Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Classes vs. sets

Over the last couple of years I've become increasingly interested in various foundational approaches to mathematics -- logic, set theory, category theory, lambda calculus, and so on. It's fascinating to see how these different schools of thought provide accounts for each other, and themselves.

Classes, simply put, are an elegant dodge to get around Russell's Paradox while retaining some of the expressive power of universal quantification.

To elaborate: if we allow a set theory to express "the set of all sets", or "the set of all cardinal numbers", or even just "the set of all singleton sets", we quickly run into the ground. Contemporary set theories like ZF give us restricted quantification, allowing us to say "\(\forall x \in S \cdot P(x)\)" (given a set \(S\) and a predicate \(P\)) but not "\(\forall x \cdot P(x)\)". But it's still useful to be able to quantify over collections of things that are too large to be sets. E.g. "all sets either contain an element or are empty"; "all sets admit a well-ordering".

Classes (effectively) correspond to predicates in language. For example, "is a singleton set" might be described by "\(\textrm{Singleton}(x) := \exists y \forall z \cdot (z \in x \Leftrightarrow y = z) \)". In the usual first-order presentations of ZF, "is a set" is a predicate that always returns true. And "represents a well-ordering of \(S\)" might be shorthand for "\(x \subseteq S^2 \land \textrm{IsWellOrdering}(x)\)", where \(\textrm{IsWellOrdering}\) itself is shorthand for a more complicated predicate that checks whether something encodes a reflexive antisymmetric transitive relation without infinite descending chains.

Claims that all members of a class satisfy some additional property can be encoded as universal quantifiers in the language, "\(\forall x \cdot P(x) \Rightarrow Q(x)\)". (The logic itself is still allowed universal quantifiers: it's the set building axioms which must be denied access to these.)

Classes typically exist in the metalanguage (i.e. are not first-class citizens of the theory itself). Classes can correspond to sets (e.g. the class of all empty sets, the class of natural numbers) but this is not guaranteed. This distinction is enough to get us past the classical presentation of Russell's paradox:

Monday, August 3, 2015

“Endless, formless ruins” (Invisible Cities)

In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Monday, July 27, 2015

Links and quotes, June 2015

Paul Ford's monolithic essay for Bloomberg, What is Code?, is a tour de force across the world of computing, spanning from software engineering practices down to low-level assembly. It's an excellent guide for newcomers, and has just enough wry humour to keep veteran coders entertained, too. A must-read.

On a more algorithmic note, the Fibonacci heap ruins Mary Rose Cook's life. (And for good reason; functional data structures can be a pain to update.)

On working in the game industry:

If you’re anxious; depressed; if you’re mentally or chronically ill, it’s expected of you to adapt to a harmful work environment. But if you don’t – if you break – you’re just another expendable talent who burned brightly and quickly. In a way, you were the dream; someone who delivered high-quality work – or even perfection – without staying at the company long enough to get paid.

That feeling when the hitman you hired sells you out to the police.

A tranquil waterfall scene in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.

Source: Hideki Mizuta / National Geographic

Bad Horse writes on entropy(?) and art in Thoughts on listening to Mahler's Fifth Symphony three times in a row. They attribute the noise-like properties of many avant garde art styles to a fetishisation of randomness, per se.

This... is what happened to music. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting, rather than just listening to it and saying whether they liked it or not."

Katherine Cross on the proclivity of mainstream cis-dominated media to treat trans women as a monolith:

The real double standard lies in certain cis feminists’ obsession with outward displays of femininity on the part of trans women. Elinor Burkett sees the death of feminism in the abyss of Jenner’s corset, but ignores Fallon Fox, a triumphant female athlete whose whole career is a spurning of feminine stereotypes. Were she white and cis she would be a cause celebre of people like Burkett. Instead, she’s ignored.

I’ve never found convincing evidence that bad grammar is actually indicative of poor ability outside of writing; the construction crew that put together my house probably don’t know when whom can be used, but my house is a lot more stable than it would be if Lynne Truss and I were the ones cobbling it together.

"The concept of pitch needing to be “correct” is a somewhat recent construct," writes Lessley Anderson, chronicling the history of Auto-Tune and asking exactly how ill its portent is.

Tadhg Kelly ponders what Patreon teaches us about the relationship between artist and viewer.

When the relationship between the artist and the audience loses its intermediaries then external ideas of integrity become irrelevant. Whether you’re crafting the most noble of interactive artworks or the most naked of real money bingo games, there is no standard by which to judge.

If brand recognition ads lure us into buying things by repeated positive conditioning, then why are there brand awareness ads for shoes but not for mattresses?

Surreal neural network feedback loop generated art.
Everyone's seen Deepdream by now, right? Right.

It's not the first time someone's spent column inches pondering what MOOCs tell us about the signalling value of university degrees, and it certainly won't be the last:

The only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees... and that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for.

Old news, still interesting: the political power granted to ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel ("the fulcrum of every single government coalition from 2006 until early 2013") has given them a great deal of leverage on domestic and social issues. The result: increasing state interference/restrictions towards women in public spaces.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Links and quotes, May 2015

On race politics and gun culture:

"American guns are meant to represent the white man’s freedom to protect himself from government and from the colored hordes that surround him," Messiah Rhodes writes. "When a black man handles a gun of his own accord, he reverses the gun’s supposed purpose, and white people get scared."

Maths: Steven Wittens illustrates How to Fold a Julia Fractal. This visual essay is full of excellent illustrations and animations, including a beautiful demonstration of the square-and-shift operation on polar coordinates which really helps build intuition for why the Julia fractal is shaped the way it is.

I'm linking to Marsaglia's Random numbers fall mainly in the planes (1968) solely for the puntastic title, though its content -- finding unwanted patterns in a simplistic modular-exponentiation based random number generator -- is nothing to scoff at either. (Unless, presumably, you're currently making your living hawking said RNGs, in which case, scoff away.)

A pale red-haired centauress and a clothed, dark-skinned human wearing jockey boots curl up together on the ground, sharing a tender hug.

Source: Tumblr / jinamong.
Other slice-of-life fantasy creature sketches by the same artist: 1, 2.

I'm continually finding interesting perspectives on the "activist language merry-go-round" -- a term coined, I believe, by Serano in the last few years to describe a certain focus within activist communities on the fastidious quarantine of words known/found to be problematic. Cristan Williams describes the exercise as "[chasing] the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies", and further notes that which words are considered accepted or problematic is a relative notion even between different activist communities.

I am fascinated by the implication here: the Internet provides the illusion of a global homogenised speech community, but organic language usage still happens subject to the constraints of geography and social group structure. Whomever's interpretation of various terms becomes canonised happens to be enjoying an unusual privilege.

The prose in In Flight, an extract from Mark Vanhoenacker's book, Skyfaring, is gorgeous through-and-through. The following extract is technical and poetic in equal measures:

Planes following altitudes referenced to the standard atmosphere collectively and continuously adjust their degree of wrongness — gently climbing or descending in a collective, school-of-fish-like movement as the true air pressure below changes with time and location. Locked for hours at what our altimeters show to be 31,000 feet, our true altitude may vary constantly. Think of an ocean, of all the boats across its vast expanse rising and descending on their local swells. All the boats are on the surface, though their true elevation varies. An altitude referenced to the standard atmosphere is called a flight level and it is just like such a surface: a membrane encircling the Earth, pressed with indentations and textured with rises, shimmering invisibly on the aerial imperfections of the world.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Creative Mysticism and “Don't Hug Me I'm Scared”

I am a little in love with Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, the cult hit Youtube short and Tumblr darling (and 2012 Sundance Film Festival nominee(!), did you know that?, I didn't know that) by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling.

DHMIS and its sequels sit within the genre of subverted kids' show: it's a short in the style of an educational kid's show that quickly turns subtly creepy, culminating in full-blown nightmare fuel. But of course, there's plenty to delve into.

Let's take DHMIS at face value: as educational, or at least as a work responding to educational shows. Quoth the creators on their Kickstarter pitch:

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared is a show about puppets learning stuff.

That's common to all of the DHMIS videos so far: the main characters (three puppets: red, green, and yellow, with distinctive personalities) are taught about some abstract topic by a teacher figure. Topics as of writing include: creativity, time, love, and computers.

It's not a huge leap to say that The teacher-student "dialogue" in DHMIS mirrors that between society and the individual.

Here I'm using "society" to refer to a very generalised "main" memeplex; an amalgamation of the education system and media and advertising and business culture and pretty much everything that's in the business of declaring how people ought to think. Related but not the same: Fiorenza's "kyriarchy", Moldbug's "cathedral", caricature hippies' "The Man". (And, disclaimer: I'm restricting the scope of this claim to English-speaking cultures since [1] I have more familiarity with [i.e. ability to speak meaningfully to] the "Western society" memeplex and [2] that's the cultural context DHMIS originates within and critiques).

This interpretation is hardly unique. That said, I'm not familiar enough with the literature (as it were) on DHMIS hermeneutics to know whether it's the accepted wisdom.

Anyway! Let's talk about the first DHMIS. The teacher is Notebook, who I'll be using "she" pronouns for since that seems to be the Tumblr consensus and I'm a lazy fuck (but remember, the official line is that Notebook's gender is paper). The subject: creativity.

Lesson summary: creativity is bad news.

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, 2011.

Creativity as a black box

— How do you get the ideas?

— I just try to think creatively.

There is no complete mechanistic account of how to be creative, no process summarised by an A4 flow chart. Instead, it seems that the creative process is a black box so far as monolithic organisations are concerned.

When Notebook says "I just try to think creatively", she effectively writes off the process of creativity as an inscrutable, atomic thing. She could have easily presented any number of actual suggestions, with all their varying pros and cons (e.g. any of the usual cliches: asking guiding questions, taking a walk, playing word association...). But she doesn't, and that's because (as a metaphor for "society") she has no interest in offering partial answers, in suggesting that there are pieces of the puzzle she can't provide. It's far more convenient to suggest that creativity is something that you either have or you don't.

The closest Notebook gets to providing constructive advice on the subject is "Listen to your heart / Listen to the rain / Listen to the voices your brain". Notice that these are all platitudes. They pattern match to some standard vague picture of what creativity is, but they don't actually offer any actionable advice.

(Compare to similar after-school special messages: "The power was inside you all along." "Real love prevails." Even when such platitudes do provide an account of something real, they do so in an entirely opaque way.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Links and quotes, April 2015

From The New York Times comes this explainer on the mathematics of fair division. Highlights include an interactive visualisation of Sperner's lemma and a shout-out to the not-for-profit app Spliddit.

In an observational study, The University of Texas at Austin gave a group piano majors a Shostakovich passage to learn and perform a day later. They found that the amount of time spent practicing the passage didn't have much bearing on mastery. What did distinguish the top performers was how they handled their mistakes. The best ones took pains to individually locate and correct errors, addressed them immediately when they arose, and strategically slowed the piece down to address problem areas.

On the pros and cons of trigger warnings as standard classroom practice: "oh god oh god I want to be dead I want to be dead is just not a good mindset to be in when you’re trying to grasp the nuances of Derrida."

Still image of a cresting wave, backlit against the sun, from Ray Collins's "Sea Stills".
Sea Stills: Photographer Ray Collins captures giant waves in otherworldly moments.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bash completion of aliased commands, revisited

When you alias a command in Bash, tab completion no longer works. If you regularly take advantage of tab completion, this undoes most of the convenience of aliasing.

A quick web search throws up an old script by Ole Jorgen that solves this problem by "wrapping" the original completion command with some code that modifies variables to make the complete believe you'd typed out the aliased command in full and are tab completing as per usual.

Unfortunately, running that circa-'08 script on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS (using bash 4.3.11) causes it to choke on most attempted tab completions, with error messages like:

$COMP_POINT: substring expression < 0

The problem: the script modifies two of the variables made available to Bash completion (COMP_CWORD and COMP_WORDS), but misses others. With a little hackery we can modify that script to alter the other variables, COMP_LINE and COMP_POINT.

# Author.: Ole J, Chris C
# Date...: 14.06.2015
# License: Whatever

# Wraps a completion function
# make-completion-wrapper <actual completion function> <name of new func.>
#                         <command name> <list supplied arguments>
# eg.
#     alias agi='apt-get install'
#     make-completion-wrapper _apt_get _apt_get_install apt-get install
# defines a function called _apt_get_install (that's $2) that will complete
# the 'agi' alias. (complete -F _apt_get_install agi)
function make-completion-wrapper () {
    local function_name="$2"
    local arg_count=$(($#-3))
    local comp_function_name="$1"
    shift 2 # For convenience, drop the extracted arguments
    local arg=${@:1}
    local function="
function $function_name {

    local cmdlength


    COMP_WORDS=( "$@" \${COMP_WORDS[@]:1} )

    return 0
    eval "$function"

Then usage proceeds as before:

alias sdr='screen -d -r'
make-completion-wrapper _screen _sdr screen -d -r
complete -F _sdr sdr

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Links and quotes, March 2015

The "March" in the title is purely decorative. (Or: that's when I read them.)

(CW: Homestuck) What do Magic: the Gathering's five colours, Pacific Rim's drift compatibility, and the Houses of Hogwarts have in common? Yes, they're powerful in-universe metaphorical devices that connect character arcs to physical things, Sam Keeper of Storming the Ivory Tower writes. But more importantly, they're both structured and hyperflexible. They're given well defined rules and categorisations but aren't overly prescriptive. They're open-ended but not too open. This makes them amazing hooks for fanworks and remixes.

Philip Sandifer's A Mild Curiosity in a Junkyard is an impressive tour de force work spanning the fifty-plus years of Doctor Who's run, and its place in the greater historical and social context. Highlights include the flippant creation of central parts of the show's mythos (regenerations, Gallifrey, etc.), Hartnell's retirement as marked on-screen symbolism of end of the show's early "noble savage" era, Tom Baker's spiral into egotistic "one man show" self-centeredness, the voluminous official tie-in books produced in the 90s and 00s that later turned into some of the best post-revival scripts... It goes on and on and it's utterly fascinating.

Melissa Thomasson says that what we have combines the worst of the market and the worst of government. Markets are usually really good at controlling costs... Government can be good at... ensuring universal access... For Melissa Thomasson, she says that either extreme, a competitive market system where consumers know what price they're paying, what they're getting, which would probably drive the price of health care down, or a government run system, which would cover everyone would be better than the accidental mixture that we have today: a really expensive system that doesn't cover us all.

3D rendering of a viscous black liquid suspended inside the walls of a spiralling torus. A few lone droplets hover, perfectly spherical, in the center of the torus's ring.
Joey Camacho of Raw & Rendered has a very impressive portfolio. The above image is taken from his Progress Before Perfection collection.

Yanis Varoufakis (formerly, "that economist who did cool things at Valve", currently, "that economist who's Greece's finance minister"), explains the influence of Marxist theory on his economic work over the years. "Even my non-Marxist economics was guided by a mindset influenced by Marx, he writes." His take on Marx's work is interesting, and definitely not what I would describe as 'socialist' -- indeed, he laments that a lot of the political discourse on the subject centres on fairness and justice ("bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals") rather than a greater, causal underlying problem: that capitalism as it functions is inefficient even on its own terms, that it wastes everything, of value or otherwise.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road as worship of classical physics

Three women gaze with concern out of a car, binoculars and telescopes in hand.
Still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Mad Max: Fury Road is thematically rich. There's bodily autonomy (I count at least three different invocations of the motif); femininity and choice; culture and identity. But as a newcomer to the franchise, I was most struck by how raw physicality plays into it all.

Earlier this year, Venkatesh Rao (riffing on Penrose) described a trichotomy of ways reality and fiction give us affective experiences: physical, social and mathematical. Think Matthew Reilly vs. the Brontës vs. Agatha Christie; Angry Birds vs. The Sims vs. Tetris. (As with most systems of classification, it falls apart quickly when interpreted as a sharp-edged "either-or", but it does provide a useful framework to begin from.)

Action movies, as you'd expect, deliver most of their gratification through the physical. But it's not just these. Interstellar, for example, achieves a great deal of its emotional highs through moments of pure physics -- conservation of momentum, torque, thrust. It's an ode to the raw mechanics of piloting a spaceship (much as The Hunt for Red October is an ode to submarine piloting).

Similarly, Mad Max: Fury Road is a panegyric to the automobile, but its homage to physicality extends beyond that.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).
War culture. Ibid.

Conservation of energy

In a world without electricity, energy isn't abstracted away behind light switches. Giant pulleys are moved by human pedalling, cars are pushed out of mud with sheer grit, waterways open at the pull of a gargantuan lever. Every reaction is directly caused by an equally visceral action. This is a world without power steering.

The war drums (and war guitar, of course) embody this -- camera shots lingering on the drummers as their entire bodies swing into beat after beat, so entwined their riggings that they seem to be an extension of their war machines.

Indeed, even social power in this world is only ever a single level of remove from physical power. The characters with high standing -- Immortan Joe, Furiosa, and so on -- are characterised by martial prowess and brute strength.

This all certainly borrows heavily from the pre-feudal warlord culture the film riffs upon, but it's tangibly a part of the film's direction, not some contingent bit of stylistic afterthought. Energy and physical motion is currency.


And if physical motion is currency in Fury Road, then engine fuel is its most fungible manifestation. Fuel is the resource that raiding parties are sent out to hunt for; fuel is the bartering chip that gets the War Rig into the canyon. Unlike paper currency, its value is intrinsic -- characters count the fuel they have left, the number of days' mileage they can make on it. Even in a dystopian wasteland it can meaningfully be hoarded and stolen. And, of course, it can be destroyed.

Fury Road both depicts and embodies the worship of scarce resources. Fuel, water, bullets: everything is in short supply. Every shot fired, every extra gallon of gas, counts.

This attitude pervades the entire culture -- even the most cloistered of the escapees know like second nature how to count bullets and match them to their firearms. Water is coveted and fought for; its long-forgotten cousin, "green", spoken of with religious devotion. Human bodies are treated as scarcely more than sources of scarce commodities -- milk, blood, physical labour.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).

Physicality embeds itself within the film in plenty more ways: the fetishistic cultural artefacts of the different factions; the motif of Furiosa's arm as both source of strength and mask; literal masks and exoskeletons and cyborg symbolism; telescopes and rifle scopes as an extension of the body. It's pervasive. The physical is everywhere. That's what makes Fury Road so effective as an action movie -- everything about it is written in the same dynamic language of force and momentum that underlies the genre.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What random feels like

In the pilot episode of Numb3rs, CalSci professor Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz) describes how people confuse randomness with uniformity. "You've distributed yourselves at equal intervals, while true random patterns will include clusters... [Simulating randomness] is pretty difficult."

Whether it's nature or nurture, we're really bad at knowing 'random' when we see it. This is what lets Eppes solve the case-of-the-week. This is why the Fire Emblem games badly underexaggerate their probabilities of peons hitting other peons -- because it takes 80% real odds for something to feel like 70% certainty.

Battle animation from *Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals*.
"If a unit has a 15% displayed chance... their actual odds of hitting are a paltry 4.65%... if a unit has an 85% displayed hit chance [it's] actually a more reliable 95.65%."


I recently installed TagTime for Android, a barebones app that randomly polls you every forty-five minutes on average1 to ask you what you're doing at that exact moment. It's a completely random sample of your day.

(The results are distressing. Over the last four days, approximately 1 in every 8 pings has occurred while I was on Facebook, i.e. three hours a day, give or take a generous error term. [Image link])

The thing about the 'random sample' part: it's really random. (Specifically, it's a Poisson process). The key part here is that it's totally memoryless -- you can't say "it's been nearly forty-five minutes so I'm going to do something productive now so I can write that down when the app next pings me". Nor can you say "Well, it just pinged me a second ago, so it's safe to hop onto Twitter for a few minutes". There's no gaming it (and thus no need to worry about gaming it). At any given moment, minute to minute, your odds of getting pinged are exactly the same.

As I mentioned, this really doesn't feel like how we expect random distributions to behave.

Google play review: "Randomizer is terrible I left the frequency at 45 minutes, but the actual average is about half that. Not sure what kind randomizer you're using, but it doesn't work well. EDIT: After running this for about a day, I'm uninstalling this app. It didn't ping me for 6 straight hours, now it's pinging every 5-10 minutes. This is worthless."

The reviewer in the above image, in addition to not understanding probability, gives a fairly good description of what having the app switched on feels like. Sometimes you'll get a ping from it three times in two minutes. Sometimes you'll watch an entire movie without it going off. A lot of the time it feels like I'll do a solid hour of work and then open Facebook for a minute and then immediately get pinged asking what I'm up to2. There's no predictability to it.

At any given minute, there's about a 2% chance of the app pinging me. Thus I've started to learn what "a 2% chance" really feels like. It's strange.

A 2% chance feels small but not that small. It sounds like nothing but it still manages to happen anyway, once or maybe twice an hour (and every now and then, five times).

There's perhaps a larger note about probability (fine, about independent probabilities) here: the odds of getting pinged during a given second are less than one in a thousand. And so on, and so forth. One in a thousand, one in a million... those odds may be small, but sometimes, over once an hour, even, things that unlikely still do happen.

It may be obvious on paper, but it feels a lot stranger in the real world when you first really notice it.

That seems like a good lesson to internalise.


1 For a user-defined value of forty-five.

2 In these cases I'd still say "I was on Facebook". Even if it doesn't feel fair, on average, over the course of weeks, the pings will cover a representative sample of your time.

On a similar note, a lot of the employee surveys at work come with instructions to answer the question about how you're feeling that very day, even if you're having an unusually up or down week. Across the whole sample, they assure us, a genuine picture of "typical" will appear.

Friday, May 1, 2015

“Hostile territory” (Unspeakable Things)

Most of the cultural narrative around mental health right now revolves around gender, with scientists and social theorists trying to work out whether it’s men or women who are more distressed, and whose fault that might be. Precisely who is more fucked up, boys or girls, has never been conclusively decided, but the fact that we insist on trying to work it out reveals a truth: there is something about gender right now that is deeply troubling, on an intimate level that is rarely discussed. There is something about the experience of being a woman or being a man, or of trying to be a woman or trying to be a man in the twenty-first century that many people find profoundly distressing in a way that they find difficult to speak about even in those few spaces where they are allowed to.
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things, Introduction.
The truth is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about what it means to be a man or a woman today. Gender identity is performed, and it is performed for profit, whether social, financial or personal. That performance is an adaptive strategy for dealing with overwhelmingly hostile territory. Now we need to adapt again. And that’s what feminism is: adaptation. Evolution.
(Boldface emphasis, fangirling, etc., mine.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Worth a thousand words: captioning and editorial subjectivity

(CW: literary prescriptivism, for some definition of ‘literary’)

Adding dry captions(*) to incidental images on Facebook/Tumblr/etc. posts (or: alt text to images on web pages) is as close to a definite ceterus paribus improvement as I can think of. Readers using screenreading software or its accessibility-oriented ilk to browse the web are able to read [sic] those captions, aiding their consumption of the text. For “typical” readers (i.e. those without visual impairments, browsing the web without additional software assistance) the additional text hardly poses a nuisance — in the case of alt text, they don’t even engage with it unless they specifically go looking for it, whilst suitably demarcated image captions are easy to skim past.

A good caption is also generally a good inferential bridge, conveying most of the context the image provides. Sure, a text description of an image might not produce the exact same mental-emotional experience (“affect”, I believe the kids are calling it) as the image itself, but if “same mental-emotional experience” were an end goal we’d be done for anyway given it’s a subjective experience.

A screenshot of a facebook link to an article titled ‘10 Trans Women in Love’, with the caption: Image of a Korean man and woman (Andy Marra and Drew Shives), who are a couple. They are both facing the camera. The woman is resting her chin on the man's shoulder. They're both smiling, happily.

Take, for instance, the screenshot above. The caption swiftly communicates the most important emotional aspects of the image, both the implicit (it’s a couple; they’re happy) and the explicit (they are facing the camera; her chin rests on his shoulder). This provides great insight into the ‘value add’ that the image provides — it’s plenty to go on whether you’re making sense of someone else’s comment on the image (“they are the cutest thing” / “I love their expressions”), or whether you’re just interested in how it complements the piece.

A screenshot of an image in a blog post, captioned: “Photo shows a chain-link fence against a blue sky. One of the sections of the fence has been removed, a hammock strung across the posts, and a person lays relaxing in the hammock.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts on Jupiter Ascending

A friend and I were excited to see Jupiter Ascending after hearing The Daily Dot describe it as “the precise gender-flipped equivalent of all those movies where some weak-chinned rando turns out to be the Chosen One, defeats a supervillain despite having no real personality or skills, and gets rewarded with a kiss from Megan Fox”.

Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis almost succeeding at sexual tension in Jupiter Ascending (2015).

The description was pretty much on point. To borrow David Prokopetz’s turn of phrase, “it’s not meant to be a Chosen Hero story; it’s meant to be a Secret Princess story”. The following notes are influenced by that interpretation.

The film is tightly constructed, with the sort of economy of dialogue which suggests the screenplay went through dozens of revisions before it ever saw pen and paper. (My closest frame of reference is Nolan’s Inception, which I heard was a pet project which took a decade or so realise. I have no idea whether this is the case for Jupiter Ascending and would rather not look it up and spoil the mystery for myself.)

The autobiographical opening minutes meld sharp writing and cinematography to intimately contextualise of protagonist Jupiter’s relationship to her mother. The following scene, the first and only one to show all three Abrasax siblings together, exemplifies show-don’t-tell, hinting at the complicated relationships between the siblings while establishing the “delicate polity” style of the film’s plot, and doing so entirely by implication. By the time we’re introduced to present-day Jupiter we’re barely eight minutes into the film and neither the pacing nor the narrative deftness drop from thereon out.

A friend of mine later remarked to me that “nary a wasted scene” is a little too strong a description. The bees, for example, constitute a Chekov’s gun that’s fired into somebody’s foot a couple of scenes after its introduction, thrown in mostly for trailer-bait CGI spectacle (there are plenty of other ways to establish “you’re a wizard, Jupiter”). On the whole, though, I remain impressed by the film’s ability to keep moving forward with every shot.

The Abrasax siblings, ibid. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the anemic, serpentine Balem Abrasax (leftmost) removes what little chance I had left of taking The Theory of Everything seriously.

The political stage is proven strictly more important than action hero physics, contra many thrillers which mix both elements. Deutoragonist Caine (Tatum) spends the entire movie out of his element, a creature of war clearly ill-at-ease in the bureaucratic and political minefields he escorts Jupiter (Kunis) through.

Notably, even though Caine wins his fair share of battles through martial prowess, he never wins Jupiter’s for her. To be sure, his role is more than mere “dumb muscle” — he functions as messenger, as critical distraction, as leverage and as table-turner. But never does he “finish off” a primary antagonist. His direct influence is limited to the ancillary mooks surrounding the villains and the scenery he explodes his way through. Jupiter Ascending is explicitly constructed around the notion that the pen — in the form of contracts, inheritances, alliances, deceptions — is mightier, that war and physical violence are a mere complement to words, not an alternative.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Links and quotes, February 2015

Yes, “February”. Shh.

Chana Messinger considers the dichotomy of moderate versus radical strains of ideologies in terms of diverse versus hyperfocused worldviews.
Radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

Empiricism versus deontology, if you will. (Ever notice how pure deontology always ends up at odds with other philosophical approaches? Almost as if it has some kind of zero-tolerance rule going on.)

The Mohists preached Universal Love and the end of war. And in practice? They sought to make war impossible: developing sophisticated military strategy and defensive siege warfare tactics and deploying it against the aggressors in any battle to even out the odds. Truth mightn’t be stranger than fiction, but it sure gets away with more suspension of disbelief.

Robert Kolenik’s design for a kitchen countertop automatically lifts up to give easy access to the aquarium underneath. “Aquarium?” Aquarium.

Within a couple of days of one another,  Cory Doctorow and Scott Alexander both deconstruct-by-analogy the “individual decision” vs. “herd immunity” aspect of anti-vax arguments, in strikingly different ways. Doctorow’s piece plays it straight, running a reductio ad absurdum (“The government wants to force you to have brakes [on your car], but brakes or no brakes is a personal decision”).

Alexander’s piece is a little weirder, reapplying the same moral argument in a way that bends intuition (“Super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “personal choice”. It’s your basic duty as a parent and a responsible human being”). The question, of course, is what does the perceived contradiction tell us? Is it an eye-opening modus ponens, an anti-vax modus tollens... or is there a subtlety to the inner workings of the “herd immunity” concept that’s being drawn out here?

A couple of fandom-specific analyses from Storming the Ivory Tower:

Homestuck [is] a successful tech demo: it shows not just what you can do but why the new tech is useful and powerful. It's not just showing off a bunch of disconnected mechanisms, it's showing why we, as creators, might be interested in utilizing similar techniques, and why we, as consumers, should get excited about where the comic is headed.”
“Ward as the Lone White Male Antihero would, in many stories, get a free pass to determine his own morality. The narrative and theme would warp around him to make his actions and judgements correct, often at the cost of the actions and judgements of female characters. In Agents of SHIELD that logic is turned on its head, and the whole dynamic is revealed to be chauvinistic, patronizing, and ultimately subtly fascistic.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Division [review]

Lee S. Hawke’s short story anthology Division is subtitled “a collection of science fiction fairytales”, and I’ll admit I wonder about that. To me, fairy tales epitomise oral storytelling tradition, trading in archetypical characters and grand, good versus evil dramas. This is not so much a failing as a characteristic of the medium: simple, powerful imagery is memorable, and thus it is this that survives generations of retelling. Division, on the other hand, exemplifies written word storytelling. Its characters are deep and recognisably human, its thematic explorations nuanced enough to defy Aesopian one-liners. As Hawke puts it, it’s “not Cinderella in Space”, it’s fiction which only resembles fairy tales insofar as it compels the reader to experience childlike wonder, insofar as the themes are timeless, which could be said of many a great work of fiction. It’s firmly a creature of its own medium, and it’s all the better for it.

The Soldier sets the tone for the the anthology, grim but hopeful, speculative in its setting but timeless in its themes. The enemies of this way are pestilence, disease; the eponymous soldiers, people blessed with supercharged immune systems that might hold the key to developing cures. Hawke takes this clinical presence and grounds it in the personal, the protagonist's torture as his body is razed as a battlefield bringing home the direness of this war far better than any bombastic, globe-spanning treatment of the same could.

Cover art, Division, Lee S. Hawke (2015). Blind Mirror Publishing.

Please Connect asks us what first love means, absent the social narratives that colour our perceptions of what romance and attraction “are” or “should be”. The protagonist, conditioned by a society that has obsoleted face-to-face interaction, sees even his sanitised courtship with an anthropological eye that Hawke impossibly transmutes into a warmer parlance. There is a raw eroticism in the language here, drawn from where it has always lain: in the quickening of a pulse, in the wetness of a breath.

Dissimilation and The Grey Wall both hark upon the themes of unreality and altered perception (the former with its Inception-like layerings of non-worlds; the latter with an expressly unreliable narrator whose doublethink allows Hawke a novel angle on magical realism). Both these stories ask something about when and how it is better to live within fantasy than reality, the question left deliberately ambiguous despite the characters’ own certainty. Meanwhile, Lemuria is set in the midst of an apocalyptic alien invasion where anyone who sees the monsters, dies, an incursion into psychological horror that is overshadowed by a late-game twist which all too briefly asks us what rated we would rather endure than death.

Beauty is perhaps the most explicitly political of the lot, a disillusioned neo-“plastic surgeon” ruminating on the homogeneity of his work:

He’d been a young girl then, and he still remembered the first advertisements. Transcend age. Transcend race. Transcend gender. But since he’d stepped out of medical school, all he’d ever done was fulfil the same three basic templates, again and again and again. The possibility of infinite variation had led only to convergence.

It’s a powerful meditation on the moral dangers of fashions, and on the beauty of the different and of individual expression.

The final story, Division, is about two women's grief following the death of their daughter. It's told through the eyes of one mother, Diyani, a passionate mechanic whose affinity is for her work, not people. Her heartbreak is raw on the page, her anger twisting her away from the world and, especially, her partner, the physical space of their shared bed reifying the deterioration of their relationship.

When the healing finally begins, it's faltering and unsure, the stuff of human beings, not fairy tales. Yet it feels like a burden being lifted, all the same. There Division closes, metaphor, story, and anthology: peering into what it is that makes us human, and in spite (because?) of all our faults, still finding magic.

(Disclaimer: this review was written based on a review copy provided by the author.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In praise of counterfactuals

“Look, just, say for the sake of argument that anthropogenic climate change is real,” he says. “Would you support government spending to combat it then?”

There’s the temptation, of course, to reply that the question is nonsense because Andrew Wakefield proved in 1998 that the planet is actually cooling by two degrees every year; hell, he published a paper and everything. But once you’ve done that (as is probably best with trolls like this fellow you’re arguing with), there’s personal value in taking the question seriously.

It’s a yes-or-no question, admitting two obvious strains of answer: “Even if it were so, that wouldn’t change anything”, and “Well in that case of course things would be different”. Those, by themselves, are boring, a pre-packaged answer recited in two seconds.

The exciting part is getting to ask Why?.

Credit: kevron2001 / deviantArt

I sat down to write a blog post about the ethics/pragmatics of particular kinds of rhetoric. (Implicit versus explicit universal quantifiers, if you care. It’s beside the point, because as I’m going to reveal below, I got sidetracked.)

I got sidetracked.

The post was going to open with “For the purposes of this post, I’m going to start from the assumption that X is inappropriate in context Y”, hedging this point specifically because “X is inappropriate in context Y” is contentious, but it’s awfully impractical to prepend “and so assuming so-and-so...” to the beginning of every sentence so, ugh, why not get it over with.

It’s a little like picking a scientific paradigm, an article of faith, an axiom system. You want to make a point in a context. It’s hardly unusual; the vast majority of arguments are built upon some kind of premise.

Picking your premises is like picking a scientific paradigm in the sense of Lakatos: your argument exists within a programme of thinkers building a shared body of understanding in the context of a socially agreed collection of base assumptions. “Phlogiston explains everything.” “Electrons orbit nuclei like planets around stars.” “Central planning produces better results than markets.” “Markets produce better results than central planning.” “Gender is performative.” “Improving the plight of our country’s poor is more important than other countries’.” You take your base beliefs and you do important work with others who share them.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Links and quotes, January 2015

Status is more ordinal than cardinal. (The common distinction in our language emphasizes that money is not status: ’arriviste’, ‘kip’, ‘nouveau riche’/‘new money’, ‘parvenu’, ‘social climber’, ‘upstart’, etc. One can try to buy status by donations to institutions frequented by the rich, but it will cost a bundle.)

Don’t surround yourself with smarter people. Surround yourself with differently free people.
Venkatesh Rao, (link)

Here Venkatesh Rao expounds upon James Carse’s concept of the “finite game”, loosely described as a type of worldview (but not a specific one) in which one’s purpose is shaped by some well-defined finitistic measure(s) of success — e.g. wealth, professional identity, or the strength of one’s friendship. Casting the universe as a finite game is natural to our way of thinking: in Rao’s words, “explicit finite games make the world a legible place.”

From within this worldview, one is “constantly focused on improving [one’s] position, capabilities and odds of winning. You are always evaluating strategies, and making up clever lines of attack or defense.” This culminates in the notion of score-keeping, the process of becoming invested in some measure of success.

It’s in the incommensurability of different finite games that Rao sees the opportunity for growth. People playing different games (i.e. “differently free” people) are impossible to perfectly predict within a mental model limited by the game you’re in. “When the other person appears to value something that doesn’t even register with you, for a moment, that thing turns into a non sequitur.” It’s in those moments that one gains the opportunity to reflect upon the box they live within from without.

Donna Trope explores the artifices of the beauty industry in Mask Layer.
(source / CW: frontal nudity)

It took me how many years of *nix use to wonder what the ‘rc’ in ‘bashrc’/‘vimrc’/etc. stands for? For shame.

Thinking that all individuals pursue "selfish" interest is equivalent to assuming that all random variables have zero covariance.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The oft-contentious conflation of ‘trans’ with ‘trans*’ is a legacy of a deliberate strategic approach adopted by transgender activists during the 90s, writes Julia Serano. She explores this theme — the construction of political terms to serve particular pragmatic purposes — in her essay on the “cissexism” concept, exploring how the collective forgetting of such reasons often causes concepts (like the cis/trans distinction) to read (and ofttimes serve!) as counterproductive, problematic, dangerous.

Serano introduces ‘gender conventional’ / ‘gender unconventional’ / ‘gender transgressive’ as an alternative model of perceived social legitimacy, which one might simplistically summarise as having society celebrate/tolerate/condemn one’s gender expression, respectively. (She distinguishes the latter two as bending vs. breaking the “rules” of gender.)

Reading this essay I was particularly struck by her instrumentalist approach to language (as opposed to the deontological morasses that often characterise linguistic prescriptivism). Consider her caveat that “both [cis/trans and gender conventional/unconventional/transgressive] are simply models… limited in [their] explanatory powers... more useful in certain situations or contexts but not others”. This serves as an important reminder in contrast to both ‘linguistic realism’ (e.g. “the concept of ‘cissexism’ simply is; the distinction meaningfully exists in the territory, not just the map”) and the prescriptive notion that concepts should be evaluated based on the most harm they could possibly cause (e.g. “the concept of ‘cissexism’ potentially reifies the Other-ing of trans folk; therefore the term is problematic; therefore it should be avoided”).

While performing intelligence tests on rhesus monkeys, Harry Harlow noticed infant monkeys becoming emotionally attached to the cloth towels on the floors of their cages. What followed was a cruel scientific career, built upon experiments dancing at the very edge of how comfort and familial love are constructed in the simian brain.

“There is only the dark side of touch,” Lauren Slater writes of Harlow’s work, “...which is that mothers can kill us even as they hold us.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Parsing a giant list of quotes

In early 2011, around the time I moved to Sydney, I began to collect interesting quotes I encountered in books, web articles and elsewhere. By ‘interesting’ I really do mean any sense of the term, like interesting factual tidbits, artful prose, or cute proverb-esque one-liners.

This has kept up since then — Instapaper helps — and as of writing I have a little over 1500 entries sitting in one horrendously large (read: three-hundred page) Google Doc.

The bottom [oldest] part of my giant quotes list.

I realised late last year that this Google-Docs-based system, while convenient to quickly add new quotes to, wasn’t particularly useful for retrieval, let alone browsing. It takes nearly 1G of RAM to have the entire thing open in my browser, and editing operations are slow; it’s just not the use case Docs is designed for. Furthermore, for a while now I’ve been wanting to tag quotes (making it easier to hunt for, say, poems, or quotes about economics), and the additional clutter that would add to my current system makes it untenable.

There’s the question of how to store this information instead (a different web app? a SQL database?), but I figured I’d start by making sure I could easily extract all of this data without having to retype all three hundred pages of it by hand. Fortunately, Docs offers an option to download the whole thing, which immediately offers the option of doing some programmatic parsing.

Of course, this is still in a pretty messy state:

The exported HTML from Google Docs.

The first problem: the exported Doc uses stylesheets to italicise and embolden text. I want to preserve these (italics are usually actual author emphasis in the original; bold, my own highlighting), but I can’t hard-code which CSS classes correspond to which, since the way Docs names the CSS classes is unpredictable and varies depending on document contents.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

“What is truth?”, they said. “What is meaning?”


Finally, they came to the granite. “This is alive,” Leavitt said. “It is living, breathing, walking, and talking. Only we cannot see it, because it is happening too slowly. Rock has a lifespan of three billion years. We have a lifespan of sixty or seventy years. We cannot see what is happening to this rock for the same reason that we cannot make out the tune on a record being played at the rate of one revolution every century. And the rock, for its part, is not even aware of our existence because we are alive for only a brief instant of its lifespan. To it, we are like flashes in the dark.”
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, 1969.

If, like in my year 7 science class, we take “alive” to mean “responsive to stimuli, converting one form of energy to another, self-reproducing”, then technically, yes, anything from fire to organised religion is exactly alive.

If we take “murder” to include intentionally causing the death of a specific person, then technically, yes euthanasia is murder, and so is capital punishment, and so is failing to give kidney transfusions to that world-class violinist who turned up in your sitting room.

(And, of course, if we take “people” to mean featherless bipeds, then human foetuses and kangaroos are people, and abortion is murder, and meat is murder. If we take “people” to be those displaying certain kinds of cognitive activity, then perhaps some squids have more personhood than some coma patients.)

If we take “benevolent sexism” to include systemically supported behaviours reifying the notion that people of a specific gender ought to be protected and supported in doing perfectly everyday things, then yes, unsolicitedly (and disproportionately) offering to help women lift heavy objects, not to mention a constant refrain of “let me get that for you”, absolutely counts, as does implementing affirmative action programmes at your company or institution.

(Patch the leak in an ‘objective’ definition by adding mental state — say mens rea or the recipient’s reaction towards the behaviour — and instead you have a term you can never be sure whether to apply. Though, judging by the state of how society deals with those kinds of definitions, someone would probably argue that a prolonged three week courtroom drama consisting entirely of character assassination is a direct conduit to this kind of truth.)

If we take “true” to mean “having supporting empirical evidence”, then perhaps the Riemann hypothesis is true.

If we take “real” to mean something you can run your fingers across, something you can see or taste or hear, then of course a supernatural God isn’t real, nor is love, nor is the number seven, nor is analytic philosophy.

So what?

None of these conclusions mean anything about the world. They’re just… facts about whether a definition applies to a concept. The pronouncements are as a priori as anything and would be just as true if it were the crown philosoraptor prince-queens of bizzaro!Earth (where our world is naught but an amusing thirdbedtime story) discussing whether the fictional humans’ concept of ‘real’ applies to the fictional humans’ concept of ‘love’ or to ‘electrons’ at the ‘Planck scale’. Hell, maybe bizzaro!electrons are human!real; maybe not.

Definitions of words aren’t wrong or right; they’re merely… relevant or irrelevant, accepted or unaccepted, intuitive or unintuitive, clarifying or misleading, practical or impractical. These are all subjective judgements, dependent on the people using them, their speech community, the context of the dialogue, everything.

Never forget that words are a social construct (nor that ‘social construct’ is words).

The intuition that murder is bad isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. It’s a heuristic. The ‘bad kind of murder’ is as ineffable as ‘bad’, tied as it is to our individual intuitions and learnt beliefs about morality, about what kind of deaths cause that emotional reaction. We get a long way tying that concept to a word, and tying the neat technical definition of “wilfully ending another person’s life” to a word, and pretending that the word isn’t there, that the thread connecting our definition to that thing we truly want to talk about is uninterrupted Platonic truth.

(And that’s the thing. Most of the time it almost is. Strip away the corner cases, the strange examples that send people spiralling into definitional arguments, the rough edges where my intuition about right and wrong and pleasant and unpleasant doesn’t line up with yours quite the way society wants us to pretend it does… and the problem is gone. If only that were possible.)

Words are all sorts of wonderful things. They’re labels. They’re semantic compression optimised for the human brain. They’re strings of phonemes glowing with the potential for rhyme, meter, rhythm, and assonance. They’re shortcuts to elicit emotional reactions. They’re carrier pigeons that can escape the walls of one person’s subjective experience and pass a little something along to another’s. They’re symbols, and in some sense symbols are all we have to make meaning with.

But words... they aren’t real. Not until we say they are.