees people from the mindset would be deeply valuable, I think. Would we be able to kill at all if we did not other the victim in some way? Has anyone (sane) ever killed someone they viewed as metaphysically close? Eh, probably.

* (TIL that the term "identitarian" has been appropriated by some French fascists. Which is annoying, because I want a fair descriptive term (no unspeak) and this did the job very well.)


The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.
- Auden

At first sight, the idea of any rules or principles being superimposed on the creative mind seems more likely to hinder than to help, but this is quite untrue in practice. Disciplined thinking focuses inspiration rather than blinkers it.
- G. L. Glegg

I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found I had an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can't write well unless you have a little strife in your life... The problem was I didn't want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn't write, so my crazy idea would be to go back to school full-time.
- Zach Weiner

A classic but underrated view of life and self: it is not unlimited freedom but constraint that produces creativity. This is certainly true of me: it is not unless I have a formal obligation to defy that I create anything. Worked out a mechanism for why; call it the pinctadan itch.:

  1. I am fundamentally childish and require a steady stream of variety.
  2. Having a job regularises my week: without extra effort, all days resemble each other.
  3. Intolerable resentment ensues. I am forced to produce sparks to satisfy my basic drives.

I have always craved variety and abstraction (experience of aggregates; height; the view from nowhere; above individual events and my individual self). One's the enemy of the other, of course.

What can you do? You can vary your surroundings or you can vary the furnishings of your mind. In fact three of the most common broad ways of living divide right down this line - bohemianism (artists, students, hipsters), 'grown-up' professionalism, and nerd culture (which straddles the line).

The nature of mainstream work precludes much variety in your external surroundings from day to day; so you have to internalise variety. Bohemian life precludes all sorts of things, but it does let you sample any part of reality which does not require money or power (insofar as your Couchsurfing and Workaway rep is good).

  • To maximise external variety, one goes backpacking around the world, takes on temp jobs intentionally, has casual sex off the escalator, and presumably gets into fights with strangers and acts like Jason Statham in Crank.

  • To maximise internal variety ones reads broadly, keeps up with new music, takes drugs, changes hobbies a lot and thinks.

  • To minimise social disapproval, one has a desk job, a spouse, a football team, a mortgage, a child, etc.

What's the point? Not everyone's as psychologically simplistic as me; the above three things are hardly the only goals.

Sure; but the above seems to explain a lot of people's behaviour (which, as we know, is often very far from goals). These are the two great everyday cultures, and you will have to find a route between their mutually dissatisfying posts. Are nerds a mass, long-term way of adulting yet?


Regex is pretty much what I thought programming would be before I started: terse, impenetrable, enabling you to do things that others simply cannot do. Pure reason.

I rarely feel in command of 4 billion robots, except when they are faithfully tearing through an entire hard drive with my pattern the only stamp upon their mind. (I also get this feeling when my Project Euler solutions don't terminate.)


Seeking the album You Forgot it In People, I accidentally searched for "Broken Social Science".


Levels of meniality:
  1. Being told what needs doing (illiberty of proximate goals)
  2. Being told how to do it (illiberty of judgment)
  3. Being told when exactly to do it (illiberty of pace)
  4. Being forbidden from doing it otherwise (illiberty of means)
  5. Being punished for not doing it (enforcement).
  6. Being punished for not doing it that way (procedure enforcement).
  7. Being actively, constantly measured (no privacy).
  8. A Total institution: what to do, what not to do, precisely when, and no escape (panopticon)
  9. Slavery
  10. .
Almost all jobs are level 1 at least; it's almost the definition. Telematics is quickly making non-professional jobs a level 4, and the professionals are not far behind.

I can't find the reference, or the actual terms, and I don't really want to read legal theorists ever, but: I remember a great distinction about 'English' versus 'Prussian' philosophies of law. The so-called English paradigm is: Ban certain actions; everything else, what the law does not mention, is permitted. The 'Prussian' bans everything except what law explictly condones. I honestly don't understand how anyone can view the latter philosophy as good and helpful and not squashing almost everything worthwhile out of life.


"Fuck this, I'm away home"

All images public domain at the British Library's Flickr.