Skip to main content

Been reading, Q1 2018

Carl Spitzweg, Der verbotene Weg (c. 1840)

At every stage [of our processing information] - from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organising it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others - the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one usually is.
- Robert Trivers

All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more numerous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear.
- Robert Wright

1/5: Do not read.     4/5: Read with care.
2/5: Do not finish.     4*/5: Read agape.
3/5: Skim.     5/5: Read again
3*/5: Devour.    

  • The Earthsea Cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind) (1968 - 2001) by Ursula le Guin.

    If fantasy tends to strike you as pompous or tasteless - if you can't get through Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or whatnot, you should try this. Anthropological fantasies. The first three books are about: mortality, deconversion and addiction. But the fourth, about two women in two farmhouses, is actually the most ambitious.

    Tales of Earthsea is my favourite, but you can't just skip to it, since it gets its power from reprise and reprisal.

    The cycle is relentlessly pro-death; Ged does not become a man until he faces down a manifestation of his death; Cob's terror of, and resistance to death enslaves and drains the entire continent; an ancient attempt to create an afterlife is actually an act of betrayal, colonialism, and Frankensteinian hubris. The cycle ends with the circle of life and death restored, and everyone right pleased and relieved at this, not least the undead who get to not exist. Now, you can counter that le Guin is more pro-stoicism, pro-serenity, pro-enlightened-adaption-to-the-inevitable than she is pro-death. But deathists always are; they are harmful because of their apriori ban on potentially wonderful undertakings, not because they are goth as fuck.

    As always, she is a wonderful read even when I disagree with her very strongly. To be read by 10 year olds and 27 year olds, presumably by 50 year olds and definitely by 75 year olds.


  • Nudge (2008) by Richard Thaler.

    Nutritious, wonkish, inspiring cynicism. Distillation of decades of research that overturned a few social sciences for the better. Both theoretically significant and intensely practical: If you've never understood pensions, or Medicare, or rational marriage, read this.

    As is true of all social science books eventually, it cites a bunch of unreplicable BS. Wansink, Gilovich, Baumeister, Dweck. (This just in: Dweck is not unreplicable bs, she is merely enormously overheated and exaggerated bs.)


  • The Life of a Stupid Man (1918 - 1922) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

    Tiny selection of tiny prose poems. Contains "In a Grove" which was later made into Rashōmon. Insofar as the following sentence makes sense: it's good but Rashōmon is better. The other bits are suggestive and modern, but not moving, aside from the bit where the glum Marty Stu reels off all the German Romantics he loves.


  • Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson.

    Fun and highly dated in ways that I find charming rather than vitiating (e.g. he has to explain to us what a hard disk is). His depiction of software, that ineliminable agent of our present and our future, is still better than 95% of scifi and 99.9% of lit-fic.

    The plot is so clunky and over-the-top that Stephenson needs to actually embody all the necessary exposition in the form of a scholar personal assistant (which I would give some money to have!).

    I fail to see what's satirical about it; certainly I know Stephenson doesn't believe that Sumerian is a neurolinguistic virus - but author disbelief is not sufficient for satire. Is he satirising Julian Jaynes? Cyberpunk? Hacker supremacism? If so, he failed because Snow Crash is a vivid and sympathetic instance of these things.


  • The Berlin Broadcasts (1942) by PG Wodehouse.

    Neither inspired nor vile propaganda. The broadcasts get called a propaganda coup for Goebbels, but I struggle to see what good they could have done the Nazis. But never mind: his crime was not really aiding the enemy, it was symbolic compliance with the total nemesis, humour in a time of desperate humourlessness.
    There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal. It is not pleasant to think that by the time I see my Pekinese again, she will have completely forgotten me and will bite me to the bone - her invariable practice with strangers. And I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side.

    Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me 'How can I become an Internee?' Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
    His reason for doing them was simple and pure, but the naivete of it was literally unbelievable to most:
    My reason for broadcasting was a simple one. In the course of my period of internment I received hundreds of letters of sympathy from American readers of my books, who were strangers to me, and I was naturally anxious to let them know how I had got on. Under existing conditions, it was impossible to answer these letters - and I did not want to be so ungrateful and ungracious as to seem to be ignoring them, and the radio suggested itself as a solution.
    It is very sad to think of Plum trying to understand why people want his books burned and him hanged, for an act of minor foolishness, tastelessness. Here is him on the blackshirts:
    The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ”Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”


  • Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by David Halpern.

    Nudge but for UK policy wonks. Decent but undistinguished, lots of detail about how Whitehall does and doesn't work.


  • Jurassic Park (1990) by Michael Crichton.

    Frankensaurus. Both clumsy and ahead of its time. Crichton is often described as a one-legged stool: i.e. he has good ideas, but no prose or characters. Ian Malcolm, his sexy radfem primitivist chaos theorist is an exception, and if anything the film's (iconic) depiction of him is less striking and seductive than the sneering pole depicted here.

    It's worth picking on Malcolm because he's depicted as prescient, fundamentally correct about the island; he gets the most airtime by far, with the only pushback being Hammond saying "pish posh!" every so often - (Unless you count the raptor attacking him as a discursive act); he is even given the chapter header pages to be oracular on, slowly drawing a dragon curve as if it meant anything. And his philosophy, endorsed by Crichton, is tepid and dismaying finger-wagging.

    So: He denies that modern life is better than premodern life and endorses Sahlins' lazy-bushman hypothesis:
        ‘What advances?’ Malcolm said irritably. 'The number of hours women devote to housework has not changed since 1930, despite all the advances. All the vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, trash compactors, garbage disposals, wash-and-wear fabrics... Why does it still take as long to clean the house as it did in 1930?’
        Ellie said nothing.
       'Because there haven’t been any advances,’ Malcolm said. 'Not really. Thirty thousand years ago, when men were doing cave paintings at Lascaux, they worked twenty hours a week to provide themselves with food and shelter and clothing. The rest of the time, they could play, or sleep, or do whatever they wanted. And they lived in a natural world, with clean air, clean water, beautiful trees and sunsets. Think about it. Twenty hours a week. Thirty thousand years ago.’
    The first claim is flatly false: average housework by US women decreased by about 14 hours(!) a week over this period. (Table 6, last column.) This is despite ballooning house sizes, inventory of objects to maintain, and time actually spent with the children. It also omits our greatly increased levels of hygiene and personal fragrance, though I suppose that could be zero-sum if we habituate to it.

    The second is false but not as flatly. I can't find anyone speculating "twenty hours" about the economy of the Upper Paleolithic French. If Crichton is merely mashing up the famous Bushman studies with the punchy image of Lascaux, then despite celebrated dissemination by anthropologists, the claim is untrue: contemporary African hunter-gatherers spend more than 50 hours a week on food production. Worse, Malcolm's smug rant puts zero weight on the giant disease burden, the constant warfare, the giant boredom, the crushing conformity and illiberty of nomad life, and the perfect absence of intellectual life among the ancients.

    (Judging by the hostility of Pinker's reviewers, Ian Malcolm is still with us, railing against e.g. consumerism and overpopulation - as if those weren't people just trying to live their lives - and reductionism, denying or minimising the huge material and spiritual gains of science and other blessed modernities.)

    More: Malcolm is himself wildly overconfident about modelling, e.g. the fit of basic fractal theory to the park disaster; Crichton is credulous about the almost-unfulfilled promises of the wild-eyed Santa Fe set.

    They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything”
    The latter claim is true for all phenomena except pure random number generators though; the untrue version Crichton means depends on ignorantly thinking that "predict" always (or ever) means "predict with certainty".

    Crichton was a programmer, and there's a nice wee code listing in a critical moment, in a made up language resembling Perl + Forth + COBOL. It is definitely optimised for making the reader feel smart for reading it, or vindicated in skipping it. But points still.


  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty

    Really funny, though it's hard to know exactly what it's satirising. (Don't say "race in America, duh": despite being in every review, that doesn't actually mean anything. Beatty is all over the shop, mocking stereotypical black behaviour, and police brutality, and pious diversity pushers, and white arrogance, and classic Civil Rights heroes, and black intellectuals, and colorblind universalists. So, ok you can say "it satirises more or less every position you can take on race in America". But what's the point of doing that? Full review here.

    4/5, maybe more.

  • My Man Jeeves (1919) and Right Ho, Jeeves (1939) by PG Wodehouse.

    Wodehouse belongs, not with Dickens or Tom Sharpe or Ben Elton, but with More, Morris, Roddenberry, and Banks. His Blandings is a utopia - just of the rarest kind, set in the present day. He is easy to dismiss as unserious - though actually he is anti-serious, his apparent deficit of gloom and pompousness a decision:
    I have it from her ladyship's own maid, who happened to overhear a conversation between her ladyship and one of the gentlemen staying here that it was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.
    MMJ is the first Jeeves collection, including several stories told by a proto-Wooster called "Reggie Pepper". PG's prose is slightly less glowing and divine at this early juncture, but it still makes me smile on every fourth page.

    Conversely, RHJ is the very best Jeeves book. It's the one where Wooster contemptuously sends Jeeves away and sets about fixing everything on his own, with fully predictable and fully joyous results.

    3/5, 4*/5.

  • In Search of Blandings (1987) by Norman Murphy.

    Strange book: labour of love tracing the historical bases of Wodehouse's fantasies, e.g. the huge number of family in-jokes he included, which club was the Drones. But the reason we are still reading P.G. en masse is his unreality, his ahistorical escapism. Nice history of vaudeville and music hall too. For obsessives, which despite appearances I am apparently not.


  • The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992 - 2011) by Edward St Aubyn.

    Marvelous. Even though: nearly filled-up with resentment and self-pity. Patrick's staggering detachment from and humour about his own inner life makes the books rise far above him - most of the series is not spent in Patrick's head but instead depicts his brutal gilded circle - and, every few pages, there is a moment of beautiful lucidity or unvoiced empathy. The prose, the humour, the sadness are enough to make you glad, with Patrick, that his parents are head.

    Effortless, but I took my time, jolted out as I was every few pages by something demanding reflection.
    Just as a novelist may sometimes wonder why he invents characters who do not exist and makes them do things which do not matter, so a philosopher may wonder why he invents cases that cannot occur in order to determine what must be the case.
    Bad News is a bit too fragmentary and livid to be quotable, but the rest are really divine. (It is about willing / unchecked disintegration, which is less charming than recuperation.)

    Underneath the filth and irony, Patrick is someone for whom philosophical questions are natural and urgent. Actually wrestling with materialism, for instance.
    Nicholas is the very model of dark Haidtian snowflake-roasting. Edwardian alt-right.

    The art of kintsugi. Full review here.


  • Whole bunch of AI safety papers, ongoing. Gridworlds in particular.

  • Look to Windward (2000) by Iain Banks.

    Another chronicle of Culture fuckups; this time, trying to reform a caste system and sparking a genocidal civil war. It's tense and unpleasant throughout, because of this moral mud.
    'You want to die because your mate is dead and you are pining for her, is that not the truth?'
    'I would put it a little stronger than pining. But it was her death that took the meaning out of my life.'
    'The lives of your family and your society in this time of need and restructuring; these mean nothing to you?'
    'Not nothing, Estodien. But not enough, either. I wish that I could feel otherwise, but I cannot. It is as though all the people I care about but feel I ought to care about more are already in another world from the one I inhabit.'
    'She was just... a person, just one individual. What makes her so special that her memory... outranks the more pressing needs of those still alive for whom something can still be done?'
    'Nothing, Estodien. It is-'
    'Nothing indeed. It is not her memory; it is yours. It is not her specialness or uniqueness that you celebrate, Quilan, but your own. You are a romantic, Quilan. You find the idea of tragic death romantic, you find the idea of joining her - even if it is joining her in oblivion - romantic.' The old male drew himself up as though getting ready to go. 'I hate romantics, Quilan. They do not really know themselves, but what is worse they do not really want to know themselves - or, ultimately, anybody else - because they think that will take the mystery out of life. They are fools. You are a fool.'

  • The Case Against Education (2018) by Bryan Caplan.

    A powerful book, remarkably light on ideology given its extreme conclusions. (Caplan is not mad: he is right behind universal numeracy and literacy. So the title should be "Case Against Higher Education" but oh well.)

    Here is a flavour of his greatness:
    I have a long list of strange and extreme views, and I've been an arrogant hedgehog for as long as I can remember.  As a rule, arrogant hedgehogs with lots of strange and extreme views are severely biased and grossly unreliable.  Which raises two daunting questions.

    The Reputational Challenge: Why should people take me seriously?  Even if I happen to be correct, why would a reasonable person bother giving me a chance? 

    The Self-Referential Challenge: Why should I take myself seriously?  Why should I consider myself so epistemically superior to the typical arrogant hedgehog with lots of strange and extreme views?

    In all honesty, I take both challenges seriously.  But it's the self-referential challenge that weighs on me.  I can endure the apathy of others, but not the idea that I'm living a lie.  So what should I do?

    What might explain the universal appeal of education?
    1. learning specific facts and hard skills (private and social gain)
    2. learning general rationality and meta-skill (private and social gain)
    3. learning soft skills (private and social gain)
    4. credentialing: showing off how smart, conscientious, conformist you are (zero-sum private gain)
    5. culture fit: showing employers you are their kind of person (private gain)
    6. networking (private gain)
    7. assortative mating at university (private gain)
    8. primary schools are daycare (private gain)
    9. it's fun (private gain)
    10. conspicuous consumption (zero-sum private gain)
    11. state propaganda about how developed the country is. (zero-sum neither)

    His conclusion is that about 80% of the personal economic gains from higher education are from (4): not improving your character, knowledge, or ability, but rather from certifying yourself as a good worker (smart, conscientious, conformist). Given the vast cost, time sink, and psychological toll of education, this implies a hugely wasteful, zero-sum arms race (grade inflation, degree inflation), since the income gain doesn't reflect productivity gain, and since we could be doing signalling in less indirect and foolish ways. I'll do a proper rundown of the (many) arguments he gives to end up at this separately.

    The mostly-signalling theory explains a huge number of confusing features (why do students and employers not value Ivy League MOOCs, even ten years on? Why are most of the income rewards concentrated in the instant of graduation? Why do students cheer when class is cancelled? If lectures are so economically powerful, why don't people just sit in on them without enrolling (and why doesn't the university put security on them to protect their livelihood)? How can human capital explain the income gains, when people forget almost everything about their major within 5 years and don't show very large soft skill increases?

    You often see people trumpeting the large (50-60%) income premium of higher education, as if that showed that added human capital was the reason for the premium (cough, correlation / causation). But even granting that uncritical leap, there's something strange about focussing on private income gains: the kind of people who believe in the centrality of education tend also to believe that pay is a poor indicator of social value. (For instance, our incredibly low opinion of investment bankers.) Caplan's disturbing point is that the private returns do not translate into social returns. This seeming paradox could happen a few ways: if credential inflation shifts jobs from nongraduates to graduates; or if there are minor human capital gains, but swamped out by the huge financial cost and time cost of uni.

    My philosophy department used to trumpet graduate income stats as evidence that critical thinking is valued in industry. (They don't anymore, possibly because philosophy is now associated with decreased earnings, at least in the UK.) This trump was an amusing triple failure of critical thinking: they confuse correlation and causation ("philosophy degree and income gain, therefore philosophy degree causes income gain"), fail to consider selection effects (philosophy students start out posher than the average student) and the Yes Minister fallacy:

    1. A philosophy degree causes an income premium.
    2. If something causes an income premium then it is valued in industry.
    3. A philosophy degree causes critical thinking.
    4. Therefore, critical thinking is valued in industry.

    The big concern with the sweeping cuts Caplan recommends is: how do you stop poor people losing their ability to signal their virtues, if the state withdraws the current subsidy?

    Remarkably, the book is in large part not based on economists' research: there is as much sociology, . This triangulation strikes me as the way to write lasting social science, social science with a chance of still being relevant in a decade. Who writes like this, aside from the GMU mob?

    Caplan is modest, thoughtful, and a really admirable empiricist. If you can't accept his argument you have a lot of work to do before you break even.


Der Rabe

  • The Elephant in the Brain (2018) by Hanson and Simler.

    The best synthesis of the study of human nature (cognitive psychology, interactionist sociology, primatology, and economics) I've ever seen. Freud done right ("although the explanations in this book may seem Freudian at times, we follow mainstream cognitive psychology in rejecting most of Freud's methods and many of his conclusions"). It's introductory, laced with illustrative anecdotes but with much deeper scholarship underneath.

    The 'elephant in the brain' is our unwitting selfishness. We compete without knowing or admitting it, for we are social animals seeking power or status, and thereby sex.
    Modeling the world accurately isn't the be-all and end-all of the human brain. Brains evolved to help our bodies, and ultimately our genes, get along and get ahead in the world—a world that includes not just rocks and squirrels and hurricanes, but also other human beings. And if we spend a significant fraction of our lives interacting with others (which we do), trying to convince them of certain things (which we do), why shouldn't our brains adopt socially useful beliefs as first-class citizens, alongside world-modeling beliefs? Wear a mask long enough and it becomes your face. Play a role long enough and it becomes who you are. Spend enough time pretending something is true and you might as well believe it.

    Incidentally, this is why politicians make a great case study for self-deception. The social pressure on their beliefs is enormous. Psychologically, then, politicians don't so much 'lie' as regurgitate their own self-deceptions. Both are ways of misleading others, but self-deceptions are a lot harder to catch and prosecute.
    Simler undertook the book in lieu of a PhD, and his work is a welcome modification of Hanson's usual relentlessly lucid style: he is more concrete, chattier, more personable.

    Information is sensitive in part because it can threaten our selfimage and therefore our social image. So the rest of the brain conspires—whispers—to keep such information from becoming too prominent, especially in consciousness. In this sense, the Freuds were right: the conscious ego needs to be protected. But not because we are fragile, but rather to keep damaging information from leaking out of our brain and into the minds of our associates.
    You can probably skip this if you're familiar with Overcoming Bias / LessWrong / Econlog - but even then it's a pleasant read. I'm going to give this to every teenager I know. Armour and key.

    5?/5. (Constructive criticism here.)

  • Blindsight (2006) by Peter Watts.

    There is a horror in neuroscience. It is not inherent: it depends on subverting your traditional sentimental sense of self, meaning, will, introspection; if you don't have these it won't register. The horror takes unthreatening academic names like "agnosia", "readiness potential", "interhemispheric intrusion", "neurotheology", "reconstructive memory", "Chinese room". (Also "executive psychopath" though.) It even tackles "illusionism" - uniquely I think!

    Wrenching but admirable. Great in spite of itself. For the nonangsty, post-dualist, post-further-fact version read Hanson and Simler instead. Full review here.

    4*/5. [Free! here]

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula le Guin.

    An excellent palate cleanser, after Watts: though there is oppression and ignorance and bigotry in this, the two excellent protagonists are above it. This world has progress and peace as hard-won but possible.

    Her treatment of "ambisexual" society is thoughtful and sober and realistic.

    The glacier adventure segment is gripping for its length and eventlessness.


  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) by Ursula le Guin.

    Pompous. Lots of tragic ellipsis. A rare misstep of style, even though the world and its issues are still great, and the progress of a great mind in strict collectivism is done well. It reads like a debut novel or a draft - good but rough. I suppose I will hail her versatility anyway.

    Her characteristic ambiguity and fairness are still here though. The sexist, rankist, capitalist ("propertarian") Urrasites are still inventive, tasteful, and ambitious; the anarchist, egalitarian, promiscuous Odonians are still given to egotism, tribalism and petty brutality. They can be relied on, like all of us to tolerate anything except the outgroup:
    'You can only crush [ideas] by ignoring them. By refusing to think — refusing to change. And that's precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can't, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words he has power over you. Where does he get it from?

    Not from vested authority, there isn't any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn't any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.'

    Shevek leaned his hands on the window sill, looking through the dim reflections on the pane into the darkness outside. He said at last 'Crazy talk, Dap.'

    'No, brother, I’m sane. What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. Given time, it certainly will kill you. But it’s the lies that make you want to kill yourself.'

    Shevek turned around to face him. 'But you can’t seriously talk of a government, here!'

    'Tomar’s Definition: ‘Government: the legal use of power to maintain and extend power.’ Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary’... Shev, did you ever think that what the analogic mode calls ‘disease,’ social disaffection, discontent, alienation, that this might analogically also be called pain – what you meant when you talked about pain, suffering? And that, like pain, it serves a function in the organism?... I speak of spiritual suffering! Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life – is anything more basic to Odonian thought than that? But nothing changes any more! ... On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government!'
    I don't think her Anarres economy would work even as well as it is depicted as doing, but she has at least thought about it (admits a centralised, admits). This is not polemic, it just doesn't manage her usual grace when dealing with huge dilemmas. A great book if by anyone else.


  • The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google (2017) by Scott Galloway.

    Not the book I thought it was: I wanted searching political/ macroeconomic expose on the costs of monopoly, but this is shallow and glib work on a topic of great importance. Galloway's a marketing professor / entrepreneur, and so this is a weird mix of polemical and fawning. (OK, I should've guessed its genre from the thoughtless use of institutional "DNA" in the subtitle.) There's basically no politics in this: it's a primer for worried and pious businessmen more than consumers or citizens or engineers. It also uses "relevant" unironically as a quantity of ultimate importance ("Google had a market cap that topped $200 billion. But the Times was enormously relevant".

    I enjoyed this
    [education], the cartel that masquerades as a social good but is really a caste system
    and this (though his counterproposal wouldn't change much either):
    It is conventional wisdom that Steve Jobs put 'a dent in the universe.' No, he didn’t. Steve Jobs, in my view, spat on the universe. People who get up every morning, get their kids dressed, get them to school, and have an irrational passion for their kids’ well-being, dent the universe. The world needs more homes with engaged parents, not a better fucking phone.
    He presents himself as a critical outsider, and a moralist, but in between his rants he is scarcely less fawning about a set of overpriced electronics:
    In those ten years, Apple introduced one earth-shaking, 100-billion-dollar, categorycreating new product or service after another. The iPod, iTunes/Apple Store, iPhone, and iPad ... there has never been anything like it.

    The iPod's introduction, in late 2001 after the twin shocks of the bursting of the dot-com bubble and 9/11, played the same role as the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan just months after the Kennedy assassination: it was a bright light in the darkness that signaled hope and optimism.

    And often his barbs are just glib. His full argument against Bezos' support for basic income:
    What's clear is that we need business leaders who envision and enact a future with more jobs — not billionaires who want the government to fund, with taxes they avoid, social programs for people to sit on their couches and watch Netflix all day. Jeff, show some real fucking vision.
    Besides the hollowness, there are dozens of minor errors or infelicities:
    Luxury is not an externality; it's in our genes. It combines our instinctive need to transcend the human condition and feel closer to divine perfection, with our desire to be more attractive to potential mates.
    (That's not what "externality" means.)

    Because media companies only get a mildly insane valuation, and the Four are addicted to iconospheric valuations — hundreds of billions.
    ("Ionospheric" rather)
    When Nietzsche proclaimed God is dead, it wasn't a victory cry but a lamentation on the loss of moral compass.
    (1) "compass" makes for a really poor adjective, please don't do that; 2) that's a ludicrous reading, though less silly than the usual macho triumph one.)
    The effectiveness of prayer, the additional scrutiny determined, remains a matter of opinion.
    (Sure, for a pejorative sense of "opinion".)
    [big data] signals the end of sampling and statistics - now you can just track the shopping pattern of every customer in every one of your stores
    (1) this is the "n=all" dogma and, though very popular among people with bridges to sell, it is just not true - because no one ever has the full data set, because even if they did have a synchronous snapshot then we'd still need predictions to future data; 2) even if that were so, it certainly would not be the end of statistics, since sampling theory is a tiny subset of statistics.)
    The genius of Google was there from day one, in September 1998, when Stanford students Sergey Brin and Larry Page designed a new web tool, called a search engine, that could skip across the internet in search of keywords.
    Search was not a new tool: Knowbot (1989), Archie (1990), Wandex (1993), Mosaic...
    We saw the world differently and approached it from entirely different angles. My whole life has been a quest to gain relevance and fear of never achieving it, whereas Arthur's biggest fear (I believe) was losing it.
    In what way are those two angles entirely different?

    This was unintentionally revealing:
    Attractive things work better... When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn't it? Or at least feels like it does.
    And this:
    Malcolm Gladwell, the Jesus of business books...
    There's the rub, I think. This is a business book, and since I haven't read any "business books" in years I was unprepared for its fawning, glibness, and applause lights. Galloway is no doubt in the right lane; it was I that drifted.

    Skip it. The subject - this tiny set of untouchable, market-breaking corporations with large fanbases and financial carte blanche - is important to understand, too important to leave it to Galloway. Read Gibney, Levy, Stone, Mezrich, or Taplin instead.


  • Daft Wee Stories (2015) by Limmy.

    Happily twisted, fine. His Twitter is a better, million-word performance piece.


  • Iain M Banks (2017) by Paul Kincaid.

    Overview of both the literary and scifi books, one-by-one. Thus skimmable by anyone who would want to read it in the first place (...)

    Worth it, for fans, for the absolutely amazing interview with a PhD student, in which he refuses all invitations to pompous theory:
    JR: You've used the word "play" to describe your use of form and narrative structure. As I'm sure you know, in recent years the term play has been used to describe a certain kind of postmodern engagement with the world. To what extent do you consider your work to be postmodern?

    IB: I confess I don't think about it at all. I've never been good on literary or societal theory. I've long since decided people like me just write what we do and let other people worry about the analytical side.

    JR: Have you read any work by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, or Emanuel Levinas (or any other continental philosophers)? If you have, what did you think?

    IB: The little I've read I mostly didn't understand, and the little I understood of the little I've read seemed to consist either of rather banal points made difficult to understand by deliberately opaque and obstructive language (this might have been the translation, though I doubt it), or just plain nonsense. Or it could be I'm just not up to the mark intellectually, of course.

    JR: You have written quite a few novels that use Freudian imagery and tropes—The Wasp Factory, Use of Weapons, The Bridge, Walking on Glass—What do you think of Freudian psychoanalysis?

    IB: Never been entirely sold on it. I suspect Freud's theories tell you a great deal about Freud, quite a lot about the monied middle-class in Vienna a hundred-plus years ago, and only a little about people in general. Like Marx, he was too keen to insist that his area of study was genuinely a science. Also like Marx, though, he provides a genuinely useful and insightful (if, especially in Freud's case, limited) way of looking at people and their hidden lives (well, more implied lives with Marx, relating to their economic function within a society). Anyway, I can honestly say that I've never deliberately included any Freudian imagery in my stories, so what's there must be the result of my subconscious. . . . Uh-oh. . .

  • Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler.

    Relentlessly idiomatic. Hollow like a bell. Marlowe is not presented as feeling anything except incessant fatigue and occasional lust. The prose is fast and somehow innocent though surrounded by darkness:
    The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.
    A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step. The large face looked at me. A deep soft voice said to me, quietly:
    "Smokes in here, huh? Tie that for me, pal."
    It was dark in there. It was quiet. From up above came vague sounds of humanity, but we were alone on the stairs. The big man stared at me solemnly and went on wrecking my shoulder with his hand.
    "A dinge," he said. "I just thrown him out. You seen me throw him out?"
    Sure, Noir is cliche now, but we should try to stop Seinfeld effects from undermining original works. And I think he really was original.
    You could get to like that face a lot. Glamoured up blondes were a dime a dozen, but that was a face that would wear. I smiled at it.
    Give him enough time and pay him enough money and he'll cure anything from a jaded husband to a grasshopper plague. He would be an expert in frustrated love affairs, women who slept alone and didn't like it, wandering boys and girls who didn't write home, sell the property now or hold it for another year, will this part hurt me with my public or make me seem more versatile? Men would sneak in on him too, big strong guys that roared like lions around their offices and were all cold mush under their vests. But mostly it would be women, fat women that panted and thin women that burned, old women that dreamed and young women that thought they might have Electra complexes, women of all sizes, shapes and ages, but with one thing in common—money. No Thursdays at the County Hospital for Mr. Jules Amthor.
    "You lied to me."
    "It was a pleasure."
    He was silent a moment, as if deciding something. "We'll let that pass," he said. "I've seen her. She came in and told me her story. She's the daughter of a man I knew and respected, as it happens... Well, that's all. Remember what I told you last night. Don't try getting ideas about this case. All we want from you is silence. Otherwise—"
    He paused. I yawned into the mouthpiece.
    "I heard that," he snapped. "Perhaps you think I'm not in a position to make that stick. I am. One false move out of you and you'll be locked up as a material witness."
    "You mean the papers are not to get the case?"
    "They'll get the murder—but they won't know what's behind it."
    "Neither do you," I said.
    "I've warned you twice now," he said. "The third time is out."
    "You're doing a lot of talking," I said, "for a guy that holds cards."
    I got the phone hung in my face for that
    Learned a lot of words, had a lot of fun. Power in simplicity.
    I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.


(c) Zach Weiner