Rediscovery, the Mind's Curare 10 Apr 2021
I’m often apprehensive about writing things that may already have been written, of sharing ideas that may already have been thought of, of saying things that may be cliché or dull or commonplace. I think I can trace this to a fear of being seen as ignorant or uneducated, which itself can be traced to my valuing knowledge & education.
I remember once when I was young & thinking, as one does, about free will. I thought, Well, probably humans are like those stones that roll down the slope of a mountain: the places they end up are precisely determined by their shape & density, the arrangement of the mountain slope & the permanent laws of mechanics. So we too always do the thing that we were always going to do, as determined by the arrangement of our sensory inputs & the particular configuration of neurons & synapses in our brain. But that is not what we humans mean when we talk about free will. Because though it is determined how we will act – so I reasoned to myself – no one actually knows what has been preordained. So as far as we’re concerned our actions & those of other humans can still take countless possible shapes, no fewer than the ways a stone can roll down a mountain slope. Thus thought the teenage me. But months or perhaps years later, happening upon an article on free will, I learned that views very similar to these were called determinism & compatibilism & had been known & discussed in philosophy for decades if not centuries.
Moral Golems 3 Apr 2021
Rob Bensinger writes that the search for true moral systems is quixotic, that ethics is so complicated that we cannot hope to capture it in a neat, rule-based system & that our project ought instead to be to construct, starting from observations about what humans think, do & feel, a conglomerate of systems, or maybe an amalgam, that together capture these observations as well as possible, though necessarily imperfectly.
He writes this in a post about things he would like to change about contemporary philosophy, which seems a little off, in a way, because my impression is that philosophers have been mostly anti-realist during the past century. That is to say, they don’t think moral claims (e.g. “it is wrong to murder”) are things that can be true or false, or that moral claims don’t even pretend to be such things. Though I suppose it is possible to be both anti-realist & non-syncretic. Anyway, Rob would probably say that it doesn’t matter, because even if moral claims can be true, there is no way for us to find out which of them are true – morality is just too complicated. The point is that we should not get tunnel vision on seeking the one true moral system, because no moral system could possibly describe the complex nature of human morality.
Code Purity & Principles 31 Mar 2021
Code, like rooms, can be dirty. Mary Douglas wrote that dirt – the real, physical sort – is “matter out of place”. You have an image of how you want your room to look, & all the stuff that doesn’t fit that image, everything that’s unwanted – that’s dirt. And when you have rid your room of dirt, when it conforms to your image of how it should look, then it is clean, or pure. In this sense, cleaning is a creative act.
When you program, & especially when you refactor, you also have an image (though maybe not a conscious one) of how you want your program or procedure to look, & all the lines of code that don’t fit that image are dirty. For instance, say you read about the single-responsibility principle – that each class or module or function should be responsible for one thing only. You read about it, it makes sense to you: it looks great. Now what? Every time you see a function that does two things, or a class that does a dozen things, it looks dirty to you. You want to change it so that it conforms to your image of clean code.
The Sadness of Tom Cruise 27 Mar 2021
Tom Cruise, though he is a movie star, though he’s had every wish granted, though no barrier can stand in the way of his desire, is in his heart of hearts a sad & lonely man. His church, such as it is, at once worships him & treats him like a child. One needs only to remember the reports of how church leaders auditioned brides for him to see that Tom Cruise is the puppet emperor of Scientology, feebler than a child-king. Time & again, the church puts its little prince on parade in the most embarrassing fashion. People laugh at him behind his back. And he has to know this – on some level, though he seems so very sheltered, he must know this given the amount of ridicule he has been subjected to, after the Oprah couch jumping, after the leaked Scientology tapes, after interview after interview after interview.
To ordinary people, nearly everything can be joked about: few subjects are off limits. To Tom Cruise, everything is deadly serious, especially if it’s a laughing matter. He has cordoned off his whole life & much of the world – make light of this & you are his enemy. Instead, he focuses his laughter onto trivial things, onto other people. But he is not really laughing. He is simulating laughter, badly. Because he does not really find things funny.
There are of course hundreds of newsletter services out there, the lich queen of them being MailChimp, which owns over half of the market share. But maybe you don’t want to use proprietary software, or maybe you don’t want to depend on an organisation that can ban swathes of its users because of the (seemingly innocent) content they circulate. The alternative then is Mailtrain & other free & open source options. But these need to be self-hosted, have fairly involved installation procedures & are weighed down by far more features than people like myself ever need.
Me, I just wanted two things: for people to be able to subscribe to my newsletter & to be able to send emails to my subscribers. That’s it. So I thought it might be fun to implement a simple command-line utility that accomplishes those two things. The result is
nwsl (pronounced “newsletter”).
The AstraZeneca Vaccine Will Save Lives 16 Mar 2021
I don’t usually like to comment on current affairs as it makes me feel stressed to get my take out while it’s still newsworthy & before it has been swallowed by all the other takes out there, but I will make an exception today in order to register my discontent with recent decisions made by some leaders of European nations.
In the past couple of days, a large number of European nations have decided to suspend usage of the AstraZeneca vaccine after seeing cases of side effects such as blood clots. The reason is spelled out clearly. “The decision today is purely precautionary. It is a purely technical and not a political decision”, said Jens Spahn. “The decision is a precautionary measure”, said Anders Tegnell. This, of course, after months of delayed vaccination drives due to AstraZeneca’s own failure in delivering the expected quantities of doses. But in life you cannot manufacture a success by adding one failure to another.
Can a Vegan Diet Be Healthy? A Literature Review 12 Mar 2021
The first question is: healthy compared to what? To a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet? or to a standard Western diet? or to the mean world diet, if that is even a coherent concept? The papers I will cover in this post don’t all answer the same question, so I’ll try to be clear in pointing out what they are comparing to. They also differ in which non-carnivorous diets they are looking at. There are many varieties of vegetarian & even vegan diets. Since there aren’t that many studies on vegan diets specifically, I’ll also be looking at studies of vegetarian diets. Why? Because I think it’s likely (though not guaranteed) that any positive or negative effects in vegetarian diets are also present in vegan diets (though there might be positive or negative effects from vegan diets that aren’t produced by vegetarian diets). I’ll make these distinctions, too, where relevant.
The other thing I’ll note before we get underway is that vegans & vegetarians are strongly self-selected groups that differ significantly from the general population. That means there are a lot of possible confounds here. If we find that vegans are on average healthier than non-vegans, we can’t infer that it is the vegan diet that makes them healthier, because correlation is not causation. It could just be that vegans exercise more or smoke less, for example, & that it is the exercise or the lack of smoking, not the diet, that makes them healthier. What that means is that we must look at observational studies with a critical eye. Instead, wherever possible, I will be citing randomised controlled trials (RCTs), where the variable being studied (in this case, a particular diet) is isolated so that causality can be inferred.
Paying a Corporation 6 Mar 2021
In the first post in this series, I discussed a case where a creative agency paid 13 homeless people 20 dollars a day to carry Wi-Fi hotspots around Austin, offering them to South by Southwest festival attendees. I said that I thought the creative agency had wronged the homeless people because they treated them as mere means to further their own ends (namely to generate promotional buzz). But the creative agency is a company, not a person. Does it really make sense to say that a company has “wronged” someone? & what should we think about those festival attendees who took advantage of the free hotspots?
Another way to approach this problem is by introducing the corporation as an intermediary in a moral interaction. Take for example two comfortably paid programmers, Dante & Serena. Dante is employed by a software consultancy, but Serena is a freelancer. If you offer to pay Serena for her services, she is free to take your offer or not: there is no coercion. But if you negotiate a deal with the software consultancy for Dante’s services, he has no say in the matter, because he is contractually obliged to do whatever work the consultancy asks him to do. On the surface, it looks as if you are coercing Dante, but of course no right-thinking person would say that you were. That is because he has previously chosen to sign away part of his freedom to the consultancy. This may look like a silly example. But now consider a situation where Dante had unwillingly signed away his freedom. In this situation, it does seem wrong to make a deal for his services, though, as we shall see, under some circumstances it is not so clear-cut.
Paying for Sex 2 Mar 2021
In the previous post I argued that paying a person to provide you a service is wrong iff they see no alternative way of subsisting. I also wrote that I thought the badness (or goodness) of the act depended on how bad (or good) the nature of the work is generally for a person who is compelled to do it. Now I will argue that there is one case where the wrong is especially egregious, where the stakes are higher, so to say. That case is prostitution.
Of course there are many different varieties of prostitution & sex work, from upscale escorts who can choose their own prices, services, clients & work hours on one end to trafficked street prostitutes who are at the mercy of a pimp on the other. I leave open the possibility that there exist wealthy prostitutes who choose that occupation in spite of the many alternatives available to them & who therefore are able to meaningfully consent. Having said that, there aren’t a lot things that abolitionists & sex worker advocates agree on, but they do seem to agree that the situation of many prostitutes & other sex workers today is, excuse my literary language, not good. Prostitution & sex work is correlated with increased risk of violence & murder, increased risk of HIV & other sexually transmitted diseases, worse mental health, police violence & harassment & so on. Often those who become prostitutes have grown up in difficult circumstances: there’s the poverty of course & also evidence that many prostituted men & women have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In Germany, where I live, the majority are migrants coming from poorer countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. The list goes on & on. And the plague is making everything worse.
Paying for a Service 26 Feb 2021
Is it wrong to hire a housekeeper to clean your house? How about paying an Uber driver to get you home after a dinner? Or engaging a master chef to cook at your wedding? In other words, is it wrong to pay somebody to provide you a service? I think that, under certain conditions, it is wrong to do so. Specifically, I think it’s wrong when the person you are paying does not see any alternative way of subsisting.
Paraphrasing Kajsa Ekis Ekman, if a person wants to clean your house, they clean your house; the only reason for there to be money involved is that they don’t really want to do it. That’s true in a way but it’s too strict to keep as a moral rule. It implies that there can be no bargaining, that any exchange of money for goods or labour is coercion. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think a person can consent to such an exchange iff they see alternative ways of subsisting, such that they don’t feel forced to accept the kind of offer you are making. If they don’t see these alternative ways, they can’t turn down the offer without risking destitution. It is the payment that renders them unable to refuse it; if you had offered them the chance to clean your house without payment, they could very easily have refused.
Recent Recordings of Sibelius's Symphony No. 1 20 Feb 2021
I’ve previously lamented the fact that, because most of the composers we listen to now are dead, & because contemporary composers have no desire to write in the style of their predecessors, we get tens or hundreds of recordings of the same works, most of which are forgettable, few of which stand out. This swift-running stream of releases reminds us of the fact that it is easier to avoid stupidity than it is to achieve brilliance. The safer bet will always be to record somebody who’s already famous & listened to, though orchestras & record labels today are no more responding to market forces than were publishers of sheet music in the 18th & 19th centuries, the only difference being that the latter had the disadvantage of a product rooted in composing, not performance, & Beethoven worked on his Symphony No. 5 for four years on & off, whereas today an album takes no longer than a day or two to record.
A record is released, & then another, until suddenly there is an overwhelming number of them. In this kaleidoscopic procession the fortunes of composers & their works wax & wane as the years go by. There must be some sorts of dynamic processes at work. Maybe there are expansion-saturation cycles in the market for each work or composer. Maybe release schedules follow the roaming zeitgeist. Maybe I am just looking at Poisson clumps. For whatever reason, it seems that, in our present time, we hear reverberating the Symphony No. 1 in E Minor of Jean Sibelius. A bunch of recordings of this symphony have been released in just the last couple of years; what follows is a survey of five of them.
Auderico 13 Feb 2021
ENDEQUINA: There you are, Auderico, sitting on the trunk of that toppled tree, dispirited, brooding, as if the wolf had come out of the forest to prey on your sheep. What happened to you, man? You used to be the lion of our village. The sight of you now makes me feel saddened myself. I remember how radiant you were, like the mother of a newborn babe, but always & everywhere. The air itself, which then seemed a kind of wine for you, now seems more a choking fume.
AUDERICO: My sweet Endequina, I will tell you why I’m sitting here weeping like a heartbroken lover. I was bringing my flock down from the mountains & something happened which upset me – it doesn’t matter what, but I flew into a rage & in my anger broke this staff against the naked rocks. Then a terrible sadness came over me, because the staff, though it may not look much to you, was dear to me. I carved it myself, you see, on the day that my father first asked me to take his sheep into the mountain pastures; & it has been with me ever since, seventeen years, steadying my feet as I walked & guiding the sheep I was herding. It wasn’t that I had deprived myself of its usage. It was that I had somehow wronged it. I hadn’t treated it with the gratitude & respect that it deserved. And I came to thinking. Why do we wince when things break? Why are we saddened when we see decay & atrophy? Why does it anger us to see churches or gravestones desecrated? Why do we talk of treating mere tools with respect & look down on wilful destruction of things?
Four Ways of Not Writing Software Bugs 6 Feb 2021
If a Heaven did exist, it would not be a place where we have everything made for us; rather, it would be a place where everything we make is without defects. Now, I know a lot about software bugs. I’ve written most of them. Sometimes nobody notices; at other times they cause serious & embarrassing incidents. They bloom like flowers in a meadow. They take root in every garden. But they aren’t wild: everybody knows who planted them. And, if you will allow my stretching the simile to its furthest limits, they make our vibrant industry look like a flower shop.
An old joke goes that the chief executive of a large tech company gives a speech in which he asserts that, had cars been developed like software, they would cost a hundredth of what they do now & run twice as far on a litre. “Yes”, an automotive exec replies later, “and they would crash once a week & when you call for service, they’d tell you to reinstall the engine.”
Of all the positions I hold strongly, the one that says it’s morally right & good to practice vegetarianism & veganism is, in a way, I think – & I hope this doesn’t reek too pungently of hubris – the easiest one to argue for. That’s because most people already have these intuitions, though they apply them inconsistently. They feel that we have some duties & obligations towards our pets & other companion animals, for example. They would also most of them admit that what goes on in factory farms today is less than perfect. And then, having not quite forgotten this state of affairs, when they happen to be used by someone, they complain of having being treated like an animal, which of course suggests that animals are treated in a way that we find utterly unacceptable (if they are in fact the sorts of creatures that can be mistreated).
That said, as with everything else, so with vegetarianism & veganism: there are arguments for & against it & some of those are good & some are bad. I am going to describe two arguments against moral vegetarianism & explain why I think they are inadequate. What they have in common is that they argue not that reducing animal suffering is not a worthwhile end but that vegetarianism (& veganism, but I’ll stop saying that) is an ineffectual means of achieving that end. They do this on empirical consequentialist grounds, giving essentially economical reasons for why it is so.
Let me begin with a throat clearing. I’m all for free (as in free speech) software. I have contributed, in small ways at least, to free & open source projects, I admire many of its proponents & contributors & am increasingly trading out proprietary tools & services for free ones. The code for this website is free. Nearly every other software project I have undertaken privately is also free. I think that making software free is good for innovation. It’s good for programmers. It’s good for people. It’s the kind of thing that everybody can get behind.
But (& you knew there was going to be a “but”) the philosophy that Richard Stallman presents in Why Software Should Be Free goes too far for me. It goes so far that it bends into a circle & eats its own tail, like the world-serpent of the Norse sagas. That is to say, there is a contradiction at its heart, precisely where its theory meets its praxis.
Good Works by Lesser-Known Composers 16 Jan 2021
It makes no sense for a contemporary composer to return to the style of the Romantics, say, or to that of the Moderns or of the heroes of the Renaissance. Composers are like explorers in that way. There’s no point trodding ground that’s already been mapped out since centuries. Hence we will never have another Wagner, another Sibelius or another Josquin des Prez, no matter how many people of their talent we produce.
That leaves those of us who admire that sort of music in a strange position. Because Wagner only wrote so many operas, Sibelius so many symphonies, des Prez so many masses. We discover them, we exhaust them, we go on listening to them … what then? Sooner or later we begin to crave new things. And so we move on to their less talented contemporaries & do the same thing to those. Anyone can see where this plot is heading: to the exact state of affairs we experience today, where we burst with enthusiasm over the discovery of some or another new but altogether insignificant work of one of the olds, where our critics talk not about the music but about performance & sound quality & where, in one year alone, we have lived through the release of no less than nine new recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
Permanent Suspension of Reason 10 Jan 2021
The storming of the U.S. Capitol shocked me but it did not surprise me. It was a spectacle, a farce & an embarrassment all at once, bundled, packaged & distributed for an international audience. What shocked me about it as I watched the coverage was the fact that news, in this day & age, can in fact appear spontaneously, without human intervention. Good thing for our decadent West that today’s revolutionaries only plan far enough to get themselves up on the barricade; having reached that place, they forget at once why they climbed it in the first place. But that is only a minor consolation.
The tech behemoths, meanwhile, feeling that they are under pressure, & feeling somehow that people – we don’t know quite which people – need to be protected, or at any rate that something has to be done, reach for the tool at hand. Thus on January 7th, Facebook suspended Donald Trump’s account until the end of his term or longer; & on January 8th, Twitter, having previously awarded him a 12-hour ban, suspended his account permanently due to two tweets he had posted after regaining access that day.
Tolstoy in Ryazan 9 Jan 2021
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy was a man with a moral system. To most people, morals is what happens when you are faced with a choice of good & evil. It is intuitive & spontaneous. But Tolstoy spent many anguished years building himself a system which, given a certain situation, would output the right & proper action. He based this system on the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth & in particular on the Sermon on the Mount.
To take one example, he derived from the injunction to turn the other cheek a principle of non-resistance which later influenced Mahatma Gandhi &, through him, Martin Luther King & Cesar Chavez among others. It is astonishing in a way to think that this came from the same one-time officer who had once from Sevastopol written to his brother: “The heroism of the troops beggars description. There was far less in the time of the ancient Greeks! […] I have not had the good fortune to see action yet myself, but I thank God for allowing me to be with these people and live through this glorious time!” But Count Tolstoy went further than did any of his famous admirers. He not only advocated non-resistance to one’s oppressors. He also advocated non-resistance to an impersonal universe.
Evolution of Programming Language Traits 2 Jan 2021
Who would have thought, during most of the past century, that a new market would open up to which vast masses of people would contribute their labour freely, avidly & for no apparent benefit? one which enormous corporations, too, would support & fund at no direct profit? & whose ethos would spread into science, agriculture, design, media, the arts & elsewhere? I am talking, of course, about free & open source software, the body of which is tended to by armies of volunteers whose motivations are not at first sight clear. Rare is the person who got rich giving stuff away for free. There is a free-rider problem here: everybody benefits from free & open source software, including those who don’t contribute to it. But contributing has a cost. So why exactly should one do it?
Yet GitHub has well over 100 million hosted repositories. Smartphones, supercomputers, web servers & embedded systems all see Linux & Linux-derived OSs with the majority of the market share. Regular people contribute to it, corporations sponsor it, governments fund it & the European Commission advocates it. So what gives? I will return to this question. But before I do, I want to say something about innovation. And the best way to do that is with an example.
Two Accounts of the Armenian Genocide 26 Dec 2020
The year is 1916. Refugees are streaming out of eastern Turkey & into the South Caucasus, into cities that are part of the Russian Empire. Seeing the plight of their compatriots, the Baku Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation decides to plan & carry out a survey of those who had escaped, creating what is essentially an oral history avant la lettre, as well as a tabulation of the state of things before, during & after the massacres those survivors lived through. They call the result the Chronicles of Sorrow, or in Armenian Vshtapatum, & these accounts will later make it into the National Archives of Armenia, whence some would be selected, edited & published in a book in 2013 with the title Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, 1915: Testimony of Survivors, Collection of Documents.
Of course eyewitness accounts are pretty unreliable. And these accounts have made it through many minds before they got to me. Noise may have entered the signal when the events entered the survivors’ minds & crystallised into memories in the time that followed; when they recounted it to the scribes; when the scribes recorded their accounts; when the accounts were selected & edited; when the selected ones were translated into English; & when I was reading that translation. The book taken as a whole tells a story of elemental horror. So I thought it might be worthwhile to do a little amateur source criticism of a couple of the accounts, which I will now proceed to do.
Strictness of Logic versus Openness of Logic 18 Dec 2020
So let’s think about this. Sibelius & Mahler present highly contrasting, maybe even dichotomous views of the symphony. Well, they talk about the symphony but I think it generalises to any major sort of artwork. I’ve understood both composers better since first coming across this passage. There really is some stringent logic at the core of Sibelius’s symphonies, which, to borrow a phrase from Schopenhauer, seem designed to convey a single thought. And there really is a sense in which Mahler’s symphonies unfold in many different modes & reach for many different subjects.
Below I’ll consider some different dimensions of this thought. But first, a reminder. This is a model for thinking about art. We must look at any model with equal measures wonder & unease. No one work of art will fit neatly on either side of the dichotomy. It’s a generalisation & so will sometimes make wrong predictions. But because it says as much about what an artwork isn’t as what it is, it may help cast light on a variety of material.
It must take a special kind of self-restraint for American liberals not to revel in the MAGA faction’s apparent mutiny against Fox News, perhaps for the same reason that the neocon mutiny against Trump was a kind of heroin for them. There’s nothing better than a divided enemy. And there’s no tranquilliser more powerful than the confirmation of those on the other side.
To drink this potent elixir you’re best off going to the source, which in the case of MAGA has to be thedonald.win. I’ll happily admit to have started checking in on the reluctant orchestra myself at intervals since Election Day. It’s all kind of fascinating & probably not a worse way of spending one’s time than watching some or another Netflix show or whatever. You can’t have spent any time there recently & not have noticed that these people hate Fox News. But when did that begin? Did it start around 11:20 p.m. on election night when Fox called Arizona? That question came up recently & I wanted to answer it quantitatively.
Introduction 4 Dec 2020
In these great times, wherein every human on Earth can put down their deeply considered ideas & offer them, free of charge, with no thought to their career or reputation, aiming only to shoot up some added utility into the swollen groin of the species &, in so doing, gloriously trace the footsteps of our old & sadly dated heroes – wherein everybody can offer their ideas thusly to their fellow humans – in these great times, it takes a special kind of person, surely, to think they have something to add to the reserves of knowledge already mined by the writer class. But that is what I intend & will now proceed to do.
Because being in awe has served nobody. One of those hard-earned pieces of knowledge that settles as one grows older is that, no matter how superior or imposing they seem, no matter how famous or admired they are, no matter if they’re the King of Sweden or the Queen of Jamaica, no matter if they’re a pop star, a model, a scholar, an author, a doctor or even a journalist, everybody is, when it all comes down to it, no more & no less than a flabby, perspiring mammal. I think we’d all do well to dwell on that.