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 and 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 and something happened which upset me – it doesn’t matter what, but I flew into a rage and 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; and it has been with me ever since, seventeen years, steadying my feet as I walked and 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 and respect that it deserved. And I came to thinking. Why do we wince when things break? Why are we saddened when we see decay and atrophy? Why does it anger us to see churches or gravestones desecrated? Why do we talk of treating mere tools with respect and look down on wilful destruction of things?

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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 and 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 and run twice as far on a litre. “Yes”, an automotive exec replies later, “and they would crash once a week and when you call for service, they’d tell you to reinstall the engine.”

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Two Inadequate Arguments against Moral Vegetarianism 30 Jan 2021

Of all the positions I hold strongly, the one that says it’s morally right and good to practice vegetarianism and veganism is, in a way, I think – and 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 and obligations towards our pets and 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 and veganism: there are arguments for and against it and some of those are good and some are bad. I am going to describe two arguments against moral vegetarianism and 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 (and 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.

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A Contradiction at the Heart of Stallman's Free Software Argument 23 Jan 2021

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 and open source projects, I admire many of its proponents and contributors and am increasingly trading out proprietary tools and 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 (and 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 and 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.

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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 and 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 and sound quality and where, in one year alone, we have lived through the release of no less than nine new recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

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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 and an embarrassment all at once, bundled, packaged and distributed for an international audience. What shocked me about it as I watched the coverage was the fact that news, in this day and 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, and 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; and 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.

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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 and evil. It is intuitive and spontaneous. But Tolstoy spent many anguished years building himself a system which, given a certain situation, would output the right and proper action. He based this system on the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and 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 and, through him, Martin Luther King and 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.

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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 and for no apparent benefit? one which enormous corporations, too, would support and fund at no direct profit? and whose ethos would spread into science, agriculture, design, media, the arts and elsewhere? I am talking, of course, about free and 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 and 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 and embedded systems all see Linux and Linux-derived OSs with the majority of the market share. Regular people contribute to it, corporations sponsor it, governments fund it and 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.

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Two Accounts of the Armenian Genocide 26 Dec 2020

The year is 1916. Refugees are streaming out of eastern Turkey and 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 and 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 and after the massacres those survivors lived through. They call the result the Chronicles of Sorrow, or in Armenian Vshtapatum, and these accounts will later make it into the National Archives of Armenia, whence some would be selected, edited and 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 and 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 and edited; when the selected ones were translated into English; and 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.

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Strictness of Logic versus Openness of Logic 18 Dec 2020

So let’s think about this. Sibelius and 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 and 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 and unease. No one work of art will fit neatly on either side of the dichotomy. It’s a generalisation and 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.

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