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The Limits of Analogy

In Phaedo, Socrates speculates about the heavens, and develops an imaginative hypothesis that shows both the power and limits of reasoning by analogy from one data point:

This is what I believe, then, said Socrates. In the first place, if the earth is spherical and in the middle of the heavens, it needs neither air nor any other such force to keep it from falling; the uniformity of the heavens and the equilibrium of the earth itself are sufficient to support it. Any body in equilibrium, if it is set in the middle of a uniform medium, will have no tendency to sink or rise in any direction more than another, and having equal impulses will remain suspended. This is the first article of my belief.

[…]

I believe that it is vast in size, and that we who dwell between the river Phasis and the Pillars of Hercules inhabit only a minute portion of it—we live round the sea like ants or frogs round a pond—and there are many other peoples inhabiting similar regions. There are many hollow places all round the earth, places of every shape and size, into which the water and mist and air have collected. But the earth itself is as pure as the starry heaven in which it lies, and which is called aether by most of our authorities. The water, mist, and air are the dregs of this aether, and they are continually draining into the hollow places in the earth. We do not realize that we are living in its hollows, but assume that we are living on the earth’s surface. Imagine someone living in the depths of the sea. He might think that he was living on the surface, and seeing the sun an the other heavenly bodies through the water; he might think that the sea was the sky. He might be so sluggish and feeble that he had never reached the top of the sea, never emerged and raised his head from the sea into this world of ours, and seen for himself—or even heard from someone who had seen it—how much purer and more beautiful it really is than the one in which his people lives. Now we are in just the same position. Although we live in a hollow of the earth, we assume that we are living on the surface, and we call the air heaven, as though it were the heaven through which the stars move. And this point too is the same, that we are too feeble and sluggish to make our way out to the upper limit of the air. If someone could reach to the summit, or put on wings and fly aloft, when he put up his head he would see the world above, just as fishes see our world when they put up their heads out of the sea. And if his nature were able to bear the sight, he would recognize that it is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth. For this earth and its stones and all the regions in which we live are marred and corroded, just as in the sea everything is corroded by the briine, an there is no vegetation worth mentioning, and scarcely any degree of perfect formation, but only caverns and sand and measureless mud, and tracts of slime wherever there is earth as well, and nothing is in the least worthy to be judged beautiful by our standards. But the things above excel those of our world to a degree far greater still.

[…]

The real earth, viewed from above, is supposed to look like one of these balls made of twelve pieces of skin, variegated and marked out in different colors, of which the colors which we know are only limited samples, like the paints which artists use, but there the whole earth is made up of such colors, and others far brighter and purer still. One section is marvelously beautiful purple, and another is golden. All that is white of it is whiter than chalk or snow, and the rest is similarly made up of the other colors, still more and lovelier than those which we have seen. Even these very hollows in the earth, full of water and air, assume a kind of color as they gleam amid the different hues around them, so that there appears to be one continuous surface of varied colors. […] There are many kinds of animals upon it, and also human beings, some of whom live inland, others round the air, as we live round the sea, and others in islands surounded by air but close to the mainland. In a word, as water and the sea are to us for our purposes, so is air to them, and as air is to us, so the aether is to them.

Miscommunicating Communication

People who know me well find it surprising that I’m not completely tied up in petty debates with believers of various sorts (in political party X, or religion Y, etc). I tend to dismiss it with an air of worldly wisdom: it takes a lot of work to attempt to convince someone, and it usually requires repeated interactions. Some relationships need to continue to exist despite core disagreements, so an armistice is silently agreed upon. In the middle are people whom you neither care to convince or remain in contact with, and sarcastic dismissal, when deployed, goes in their direction.

This lack of conflict is a problem, actually, particularly when it’s absence is marked amongst those with whom I ostensibly share beliefs or values. The agreements turn out to be surface phenomena, dissipating quickly as soon as one delves deeper, turning enthusiasm into confusion and even feelings of betrayal. What we lack is a shared episteme.

An episteme was, for Foucault, “precisely that set of statements that allow opposed theories of, for example, language, to be opposed.” A line between two binary staked positions marks an episteme, of sorts; a position not on that line confounds matters immensely (is it closer to position A or position B? It might be equally close/far to/from both). Another way to think of this is to say that, while all communication miscommunciates, some communications miscommunicate more than others.

The most striking example of this that I recall was hearing Luke Muehlhauser interview philosopher/theologian John Caputo on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot and his responding to a question about god with the aside, “I just think that the theism-atheism decision is lame.”

I’ve found that, particularly in regards to politics and religion, my potential opponents and I simply don’t share enough common ground to argue.

The immediate trigger for this post was a throwaway anecdote Chris Reid put out there:

Recently, when a Christian friend of mine wanted to shoot bull with me, he claimed that I had become less atheistic because of the kind of arguments I was making. I didn’t really understand his claim, but I think it had to do with the fact that my responses no longer were direct reactions to his because we didn’t share enough assumptions there anymore.

What instead? For me, it’s systems thinking, ecological thinking, broad curiosity and ice-water vision. On that latter, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, reflecting on Tony Judt’s history of Europe in Postwar:

Judt has the courage to look dead-eyed at ideology and all its limitations without lapsing into nostalgia or cynicism. The writer Jake Lamar once called this “ice-water vision.” If I could cultivate any intellectual quality, outside of curiosity, it would be Judt’s “ice-water vision.”

Later, Coates writes:

I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don’t actually have solutions.

Fixing the last problem yields a new situation with its own problems. Rather than an excuse for inaction, I find it to be a peace where I understand that there are no unmitigated ‘good’ actions, no positions one can take that will be unassailable by all future judgments. “Have better problems” would be a suitable motto. There is some space for sincerity amidst cynicism.

As for teasing out a different sort of dialogue, I’ve begun efforts to expand a “miscommunication-reduction strategy” beyond one-on-one conversations; I was interviewed on the local cable TV show Atheists Talk this past week (should air sometime in March, I believe), and we were able to talk about the meaning-making/meaning-unmaking divide that rests perpendicular to theist/atheist. My ribbonfarm posts will likely attempt at something similar.

It’s unclear whether positive efforts alone are sufficient. I’ve begun the Specific Carbohydrate Diet this past week, and part of the objective is to selectively starve the part of your microbiome that is causing problems while continuing to feed and maintain the rest. Both the starving and the feeding are essential components in change the relative ratios of different bacteria families.

I suspect our collection of mental perspectives, memes, and other mind fodder have similar structures; tightly-networked beliefs are unlikely to be given up even in the face of strong evidence, but weakly-networked beliefs often need only a nudge. Changing a perspective requires weakening and breaking old network ties while simultaneously cementing new links. Practiced action or new social formations are often better vectors than mere postulates.

Or as I tweeted earlier this week:

A Métis Civilization

There’s a temptation when traveling abroad to make a big deal about your place of origin. I left Canada when I was eleven, and while I resented having to leave, it wasn’t because of some strong nationalist fervor, but for the more simple reasons of missing friends I’d just made. I watched other Canadians conduct themselves with a confident air and a persistent humble-brag. Eight years later and my connections to Canada felt slight, frail. With the coming into power of the Harper/Conservative government my apathy turned to distaste. The idea of nation-identity having any sort of pull, or meaning, felt confused and old-fashioned to me, some relic of the European colonial period, or an artifact of incipient tribalism. I couldn’t renounce my citizenship, and I wasn’t particularly interested in swapping it for something else, but I was able to settle into equilibrium as a U.S. permanent resident without too much difficulty.

And then I heard John Ralston Saul speak about national myths.

He floored me. Continually, he pulled back from the words and actions posed by various elites and he focused attention on the on-the-ground realities of Canadian life, of Canadian land, of the make-up of the Canadian population. This was a place, he argued, where the Westphalian nation-state model was woefully inadequate; where even before the Quebec Act it was recognized that no minority was capable of dominating the other minorities, and the resulting society was one of many ethnic and linguistic backgrounds; where welfare and negotiation were principles that were returned to, again, and again.

These patterns were linked not to the French or British imperial influence, nor the Enlightment’s models of political philosophy, but rather to already-extant indigenous realities, acclimated to the harsh climes and to jostling societies that had learned how to coexist without utterly destroying one another. The federalism that arose had deep roots in both these inter-aboriginal alliances and with the earliest arrival of French and Scot settlers, many of whom intermarried with local tribes. In fact, among the French this was so common that their offspring formed the Métis, a new people, given full legal recognition as late as last year, but echoing the words of Champlain, who said “Our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people.”

Four centuries later, and this process still occurs. Canada takes in nearly one percent of its population in immigrants, every year, of which 85% go on to become citizens. It’s “an engagement leading to marriage”, Ralston writes.

Canada’s a nation of less than 35 million people, but it’s seen a resurgence in aboriginal presence: the Inuit have surpassed their historic population high, and the First Nations are on track to meet and exceed their pre-colonial levels. The unique terrain of Canada, among other factors, prevented the widespread extermination that had occurred further south. We’re now seeing the aboriginal leg join the anglophone and francophone legs to support this non-monolithic nation-state. This can be seen with the creation of Nunavut, and care that the Inuit and Dene have taken to try to make this new territory meet the needs of the region and its population. This can be seen with the successful negotiation by the Haida for protecting land in Haida Gwaii. Most intriguingly, this can be seen through decisions in the Supreme Court.

Not only is Canada non-monolithic, Saul argues, but it’s also non-linear. The myth of progress has communities pass through oral cultures on their way toward written. The latter stage supercedes the former stages. But the decision in Delgamuukw saw a court which recognized oral histories that could, in certain situations, compete effectively with written:

Per Lamer C.J. and Cory, McLachlin and Major JJ.: The factual findings made at trial could not stand because the trial judge’s treatment of the various kinds of oral histories did not satisfy the principles laid down in R. v. Van der Peet. The oral histories were used in an attempt to establish occupation and use of the disputed territory which is an essential requirement for aboriginal title. The trial judge refused to admit or gave no independent weight to these oral histories and then concluded that the appellants had not demonstrated the requisite degree of occupation for “ownership”. Had the oral histories been correctly assessed, the conclusions on these issues of fact might have been very different.

Saul relates a similar anecdote, writing in A Fair Country that:

In the late eighteenth century, Chief Justice William Smith chaired an inquiry into the professionalism of the legal system. A central accusation was that judges applied French or English law or a mix of the two as it suited them. Smith avoided recommending change. More than two centuries later, a clever Toronto lawyer was deep into a technical argument before the Supreme Court. His position was dependent upon a close reading of the legal text and turned on the letter of the law. Suddenly the chief justice, Beverly McLachlin, leaned forward and asked the counsel if his argument also worked in French. After all, the law is the law in both languages and a loophole in one tends to evaporate in the other. Only an argument of substance stands up. The lawyer had no idea what to reply. Reality seen through two languages can protect us from the demeaning of justice by technical acrobatics. As a result, the meaning of the law in Canada always floats slightly off the page in an almost oral manner.

Even the notions of land get muddied when you shift from a strict position of land ownership and contract law to the wide expanses of largely uninhabited wild of which most of Canada consists. The ice between the isles in the north Arctic is as much considered part of the “land” as the dirt; in some seasons, more so. The ideas of individual ownership of land are contested in Canada, and alternative approaches are laid open for discussion and debate.

John Ralston Saul was explicitly sewing together a new Canadian myth; or rather, bringing to light a terribly old Canadian myth, and in the process I saw myself as Canadian for perhaps the first time since I was a child. The world he describes was one that deeply resonated with me, that didn’t shrink from the complexities or challenges that we currently face, that doesn’t pretend there aren’t deeply rooted problems in Canadian society waiting to be resolved. Many solutions, however, have an implied precondition of a new way of thinking, and the myth of Canada as a Métis civilization, a federation rather than a colony or a monolithic nation-state, is an empowering one that recognizes the reality of the lived place.

There have been steps towards making this recognition more explicit. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples delivered their five-volume analyses of the role of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada and a proposal for a reasonable, twenty-year project aimed toward making this leg of Canada a strong one. Most of its proposals have, unfortunately, been ignored in the years since it’s publication. I’m just beginning to give it a read for myself, and I hope to live to see these ideas get a second chance.

Exercises in Talking Past One Another: Tar Sands Edition

A friend of mine that works in the Canadian oil industry pointed me to a recent post discussing Neil Young and Daryl Hannah’s video shoot near Fort McMurray. The author writes:

What we didn’t shoot was as informative about the narrative as what we did shoot. We did not film any reclaimed land. We didn’t film any new extraction operations using greener technology. We didn’t film any industry experts. We didn’t film Neil’s diesel burning bus that his crew rode in. We didn’t film the environmentally conscious community active in Fort McMurray. That stuff wasn’t on the agenda…I don’t consider it hypocritical of Neil to preach clean energy while creating a bunch of pollution and why I’d like him to grant the rest of us the same consideration. We are conscientious adults with the same goals he has.

I grew up in an oil town in the Northwest Territories and later, following my father’s work as an engineer, lived in Kuwait for several years. I don’t recall any specifically environmentalist perspectives espoused by my father, but he did have an ethic of ensuring that externalities were minimized, that systems handled their waste elegantly and appropriately. The appropriateness of the systems’ very existence was assumed.

I came to develop a bent toward progressive politics that my parents never had, and with that, an interest in domains of science that were avoided or negated growing up: most notably, the areas of evolution and of climate change. As I came to understand more about the anthropogenic global warming, I began to understand the passion and the urgency behind movements such as 350.org, and have struggled to make sense of how to square my living in my present location with my growing awareness of the long-term consequences of North American life patterns.

There are two, distinct, debates about energy and environmentalism going on, and their conflation leads to misunderstandings such as the one above. The first is over which temporal frame is privileged: those who privilege the present over the future tend to stress the unknown effects of future innovations and their cumulative effects over long periods; on the other side is a deep skepticism about the long-term viability of technological “solutionism” in the face of AGW. The second debate is about conflicting moral grammars, with one side seeing the corruption of nature as a purity violence. A strong sense of sanctity and/or a negative utilitarian ethic (reduce suffering/harm) which present different ‘obvious’ moral solutions compared to those who argue a more positive utilitarian perspective, particularly one that discounts non-human ‘desires’.

The author is correct to highlight the many safeguards, improvements, reclaimants and other aspects that make tar sands oil extraction “friendlier” than it otherwise might be, or was in the past. The premise, which is a reasonable one, is that the oil will be extracted, that the demand on global markets insists that this be so, but that Canada and Canadian companies are ensuring that the dirty job gets done as cleanly as possible.

There is a lot of truth to this, and an apt comparison is the situation in North Dakota, where the fracking boom has had any number of spills and accidents, publicly disclosed under duress (if at all). Safeguards are laughable in comparison to the Canadian case. Abandonment of low-production sites is more common than reclaimation. And the scarce regulations that exist are rarely enforced.

That said, when China gets going on fracking, North Dakota will be Edenic in comparison.

With those alternatives, one has to question the reasonableness of the fight, for instance, against the Keystone XL pipeline (despite some discussion about transport by rail, pipelines are really the only viable option on the table). Well, it is an unreasonable fight, given the above terms. If the energy is going to be used, if the fuel is going to be burned, then why not have it happen under the best possible conditions, given the choice? Why not fight for clean, and efficient energy projects?

Fossil fuel-free clean energy advocates argue that the idea of ‘clean coal’ or ‘green’ tar sands oil are incoherent, because they ignore the fact that these resources are used millions of times faster than they are renewed and externalize the broader costs to the environment of increased CO². Those on the other side of the divide argue that peak oil or no, fossil fuels of some kind or another will be available for the coming century or three, that the consequences of emissions are overstated, that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for renewable energy sources are laughable compared to fossil fuels, although they’ve improved somewhat in recent years. And this ignores the fact that our existing infrastructure can handle alternative fossil fuel energy sources, but isn’t equipped for variable sources of energy such as wind or solar. (for more on this, check out Maggie Koerth-Baker’s excellent book on energy infrastructure, Before the Lights Go Out).

Some of these arguments are factual (yes, the facts are overwhelmingly on the side of those in favour of fossil fuels with regard to EROEI; overwhelmingly against with regard to the consequences of increased carbon emissions). But deeper than that, you have two other, more fundamental disagreements. The first is about how to weight different temporal resolutions: do we give priority to the quarter, the year, the decade, or the century? To what extent? A rational perspective that only gives weight to the short term may seem suicidal in the long term; an ideal solution for the long term may be politically impossible in the short term.

Unhelpfully, disputes over facts and arguments over whether to prioritize the future or the present get conflated and then painted over with moral objections. To those operate with an environmentally-conscious virtue ethic, arguments for clean coal or tar sands reclaimation projects sound like apologetics for date rape; efforts to minimize damage are irrelevant if the core activity is a moral offense. And the same conclusions occur to those more utility-minded with a long view: meliorist talk is ignorant beyond belief when set against the background of the damaged world our children’s children’s children will inherit.

The notion of an Earth in pristine balance and equilibrium is an ideological one (and stands in stark contrast to its history of catastrophes). But equilibrium isn’t a bad idea; in fact, orienting ourselves towards a semi-stable ecological horizon would do us some good, especially if that Nature comes to be understood in a cyborg sense, where there is no ‘outside’ and where our cities and waste facilities are considered to be co-equal parts of our ecology. As long as we disavow them, we will fail to address the problems they engender.

The prime challenge of actually doing so, however, involves a perceptual and political shift towards an expanded present. This is as paradigm-breaking and as difficult as the practice of expanding our moral circle to encompass other nations and even other beings. From a purely psychological and social point of view, this is an impossible task. Humans are simply ill-equipped to address concerns at these scales. However, humans have invented institutions and frameworks in part to overcome these obstacles. Unfortunately, our institutions today are largely complicit and exacerbate our already unhelpful proclivities. Correcting this inversion is the political challenge of our time.

Being Alive Is Not All Right

MALIGNANTLY USELESS.

The phrase is invoked repeatedly throughout Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical polemic against optimism and continued human existence, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. The inevitability of suffering (our only inalienable right is a right to die) is scrutinized under Karl Popper’s variant of utilitarian ethics and is found to outweigh any amount of theoretical pleasure, leading the author to conclude that bringing human life into existence is a moral crime; a transgressive act only exceeded by the emergence of conscious life itself.

More interesting to me, however, is not Ligotti’s argument but the meta-argument he presents, which is really the heart of the book. He is frank about the fact that his argument will fall on deaf ears, much as did Peter Wessel Zapffe’s The Last Messiah before him. Ligotti points out that his readers will far into two categories: that of pessimists, who share Ligotti’s disposition and agree that “being alive is not all right”; and optimists, the vast majority of the human race (an imbalance which, considered our evolutionary history, would seem to be adaptive).

This is a point that needs to be repeated, clearly and repeatedly. Affect and disposition can present situations where, given the same argument, different people will draw different conclusions, and both their conclusions and their initial dispositions are utterly incommensurate. Rarely is the divide as stark as the one Ligotti presents (and admittedly, many disagreements are not disagreements about values as much as disagreements about facts and frameworks). You see a similar incommensurability between secularists such as Martha Nussbaum in Political Emotions who believe that a common good can be build just as soon as religions learn to soften or let go of their illiberal elements, and radical religious believers who see this (rightly) as structurally denying the superiority of their preferred religion. I’ll have more to say on that later.

One other point that Ligotti brings up briefly, and is dealt with much more thoroughly by John Gray (in Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals) is the hypothesis that consciousness may not ultimately be adaptive. This is worth giving some thought to. The Taoist tradition speaks of living “rightly”, but Gray explains that this may be better thought of as living “expertly”; it isn’t about conforming one’s behaviour to an external code, but rather about becoming so natural at living that thought and choices are superfluous to existence. Just as the expert jazz pianist or kickboxer does not reflect on their own individual actions, but rather falls back to practiced actions and muscle memory, allowing cognition to operate at higher abstract levels than those of physical movement, the person who lives expertly no longer pays mind to unnecessary distractions, freeing cognition for higher things. This has parallels in the Socratic wisdom tradition but also in traditional religions: one of the primary takeaways from AJ Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically was the fact that the strict regulation of daily life (the food one ate, the clothes one wore, the Sabbath, the festivals, etc.) was actually liberatory in the sense that it freed him to focus his attention and concerns on more meaningful matters.

A hypothetical future can be envisioned, hundreds of millions of years from now, where the highly-evolved descendants of humanity are completely without thought, having benefited from millions of years of highly stable environmental conditions that slowly obviated the need for cognitive adaptability. Extraneous, it was eventually selected against, until post-humanity reflected it’s pre-cognitive predecessors.

Pivoting

2013 was a year of completion, closure, and preparation. The sprint towards an undergraduate degree that I began the previous summer ended in May with a Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University, with a focus on Philosophy of Technology.

My first two papers saw publication in their respective journals last month; ”Pattern Against User” in O-Zone, and “The People” versus “The Regime” (originally titled Cartographies of Power) in SynaptIQ.

In November, I gave my debut talk for the Great Decisions foreign policy discussion group that meets at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union, on the topic of “China in Africa”. (A preview of this talk was recorded, and is available for viewing: Hanging Separately: Why China and Africa cannot meet as equals). That same month, Minnesota Atheists kindly invited me to a panel discussion at their monthly meeting, the format of which struck a nice balance between small group discussions and presentations to the larger group.

I was able to try my hand at web application development using the Pyramid web framework and a mixture of Python and bash shell scripting for RJS Smart Security, which later split off and became Eyra Security. My colleague and I rewrote the iForms web interface using Google’s new Dart language (although it was mostly my colleague); we were able to discuss some of the hiccups in the process with a member of Google’s Dart team, and out of that Google highlighted iForms during their 1.0 launch. I’m starting to use Dart for some personal projects now, as well; in particular, I’m writing a little utility using the Pocket API to make reading the internet easier.

Originally I was to leave for Switzerland to attend seminars at European Graduate School in June, but I suffered a Crohn’s relapse in April that didn’t stabilize until June, when I was able to begin a new (and, unfortunately, permanent) treatment regimen. Thankfully, I was able to defer, and I will be in attendance this year: flights already booked for the August session.

2014 will be a significant change, on a number of fronts. I’ve formed an LLC, Nous Machina, and will be continuing to provide iSeries software support and training through RJS Software, but also expanding into some new areas: I’m doing some Drupal web development at work, have quoted some custom programming for an information security vendor and will be launching a Kickstarter shortly for a short class covering Fernand Braudel’s economic history of the world, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Centuries Vol. I-III. In the works may be some indepedent research, manuscript reviews and software consultation. I’ll be pitching articles to several publications that I greatly respect, and will increase my writing output on this blog as well as serving a to-be-announced blogging residency.

I hope to engage with my local community more deeply; I’d like to see a short high school program that teaches “tools for thought” come together for next summer or fall, and hope to make something out of some connections at the nearby St. Olaf’s college. In February I’ll be interviewed on the Atheists Talk cable TV program, where I’ll be talking about scientific and religious sensibilities, and later in the year I’ll be giving a talk on Energy Independence for Great Decisions.

Mostly, however, I’m open to being surprised. I’d like to carve out some time to focus on the basics, again; make a disciplined effort at learning French, work my way up to competence with network theory and object-oriented programming, re-read Plato and Aristotle. More than that, I want to be positively engaged with those around me, whatever that looks like.

To the new year!

Readings: December 2013

December was a light reading month; or rather, I traded more, shorter books for fewer, longer. Italo Calvino’s classic If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler was enjoyable, but I prefered his short story collection, Cosmicomics, read last year. Gerald Durrell wrote a natural history/family comedy in the late British empire style in My Family and Other Animals. And I devoured D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths, and look forward to introducing my children to them as they get older (we didn’t leave straw in the boots for Sleipnir, this season; perhaps next).

The main course consisted of Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking [notes] and the third volume of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism trilogy, The Perspective of the World [notes]. Click through to the notes for substantial excerpts from both.

Across the internet were some wonderful finds, including:

Readings: November 2013

The Harry Potter series has improved beyond the initial novel; I finished books 2-5 this month, with my friend loaning me the last two this coming week. The brothers Fred and George I’ve found to be the most interesting characters so far, and the scarce and scattered interactions with Firenze and the other centaurs the most intriguing.

This month from Univocal came Ira J. Allen’s translation of Nietzsche’s essay, The Dionysian Vision of the World [notes], which was a breathtaking read and has only whet my taste for working through his oeuvre next year.

I read a lot of “light” non-fiction, across a number of disciplines. In mathematics, Steven Strogatz’s essay collection The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity was a quick, fun read and has given me some ideas for teaching higher mathematics to my children. Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches [notes] had substantive content about business ownership, but I suspect a book was the wrong format for some of the material. Stephen Montgomery’s People Patterns: A Modern Guide to the Four Temperaments riffs off of the MBTI and Jungian personality types in a slim, practical volume that, despite my misgivings about those tests generally, was packed with insight and wisdom. Mumon’s retellings and meditations of traditional Zen koans in The Gateless Gate were, as expected, about equal parts insightful and incomprehensible.

More substantively, Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost was a crystal-clear posing of the “gateway” problem to political change in the United States; the normative, systematic corruption, and a proposal for reversing that. Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States [notes] is a classic work of economic literature that more than holds up several decades later, defining the previously separated strategies for protest: exit, which has been primarily theorized in economics, and voice, which had largely been ignored by economics and only taken up by political scientists.

George Gilder’s Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World [notes] was a peculiar read; I have a partial review here. It’s clear that our core axioms are entirely opposed, with his assuming a teleology that I can find no justification for. However, his actual theory deserves some consideration, but it’s alien enough to me that I need to take some time and familiarize myself with some of the background behind the various claims. I’ll likely be circling around this over the next few weeks.

I’ve saved the best for last. Lee Billings’ Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (discovered through an editor at Aeon, where Billings has written some pieces) is a fascinating telling of the science and the personalities behind the science of searching for life on other worlds.

Gao Wenqian’s biography of Zhou Enlai [notes] was excellent, and the additional context to Zhou’s early life provided by translators Lawrence Sullivan and Peter Rand served to aid rather than overwhelm.

Finally, John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals is even better than The Silence of Animals, which I read earlier this year. It follows closely, both in style and substance, the works of E. M. Cioran and Schopenhauer. Gray is a devastating critic of humanism, myths of progress, and liberal morality, but instead of calling a return to faith as does David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions, he argues that Nietzsche, liberals and humanists have failed to give up their Platonic ideals of truth and their Christian hopes for salvation; failed to reckon, ultimately, with the substance of a disavowed faith. Most interesting to me is his discussion about the inefficiencies of consciousness, and about the lack of necessity for consciousness in a practiced life, “lived right.” I’ll have more to say on this in the coming months.

Toiling in the salt mines of the internet brought forth some wonderful bounty:

And finally, I have to recommend the entirety of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogging through his reading of Tony Judt’s massive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, but in particular I’d like to point you to these three posts:

Finally, you should be reading fogbanking.com. Several of the highlights from this month and last month came by way of Chris Reid’s peculiar recombinations.

Readings: October 2013

Throughout the month of October I read through two intriguing religious texts: Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. I’ll start with the latter; Grayling put I can’t imagine how much effort into creating an alternate-reality NKJV bible which fetishizes the Greeks instead of the Jews—but he did a damn good job of it. This isn’t some sloppy, poor man’s version of the bible. Rather, it’s well-crafted and complete exploration of Greco-Roman thought through proverbs, parables, histories and biographies. The most moving or intriguing bits I’ve been posting periodically to Google+.

The most striking takeaway has been how conservative (in a Burkean/aristocratic sense) it was. That’s not (necessarily) a bad thing, but it was stark when compared with the far more lay, far more radical nature of the Christian New Testament.

Alter’s work is focused on providing a lyrical translation that makes use of modern scholarship. He’s already done the Psalms and the Pentateuch. His commentary is that of a translator, not of a theologian, but it’s the more fascinating for that (particularly those moments where he frankly admits that a line doesn’t make sense in the original language, and that perhaps we’re missing some cultural context, or perhaps it was mis-copied). The discussion of interpolations in Job, particularly the speech of Elihu, was enlightening and showcases the tension that is often present just below the surface in many scriptural texts.

Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God; the less said of it, the better.

At the urging of several trusted friends, I’ve begun reading the Harry Potter series, with Harry Potter & the Sorcer’s Stone. The “reveal” at the end was wholly unwarranted, and made it a poorer book; here’s hoping that things improve. Neil Gaiman provides a strange, beautiful tale in The Ocean at the End of the Lane that completely conforms to expectations; not a bad thing, as what he does he does quite well. I attempted the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, and while the third that I understood were wonderful, the majority of the book was so cryptic that I could only grasp a gist of what was being discussed. I’m browsing for annotated copies, now, and have had some of Pound’s non-fiction recommended to me. Annotations can be very helpful with such dense poems; I used such a copy for reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and it made a world of difference.

Continuing with the research on China in Africa, Dambisa Moyo’s take in Winner Take All [notes] was a pleasant surprise. Her broader perspective was on the resource gap that will widen in the near future, and how China’s determined actions and monopsonies are equipping it at the expense of the broader world. I was expecting her to excoriate China but it was a very fair and enlightening book, including a section on some of the less-understood implications of heavier global investment in commodities generally.

At Andreas Schou’s recommendation, I gave W. Paul Cockshott & Allin Cottrell’s Towards A New Socialism [notes] a careful read. It’s still using the labour theory of value for what they call labour tokens, but they do some very interesting things in discussing ways to include market feedback for information to production in a non-monetary economy, and disclosing ideas for managing foreign trade through centralized planning. The availability of information and the capacity to compute are two of the areas I felt were somewhat hand-waved, although with regard to the latter they provided an algorithm that functions with a sort of Bayesian mechanism, and improves resolution with each pass, opting for multiple passes with incremental improvement.

I received a free replacement copy of the journal Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside, edited by Joshua Johnson, after the first copy that was sent got mauled in the mail. A couple weak papers, but overall it was a good collection, and the papers by Gean Moreno (Notes on the Inorganic: Accelerations) and Christian Thorne (To the Political Ontologists) were particularly good.

Univocal hosted a lecture by Jacques Rancière which I was fortunate enough to attend (I have never seen Midway Contemporary Art that full, ever), and as part of preparing for that I read his book on Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy [notes] in which he (first?) makes clear his distinctions between “politics” and “police”:

Politics is generally seen as the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organization of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimizing this distribution. I propose to give this system of distribution and legitimization another name. I propose to call it the police. […] The police is, essentially, the law, generally implicit, that defines a party’s share or lack of it. But to define this, you must first define the configuration of the perceptible in which one or the other is inscribed.

[…]

I now propose to reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration—that of the part of those who have no part. […] It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise.

This event was just following the Church of the Broken Table Conference hosted by Church of All Nations and The Mennonite Worker, which was an embodiment of Rancière’s politics in action, with Mary Jo Leddy speaking of hosting immigrants in Toronto, Richard Beck talking about our psychological impediments to hospitality, Mark Van Steenwyk speaking of his own transformations, Jin Kim talking about cultural norms that subvert the impulses to hospitality, and Jim Bear Jacobs taking attendees on a tour of Dakota sacred sites and providing a history.

This theme came up later as well, as I was fortunate enough to receive tickets to both Uncle Vanya, a Chekhov play, and Tribes, both playing at The Guthrie, and both of which dealt with the complications of shared living and family bonds.

On an unrelated note, Caleb Shingledecker and I had a productive conversation with Seth (on the Google Dart team) about our utilization of the Dart language with the forthcoming version of iForms. The hangout video is available here.

Finally, I’m excited to see that European Graduate School has posted its curriculum for this coming year. I’ll be aiming to be present at the August session, and I look forward to working under the tutelage of the likes of Catherine Malabou, Graham Harman and Giorgio Agamben, among others.

The internet, in October, provided the following gems:

Readings: September 2013

The bulk of September was spent accelerating my preparations for a foreign policy talk I am giving to a Great Decisions chapter in November. I did a dry run with audience towards the end of the month, which I recorded for my own examination, but it turned out decent enough to be worth sharing publicy. You can find it as Hanging Separately: Why China and Africa cannot meet as equals.

By far the best resource was David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman’s China and Africa: A Century of Engagement. There were two qualities that were particularly helpful; it was recently published, and since so much has happened in the last six years, this bias towards recent events was very useful. Secondly, the entire second half is a country-by-country analysis of African relations with China, organized by region. My notes are here and here.

I also read the collection African Perspectives on China in Africa, which included:

On a parallel track were my readings into theories surrounding modern conflict. It began with Jacob Shapiro’s excellent book on organization theory, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations [notes]. He draws forth the commonalities between terrorist organizations and everyday businesses and social organizations, only to then highlight where the true differences are.

In a similar vein, Emile Simpson provides a much-needed updating of Clausewitz for the “4GW” era in War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics [notes are broken into theory and history], relying heavily but not overly upon Simpson’s own experience with the British RGR in Afghanistan..

The fiction front was meagre this month, but I relished in re-reading Brian Wood and Rebekah Isaacs’ reintroduction to the old Wildstorm superhuman team DV8 in DV8: Gods and Monsters. The artwork is expressive without falling into caricature, and the story of power-mad superhumans reminds me of Warren Ellis’ Supergod. I read through the The World of Darkness core rules in prep for a occult/alt-history game; it’s a much different system than I’m used to, but I appreciate the emphasis on storytelling over stat-obsession.

The only novel I read this month was Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s well-regarded 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It had the pretension to attempt at being a self-referencing work of philosophical fiction in the vein of books like Sophie’s World. Unlike the latter, however, 36 Arguments actually tells a compelling story, despite a slow start and loose threads that are simply dropped rather than resolved or left ambiguous. The Burnsville Book Club will be talking about this in October, and it’ll be worth discussing for the philosophically rigorous appendix (36 argumetn for…well, you get the idea) as for the characters and plot.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time learning the Dart programming language and some of the next generation web technology stack. This video on Dart and Web Components is a good starting point for understanding how it relates to the catch-phrase-heavy world of web dev.

Other awesome stuff:

Fantastic reads/listens from around the net: