The Horde (in a comments section)

I’ve long been a fan of TNC (earlier instalments, among others, here and here). It’s nice to read an article on what his comments section did well, and how he did it:

If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.

Things I’ve seen recently

Lunchbox

Lunchbox is a love story, of sorts. A lonely woman, with few outlets outside her home, connects with a man who mistakenly receives the lunchbox meant for her husband. This is an anomaly in Mumbai’s highly efficient, interconnected lunchbox delivery system (it’s a thing).

It may be an anomaly, but it opens a communications channel between a crusty old office worker, and a young woman looking for something to change in a life that isn’t fulfilling. You’ll be unsurprised that they find tenderness in communicating with each other, that the crusty old man is humanised somewhat, and connects a little more, and the young woman finds the courage to step out into the unknown.

It’s a tender, well-presented movie, and it doesn’t feel overdone. Well worth it.

The play that goes wrong

The play that goes wrong is delightful. There’s a play, which is well performed. But the real theatre is watching the poor struggling actors attempting to perform a play, as the set falls apart around them – at first slowly, and then at an accelerating rate.

The delightful comedy is in their struggle to improvise, to respond, to the cruelty of a universe that doesn’t want to let them finish a line without a prop or piece of the stage giving way.

Well worth it.

Articles

A few random things:

  • James Fallows writing in 2003, in an interesting reflection on whether Rupert Murdoch pursues expansion of a media empire for political or economic reasons:

… some aspects of News Corp’s programming, positions, and alliances serve conservative political ends, and others do not. But all are consistent with the use of political influence for corporate advantage. In the books I read and interviews I conducted, I found only one illustration of Murdoch’s using his money and power for blatantly political ends: his funding of The Weekly Standard. The rest of the time he makes his political points when convenient as an adjunct to making money.

Despite the overwhelming opportunity Amazon and Netflix provide, a duopoly is not a democracy. The biases of the people who curate the experiences on these services could dictate the shape of small-scale moviemaking for decades to come.

  • Myths over Miami is a harrowing piece about the stories children believe when everything around them is unjust.

Books and articles

Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses, and cephalopods in general, are fascinating creatures. If you haven’t read about giant squid, you should, right now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

That’s before we even get to octopus escapes.

Given such an intriguing topic, I was excited to read Other minds. What was disappointing was that Peter Godfrey-Smith did so little with the topic. The book is largely a recap of evolutionary theory. Which is interesting and important, but doesn’t say much that’s new, and was probably covered in too much depth. The most interesting part here for me, was that he recaps briefly some of the evolutionary theory on ageing, which I hadn’t come across before.

There’s a little bit of a recap here on consciousness, and different theories (see the quote below that references a theory that’s very reminiscent of the ideas put forth in The Ego Tunnel).

But for the most part, the only thing that Godfrey-Smith talks about that’s new is Octopolis, a fascinating site where octopuses display much more social behaviour than had previously been spotted. But Godfrey-Smith doesn’t tell a fascinating story, and for the most part is cautious about drawing out deep conclusions from the research at Octopolis.

All in all, it’s a useful overview, but Other minds ultimately is an uninteresting book on a fascinating topic. If you’re out to read about theory of mind and cephalopods, I’d wait for the next book.

… an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecules instead of the iron which makes our blood red …

In birds like pigeons, each retina has two different “fields,” the yellow field and the red field. The red field sees a small area in front of the bird where there is binocular vision, and the yellow field sees a larger area that the other eye cannot access. Pigeons not only failed to transfer information between eyes; they also did quite badly at transfer between different regions of the same eye. This might explain some distinctive bird behaviors … hens approached … an object in a weaving way that seemed designed to give the different parts of each eye access to it. That, apparently, is the way the whole bird gets access to the object. The weaving gaze of a bird is a technique designed to slosh the incoming information around …

What we experience, in this view, is the internal model of the world that complex activities in us produce and sustain …

The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes

This is a paper by Reagan, Mitchell, Kiley, Danforth and Sheridan Dodds.  It’s based on their ‘hedonometer’, the guts of which is:

… the 5,000 most frequent words from a collection of four corpora: Google Books, New York Times articles, Music Lyrics, and Twitter messages, resulting in a composite set of roughly 10,000 unique words. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, we had each of these words scored on a nine point scale of happiness: (1) sad to (9) happy …

They then ran a large body of stories through their hedonometer:

We extracted and analyzed the emotional arcs of 1,722 novels from the Project Gutenberg corpus using sentiment analysis, and found six common shapes …

There’s more detail in the paper, but they argue that there are six basic shapes that emerge consistently:

  • Rise (‘rags to riches’)
  • Fall (tragedy)
  • Fall-rise (‘man in a hole’)
  • Rise-fall (‘Icarus’)
  • Rise-fall-rise (‘Cinderella’)
  • Fall-rise-fall (‘Oedipus’)

Intriguing stuff.

TV shows and books

In a few quiet moments, I’ve been watching some TV.

Iron Fist – is really, really bad. It fails basic questions of story telling – what is it that Iron Fist guy really wants? Is it to mope around, in general? Who really knows, because all of the characters wander round having these random conversations without trying to achieve any clear goals. The fight scenes are worse than you’d expect.

Lovesick (also listed in some places as Scrotal Recall) is hilarious. Laugh out loud hilarious. It is a story of a young man named Dylan, who gets chlamydia. He has to call everyone he’s ever slept with (at least, within the last several years), tell them the news. He uses it as a chance to revisit. Throughout, theres a ‘will they / won’t they’ vibe about Dylan and his best friend, Evie.

Dylan is an utter wet rag, and the TV show is worse for him being a character in it. Ted Mosby at least managed to be interesting, and to occasionally take decisive action trying to achieve particular things. Dylan, by contrast, is a disorganised bum, who wanders around taking absolutely zero action, and floating along with whatever happens to him. In real life, this is the guy who you have to kick out after he’s slept on your couch for three months, eaten all your cereal and not even offered to pay rent. The closest he comes to a goal or direction is signing up to a course because someone at a bar played a word association game, and the pointed out to him that he had a strong reaction to gardening. He is the personification of a wet rag. Somehow, though, implausibly, every woman he comes into contact with finds him charming, and he ends up sleeping with a large number of them. This is particularly implausible because he’s such a nob; in one scene, he ends up meeting up with an ex. When she tells him he was awful, he doesn’t listen, or apologise – he just tells her she was wrong, and that it was all wonderful. It wasn’t, mate. You’re a nob. I’m tempted to try and use this as a reflection on the broader state of society, and the lack of liminal rites of passage to help drifters know when to grow up, but I can’t be bothered. Dylan is the case study of a teenager who still wants to lie around in his socks and underwear all day.

His friends are hilarious and interesting, though, and they redeem the show. It’s worth watching just to see the hilarity of their antics, and the script writing, which is great.

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin is an interesting piece of writing. It tells the story of a group of Chinese scientists. It turns out that the strange phenomena they’re trying to understand are because aliens are coming to earth, and have been communicating. Those aliens come from a planet with three suns, that struggles to predict weather and temperature, and hence they’re keen to get to the paradise of predictability that is an earth atmosphere.

Liu Cixin has a fascinating imagination, and tells a genuinely intriguing story. There are interesting characters, complex sci-fi questions, and some decent plotting. For me, the major drawback to the book was the writing. Now granted, there may be quite a lot that I’m missing in the English translation. But it felt very abrupt and rushed to me. Scenes that could easily have been a chapter are meted out in a few pages, or paragraphs. This rush through the material lets Liu Cixin cover a lot of ground (in the first novel, a secret organisation dedicated to advancing alien life is formed, ruptured, faces internal conflict and then defeated in the space of a few chapters). But it feels very … superficial, and it doesn’t draw you into the story. It feels very much like you’re reading an interesting set of questions that Liu Cixin wrote, rather than losing yourself in the story.

It’s not that he can’t write well. There are some short passages that are evocative and beautiful. It’s just that he seems to dole them out, at a rate of about three or four per book. The rest is a rapid scan through a hurried storyline.

Worth it if you like good sci fi, but be aware of how it’s written.

More books (and TV shows and movies)

Like I said, I’m catching up a little here. Some notes on other stuff I’ve read recently …

Articles

Imagine someone offered you the chance to leave civilization for a year, and live entirely cut off with a small group of people. Would you do it? And would it be a more or less attractive proposition if you knew that every moment would be recorded for potential broadcast?

Now, thanks to this amazing incident, it seems a group of reality TV contestants spent a year cut off, returning to connection with society to learn that no-one was watching, and that Trump/Brexit/a few other things have happened.

In other news, octopus minds are fascinating, money continues to have an influence on politics (seriously though, this Mercer character is intriguing), and one writer argues that progressives should stop being so empathetic.

Meet the donors

Meet the donors is an HBO documentary on political donors. It’s an interesting topic, and worth exploring. There’s obviously some sampling bias – some donors refuse to be interviewed. Having said that, it’s surprising how many seem willing to stand in front of a camera without having a very well prepared set of talking points.

I didn’t get a chance to watch the whole thing, and in the segments I saw it didn’t feel as though there was something deeply insightful; there are broader questions about politics, and donations that I think this doco can’t get to. As one donor says, the data source the film maker is using relies on a particular set of figures, which may not capture some of the bigger flows. Still, interesting.

North and South

It’s been a while since I finished North and South. I remember it being a curious mixture of politics, technology, class, and romance. Some of that political / class discussion feels fluffy to me, but perhaps it felt very different at the time, when the ideas being debated were still new and fresh.

With the healthy shame of a child, she blamed herself for her keenness of sight, in perceiving that all was not as it should be there …

The question always is, has everything been done to make the sufferings of these exceptions as small as possible? Or in the triumph of the crowded procession, have the helpless been trampled on, instead of being gently lifted aside out of the roadway of the conqueror, whom they have no power to accompany on his march? …

‘… I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own …’

‘… We help to make their profits, and we ought to help spend ’em …’

… some day soon, she should cry aloud for her mother, and no answer would come out of the blank, dumb darkness …

‘… By-and-by they’ll found out, tyrants make liars.’

‘… it became impossible to utter the speech, so easy of arrangement with no one to address it to …’

He was no mockingbird of praise, to try because another extolled what he reverenced and passionately loved, to outdo him in laudation.

‘Nothing like the act of eating for equalising men. Dying is nothing to it. The philosopher dies sententiously – the pharisee ostentatiously – the simple-hearted humbly – the poor idiot blindly, as the sparrow falls to the ground; the philosopher and idiot, publican and pharisee, all eat after the same fashion – given an equally good digestion …’

She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavour was required she was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master and mistress needed them.

‘… I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organise and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact.’

Hope beyond cure by David McDonald

I won’t say too much on this one here. There are some things I disagree with the author on. But this is worth a read – a story of how someone deals with a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness by R Thaler and C Sunstein

Thinking, Fast and Slow was a brilliant read, a well thought through exposition of a fascinating set of psychological theories. Nudge, I didn’t like as much. In particular, there was something about the authors’ tone that … irked me a little, I think. I think it was at points they seemed apologetic when they argued the evidence for intervention in a particular marketplace. Perhaps that reflects part of the context they’re writing in. I tend to think that if the factual evidence points in a particular direction, then you should follow the evidence; they seem to prefer to tip-toe in a particular direction, without clearly stating where their evidence is leading them.

That was particularly the case in relation to their chapter on marriage equality. It felt … slightly bizarrely located, in that it was discussing not a nudge, but a major restructure of society – but one they wanted to pretend should be discussed on technical grounds as a minor change, rather than on its merits as a major step forward.

This is worth a read given its place in the literature on psychology; but it’s not the best piece out there. Go to Kahneman for that.

The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else. We claim that this assumption is false – indeed, obviously false …

Our goal in this chapter has been to offer a brief glimpse at human fallability. The picture that emerges is one of busy people trying to cope in a complex world in which they cannot afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make. People adopt sensible rules of thumb that sometimes lead them astray …

… many of life’s choices are like practising putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback. For example, we usually get feedback only on the options we select, not the ones we reject … Long term processes rarely provide good feedback …

When markets get more complicated, unsophisticated and uneducated shoppers will be especially disadvantaged by complexity. The unsophisticated shoppers are also more likely to be given bad or self-interested advice by people serving in roles that appear to be helpful and purely advisory … The poor are often fleeced by people pretending to be providing a service …

The more choices you give people, the more help with decision making you need to provide …

When Cobb and Co was king by Will Lawson

I haven’t finished reading Cobb and Co yet, but I’ve made some decent progress. It’s not much by way of narrative structure – it’s essentially a country boy conquering all hearts and challenges before him – but it’s an interesting insight into a very different era, when competition on the roads was ruthless. Worth it if you enjoy a history of Australia’s nineteenth century stage coaches.

Understanding Marxism, by Geoff Boucher

Understanding Marxism felt frustrating at points. It talked about interesting topics – how economics, politics and class structures interact. But at times it retreated into the dense thicket of academic language that seems designed more to obscure than to illuminate. And at times it focussed too much on particular semantic constructions that, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been tested with any kind of data or analysis; they were just diagrams drawn up by academics who couldn’t be bothered expressing themselves clearly.

There are interesting quotes, and rough outlines for someone who doesn’t know anything about a school of thought that was quite important in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I found myself swiping to get to the end of the book, eyes glazed over. This isn’t one I’d recommend.

As Boucher writes at one point, ‘Frankly, that explanation is as clear as mud’. So, unfortunately, are large chunks of the book.

According to Marx, alienation has four aspects:

  1. from the product of labour …
  2. from the natural world …
  3. from the other person (human beings’ mutual relations are mediated by commodities); and
  4. from themselves (the worker’s animal functions become the refuge of their humanity …

The implication is that for part of the day the labourer reproduces their labour power. For the rest of the day, they perform labour for the capitalist …

The major philosophical point is that class struggle and the exploitation of labour are therefore the same thing as the accumulation of capital and expansion of value …

Marx regards the modern nation state as an instrument of the capitalist class for the legal enforcement of the endogenous “laws of motion” of capital accumulation, and for the armed defence of the institution of private property in the means of production.

… it is possession of a state apparatus that converts an economically dominant class into a ruling class properly speaking …

The general claim is that although the state might sometimes be directly manipulated by the ruling class, fundamentally its class character is determined by the dominant property relations …

The most important way in which sets of ideas function to justify class rule is not through directly legitimating domination, but rather through rendering it invisible, by naturalizing exploitation and representing alternatives as impossible or unthinkable …

Historical materialism is therefore an explanatory system that seeks to clarify how societies respond to the adaptive behaviour of human beings … [replacing with superior means of production]