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.