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.”

Yvain imputes much of the discourse about ‘legitimacy’ of mental illnesses to a generally accepted “deontologist libertarian model of blame” [‘libertarian’ in the sense of free will, not free markets]. Within this model, people have intrinsic goodness/badness which generally leads them to make good/bad decisions. ‘Disease’ complicates the matter: without taking into account diseases which impact on “free will”, we are “at risk of either blaming people for things they don't deserve, or else letting them off the hook when they commit a sin, both of which, to libertarian deontologists, would be terrible things.”

(CW: maths) The fruit-counting example in section 5 of these generating function lecture notes is contrived, granted (see how they’re sneakily encoding two natural numbers in their banana/orange and apple/pear constraints?), but damn if that isn’t a beautiful “order out of chaos” moment.

In late 2013, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described anthropogenic climate change as “unequivocal”. Yet the media reported almost the opposite, with a narrative about a great global warming “slowdown” or “pause” filling the airwaves. Mother Jones tracks the story of how the IPCC tried (and failed) to get the right message out.

Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that we don't need to wait for technological marvels, but can experience them right here, right now. More, we can do so, magically, without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all.

Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world's technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.

Noah Berlatsky, (link)

Photo: Roger Stonehouse, (source)

On modelling consent culture, Cliff Pervocracy writes: “Personally, I tend toward almost a utilitarian model of sex, in which the goal is to work together to attain the greatest net pleasure.”

My poetry is actually weakened by my coding style. And there are certain poetic devices that I have a lot of trouble with using, that I have to deliberately try to force myself to use because they would make for bad coding style. Rhetorical questions, repetition, rhyme, convoluted syntax. It’s so important in poetry to be able to surprise the reader, and in coding you can surprise the reader for good effect but you want to do it through new clarity and new concision. In poetry, the range of emotions you want to give the reader—it’s so much wider than that.

Few Americans want the state to police their bedrooms, but 93% think adultery is morally wrong, a recent CNN poll found. That view has stiffened over the past few decades, even as attitudes to homosexuality have softened dramatically (see chart). This may be because, since the liberalising 1960s, Americans now know more about the real-world consequences of both. Many grow up at ease with gay friends but upset by their parents’ divorces.
The Economist, (link)

Smart bullies are driven by their desire to have their bullying make them more popular, to get the rest of the world pointing and laughing with them. In a Blue Tribe bubble, shouting “FAGGOT” at gay people is no longer a good way to do that. The smart bullies in these circles have long since stopped shouting at gays – not because they’ve become any nicer, but because that’s no longer the best way to keep their audience laughing along with them.

[The Hobbit trilogy] has no interest in "battles" as such. It is interested in single combats, for which war, howsoever meager the causus belli, provides the opportunity. This individuation of war is part and parcel of the "defining" nature of these films taken together. They cannot, it turns out, think the collective at all; they can only think the individual—the fan favorite, the key prop, the singular...

...Jackson thinks in Romantic and post-Romantic terms, of tragic-heroic heroes and heroines; his vision is fundamentally Byronic and Gothic. Tolkien, though, is a deeply pre-Romantic writer, who thinks in terms of communities, peoples, languages and the idioms of human congregation. These are his great themes, and his evils are things (like the Ring) that cut the individual off from human community.