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[personal profile] mtbc
Since dropping the children off in Dundee this morning I have been doing various chores around the house and yards, including killing the most obvious weeds and attempting to fix some loose bathroom tiles, hence the white grout now caked onto my fingernails. I had mentioned missing the wire mesh window screens since moving from the US. [personal profile] mst3kmoxie has some kind of mesh for fixing over our patio door so I wiped the latest mold from around the glass and frame ready for her to use the included adhesive pads.

This weekend is unusually pleasant in that there are no exceptional impediments to my getting on with useful things. While such impediments may individually be exceptional, the fact that there is an exceptional impediment of some kind is itself hardly exceptional. Another one is coming: in my mowing the yards, the mower's drive belt snapped. I have ordered a replacement but I shall have to put some time aside for installing it: yet another exceptional event occupying what little useful personal time I do get.
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K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

K: I’m fine with you mocking my understanding of history…

Me: I’m not mocking your understanding of history, I’m mocking your understanding of cahoots!

K: I understand you can be in cahoots now, it’s just historical cahoots.

[syndicated profile] slatestarscratchpad_feed

K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

fork bomb

May. 26th, 2017 07:35 pm
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[personal profile] marnanel
In the second year of my BSc, one of the lecturers asked us to build a Unix shell. In those days, Unix on PCs was a novelty, and most people used accounts on a minicomputer called altair. (Now I feel old.)

Anyway, a fundamental part of building a shell is the sequence of fork() then exec(). It's unique to Unix-like systems, and most students were unfamiliar with it-- hence the exercise.

Now, if you miss out the exec(), you'll have a continuous loop of fork()s, otherwise known as a fork bomb. This could bring down the system, especially in those days. So imagine several dozen CS2 students logging in to the same computer, building a fork bomb by accident, and setting it off.

The funniest part was how angry he was with *us* in the next lecture. "The sysadmins are saying I told you to put fork() in a loop! I *never* told you to put fork() in a loop!"

Music meme: day 1 of 30

May. 26th, 2017 01:01 pm
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait and a bunch of other people are doing a 30 day music meme, and it's really interesting to see people's choices! In some ways music isn't a big part of my life, so I might struggle with this one, and anyway I'm not going to commit to posting every day for 30 consecutive days, but I thought I'd give it a go.

The first is A song you like with a colour in the title, so I went for White winter hymnal by Fleet Foxes. I don't always love the kind of very blurry musical style that Fleet Foxes go for, but I got really fond of this song a few years back and it's one that always raises a smile when it comes on shuffle.

People are generally linking to YouTube, and I'd never actually seen the accompanying video for this one before. It's kind of a cool claymation thing, so I'm glad I searched it up.

Embedded video )

Interesting Links for 26-05-2017

May. 26th, 2017 12:00 pm
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Posted by Scott Alexander


A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much. Suppose we learned that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all had the same childhood piano tutor. It sounds less like “ha ha, what a funny coincidence” and more like “wait, who was this guy, and how quickly can we make everyone else start doing what he did?”

In this case, the guy was Laszlo Ratz, legendary Budapest high school math teacher. I didn’t even know people told legends about high school math teachers, but apparently they do, and this guy features in a lot of them. There is apparently a Laszlo Ratz Memorial Congress for high school math teachers each year, and a Laszlo Ratz medal for services to the profession. There are plaques and statues to this guy. It’s pretty impressive.

A while ago I looked into the literature on teachers and concluded that they didn’t have much effect overall. Similarly, Freddie deBoer writes that most claims that certain schools or programs have transformative effects on their students are the result of selection bias.

On the other hand, we have a Hungarian academy producing like half the brainpower behind 20th century physics, and Nobel laureates who literally keep a picture of their high school math teacher on the wall of their office to inspire them. Perhaps even if teachers don’t explain much of the existing variability, there are heights of teacherdom so rare that they don’t show up in the statistics, but still exist to be aspired to?


I’ve heard this argument a few times, and I think it’s wrong.

Yes, two of Ratz’s students went on to become supergeniuses. But Edward Teller, another supergenius, went to the same high school but (as far as I know) was never taught by Ratz himself. That suggests that the school was good at producing supergeniuses regarldess of Ratz’s personal qualities. A further point in support of this: John Harsanyi also went to the school, also wasn’t directly taught by Ratz, and also went on to win a Nobel Prize and invent various important fields of mathematics. So this school – the Fasori Gymnasium – seems to have been about equally excellent for both its Ratz-taught and its non-Ratz-taught pupils.

Yet the Fasori Gymnasium might not have even been the best high school in its neighborhood. It competed with the Minta Gymnasium half a mile down the street, whose alumni include Manhattan Project physicists Nicholas Kurti and Theodore von Karman (von Karman went on to found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), brilliant chemist-philosopher Michael Polanyi, economists Thomas Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor (of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency fame), and Peter Lax, who once said “You don’t have to be Hungarian to be a mathematician – but it helps”. There are also some contradictory sources suggesting Teller attended this school and not Fasori; for all I know he might have attended both. Once again, most of these people were born in the 1890-1910 period when the Martian scouts were supposedly in Budapest.

Worse, I’m not even sure that the best high school in early 20th-century Hungary was either of the two mentioned above. The Berzsenyi Gymnasium, a two mile walk down Gyorgy Street from the others, boasts alumni including multizillionaire George Soros, Intel founder Andrew Grove, BASIC inventor John Kemeny, leading cancer biologist George Klein, great mathematician George Polya, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Dennis Gabor.

Given that the Fasori Gymnasium wasn’t obviously better than either of these others, is it possible that the excellence was at a higher level – neither excellent teachers nor excellent principals, but some kind of generally excellent Hungarian culture of education?

This is definitely what the Hungarians want us to think. According to Cultures of Creativity:

What’s so special about Budapest’s schools? A certain elitism and a spirit of competition partly explains the successes of their students. For example, annual competitions in mathematics and physics have been held since 1894. The instruction the students receive as well as these contests are an expression of a special pedagogy and a striving to encourage creativity. Mor Karman, founder of the Minta school, believed that everything should be taught by showing its relation to everyday life. Instead of learning rules by heart from books, students tried to formulate the rules themselves.

This paper on “The Hungarian Phenomenon” makes similar claims, but adds a few more details:

The Eotvos Contests were a powerful mean for the stimulation of mathematics on a large scale and were used to motivate mathematical culture in the society. It also provided a channel to search for talented youths. The contests, which have been open to Hungarian high school students in their last year since 1894, played a remarkable role in the development of mathematics.

Okay. But I want to challenge this. During this era, formal education in Hungary began at age 10. By age ten, John von Neumann, greatest of the Hungarian supergeniuses, already spoke English, French, German, Italian, and Ancient Greek, knew integral and differential calculus, and could multiply and divide 8-digit numbers in his head. Wikipedia notes that on his first meeting with his math teacher, the math teacher “was so astounded with the boy’s mathematical talent that he was brought to tears”. This doesn’t sound like a guy whose potential was kindled by formal education. This sounds like a guy who would have become one of history’s great mathematicians even if his teachers had slept through his entire high school career.

Likewise, the book above notes that Dennis Gabor, the Hungarian inventor of holography, “developed his passion for physics during his youth, but did so for the most part on his own”. His biography notes that “During his childhood in Budapest, Gabor and his brother would often duplicate the experiments they read about in scientific journals in their home laboratory.”

Likewise, consider Paul Erdos, a brilliant mathematician born in Budapest around this time. As per his Wikipedia page, “Left to his own devices, he taught himself to read through mathematics texts that his parents left around their home. By the age of four, given a person’s age, he could calculate, in his head, how many seconds they had lived.”

I have no knock-down proof that Hungary’s clearly excellent education system didn’t contribute to this phenomenon. A lot of child prodigies burn out, and maybe Hungary was unusually good at making sure that didn’t happen. But it sure seems like they had a lot of child prodigies to work with.

So what’s going on? Should we just accept the Manhattan Project consensus that there was a superintelligent Martian scout force in early 20th-century Budapest?


Here’s something interesting: every single person I mentioned above is of Jewish descent. Every single one. This isn’t some clever setup where I only selected Jewish-Hungarians in order to spring this on you later. I selected all the interesting Hungarians I could find, then went back and checked, and every one of them was Jewish.

This puts the excellence of the Hungarian education system in a different light. Hungarian schools totally failed to work their magic on Gentiles. You can talk all you want about “elitism and a spirit of competition” and “striving to encourage creativity”, yet for some reason this worked on exactly one of Hungary’s many ethnic groups.

This reduces the difficult question of Hungarian intellectual achievement to the easier question of Jewish intellectual achievement.

I say “easier question” because I find the solution by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending really compelling. Their paper is called A Natural History Of Ashkenazi Intelligence (“Ashkenazi” means Eastern European Jew) and they start by expressing the extent of the issue:

Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data. They score 0.75 to 1.0 standard deviations above the general European average, corresponding to an IQ 112 – 115. This fact has social significance because IQ (as measured by IQ tests) is the best predictor we have of success in academic subjects and most jobs. Ashkenazi Jews are just as successful as their tested IQ would predict, and they are hugely overrepresented in occupations and fields with the highest cognitive demands. During the 20th century, they made up about 3% of the US population but won 27% of the US Nobel science prizes and 25% of the Turing Awards [in computer science]. They account for more than half of world chess champions.

This doesn’t seem to be due to any advantage in material privilege; Ashkenazi Jews frequently did well even in countries where they were persecuted. Nor is it obviously linked to Jewish culture; Jews from other regions of the world show no such advantage. So what’s going on?

Doctors have long noted that Ashkenazi Jews are uniquely susceptible to various genetic diseases. For example, they’re about a hundred times more likely to have Gaucher’s Disease, a hundred times more likely to get Tay-Sachs Disease, ten times more likely to have torsion dystonia, et cetera. Genetic diseases are so common in this population that the are official recommendation is that all Ashkenazi Jewish couples get screened for genetic disease before marriage. I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, I got screened, and I turn out to be a carrier for Riley-Day syndrome – three hundred times as common in Ashkenazi Jews as in anyone else.

Evolution usually gets rid of genetic diseases pretty quickly. If they stick around, it’s because they’re doing something to earn their keep. One common pattern is “heterozygote advantage” – two copies of the gene cause a disease, but one copy does something good. For example, people with two copies of the sickle cell gene get sickle cell anaemia, but people with one copy get some protection against malaria. In Africa, where malaria is relatively common, the tradeoff is worth it – so people of African descent have high rates of the sickle cell gene and correspondingly high rates of sickle cell anaemia. In other places, where malaria is relatively uncommon, the tradeoff isn’t worth it and evolution eliminates the sickle cell gene. That’s why sickle cell is about a hundred times more common in US blacks than US whites.

The moral of the story is: populations can have genetic diseases if they also provide a useful advantage to carriers. And if those genetic diseases are limited to a single group, we expect them to provide a useful advantage for that group, but not others. Might the Jewish genetic diseases provide some advantage? And why would that advantage be limited to Jews?

Most of the Jewish genetic diseases cluster into two biological systems – the sphingolipid system and the DNA repair system. This is suspicious. It suggests that they’re not just random. They’re doing something specific. Both of these systems are related to neural growth and neural branching. Might they be doing something to the brain?

Gaucher’s disease, one of the Ashkenazi genetic diseases, appears to increase IQ. CHH obtained a list of all of the Gaucher’s patients in Israel. They were about 15 times more likely than the Israeli average to be in high-IQ occupations like scientist or engineer; CHH calculate the probability that this is a coincidence to be 4×10^-19.

Torsion dystonia, another Ashkenazi genetic disease, shows a similar pattern. CHH find ten reports in the literature where doctors comment on unusual levels of intelligence in their torsion dystonia patients. Eldridge, Harlan, Cooper, and Riklan tested 14 torsion dystonia patients and found an average IQ of 121; another similar study found an average of 117. Torsion dystonia is pretty horrendous, but sufferers will at least get the consolation prize of being really, really smart.

Moving from medicine to history, we find that Ashkenazi Jews were persecuted for the better part of a millennium, and the particular form of this persecution was locking them out of various jobs until the main career opportunities open to them were things like banker, merchant, and doctor. CHH write:

For 800 to 900 years, from roughly 800 AD to 1650 or 1700 AD, the great majority of the Ashkenazi Jews had managerial and financial jobs, jobs of high complexity, and were neither farmers nor craftsmen. In this they differed from all other settled peoples of which we have knowledge.

They continue:

Jews who were particularly good at these jobs enjoyed increased reproductive success. Weinryb (1972, see also Hundert 1992) comments: “More children survived to adulthood in affluent families than in less affluent ones. A number of genealogies of business leaders, prominent rabbis, community leaders, and the like – generally belonging to the more affluent classes – show that such people often had four, six, sometimes even eight or nine children who reached adulthood. On the other hands, there are some indications that poorer families tended to be small ones…as an example, in a census of the town of Brody in 1764 homeowner households had 1.2 children per adult member while tenant households had 0.6.

Now we can start to sketch out the theory in full. Due to persecution, Jews were pushed into cognitively-demanding occupations like banker or merchant and forced to sink or swim. The ones who swam – people who were intellectually up to the challenge – had more kids than the ones who sank, producing an evolutionary pressure in favor of intelligence greater than that in any other ethnic group. Just as Africans experiencing evolutionary pressure for malaria resistance developed the sickle cell gene, so Ashkenazim experiencing evolutionary pressure for intelligence developed a bunch of genes which increased heterozygotes’ IQ but caused serious genetic disease in homozygotes. As a result, Ashkenazi ended up somewhat more intelligent – and somewhat more prone to genetic disease – than the rest of the European population.

If true, this would explain the 27% of Nobel Prizes and 50% of world chess champions thing. But one still has to ask – everywhere had Jews. Why Hungary in particular? What was so special about Budapest in the early 1900s?


Okay, sure, everywhere had Jews. But it’s surprising exactly how many Jews were in early 1900s Hungary.

The modern United States is about 2% Jewish. Hungary in 1900 was about 5%. The most Jewish city in America, New York, is about 15% Jewish. Budapest in 1900 was 25%. It was one of the most Jewish large cities anywhere in history, excepting only Israel itself. According to Wikipedia, the city’s late 19th-century nickname was “Judapest”.

So is it possible that all the Jews were winning Nobel Prizes, and Hungary just had more Jews and so more Nobelists?

No. This doesn’t seem right. The 1933 European Jewish Population By Country site lists the following size for each country’s Jewish communities:

Poland: 3 million
Russia: 2.5 million
Romania: 750,000
Germany: 500,000
Hungary: 500,000
Britain: 300,000
France: 250,000
Austria: 200,000

It’s hard to find a good list of all famous Manhattan Project physicists, but I tried this article and got the following number of famous Jewish Manhattan Project physicists per country of origin:

Hungary: 4
Germany: 2
Poland: 2
Austria: 2
Italy: 1
Netherlands: 1
Switzerland: 1

Here’s an alternative source with a different definition of “famous”, broken down the same way:

Germany: 5
Hungary: 4
Poland: 3
Italy: 2
Austria: 2

The main point seems to be disproportionately many people from Central European countries like Hungary and Germany, compared to either Eastern European countries like Poland and Russia or Western European countries like France and Britain.

The Central European advantage over Western Europe is unsurprising; the Western European Jews probably weren’t Ashkenazim, and so didn’t have the advantage mentioned in the CHH paper above. But is there any reason to think that Central European Jews were more intelligent than Polish and Russian Jews?

I’m not really sure what to think about this. This paper finds that the sphingolipidoses and other Jewish genetic diseases are about twice as common in Central European Jews as in Eastern European Jews, but I have very low confidence in these results. Intra-Jewish gossip points out the Lithuanians as the geniuses among world Jewry, but doesn’t have any similar suggestions about Hungarians. And torsion dystonia, maybe the most clearly IQ-linked disease, is unique to Lithuanians and absent in Hungarians.

Probably much more promising is just to focus on the obvious facts of the social situation. Early`1900s Hungary was a great nation and a prosperous center of learning. Remember, we’re talking about the age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the most industrialized and dynamic economies of the time. It might have had advantages that Poland, Romania, and Russia didn’t. My list of historical national GDPs per capita is very unimpressed by the difference between Hungarian and Polish GDPs in 1900, but maybe it’s wrong, or maybe Budapest was an especially modern part of Hungary, or maybe there’s something else I’m missing.

Also, there could have been a difference in the position of Jews in these countries. Russia was still experiencing frequent anti-Jewish pogroms in 1900; in Hungary, Jews were among the country’s most noble families. Actually, the extent of Jewish wealth and influence in Hungary sort of defies belief. According to Wikipedia, in 1920 Jews were 60% of Hungarian doctors, 50% of lawyers, 40% of engineers and chemists, and 90% of currency brokers and stock exchange members. “In interwar Hungary, more than half and perhaps as much as 90 percent of Hungarian industry was owned or operated by a few closely related Jewish banking families.”

So Central European Jews – the Jews in Hungary and Germany – had a unique combination of intellectual and financial advantages. This means Hungary’s only real rival here is Germany. Since they were rich, industrialized, and pretty liberal about Jewish rights at the beginning of the 20th century – and since they had just as many Jews as Hungary – we should expect to see the same phenomenon there too.

And we kind of do. Germany produced its share of Jewish geniuses. Hans Bethe worked for the Manhattan Project and won a Nobel Prize. Max Born helped develop quantum mechanics and also won a Nobel Prize. James Franck, more quantum physics, another Nobel Prize. Otto Stern, even more quantum physics, yet another Nobel Prize. John Polanyi, chemical kinetics, Nobel Prize (although he was half-Hungarian). And of course we probably shouldn’t forget about that Einstein guy. All of these people were born in the same 1880 – 1920 window as the Martians in Hungary.

I think what’s going on is this: Germany and Hungary had about the same Jewish population. And they produced about the same number of genius physicists in the same window. But we think of Germany as a big rich country, and Hungary as a small poor country. And the German Jews were spread over a bunch of different cities, whereas the Hungarian Jews were all crammed into Budapest. So when we hear “there were X Nobel Prize winning German physicists in the early 1900s”, it sounds only mildly impressive. But when we hear “there were X Nobel Prize winning physicists from Budapest in the early 1900s”, it sounds kind of shocking. But the denominator isn’t the number of Germans vs. Hungarians, it’s the number of German Jews vs. Hungarian Jews, which is about the same.


This still leaves one question: why the period 1880 to 1920?

On further reflection, this isn’t much of a mystery. The emancipation of the Jews in Eastern Europe was a difficult process that took place throughout the 19th century. Even when it happened, it took a while for the first generation of Jews to get rich enough that their children could afford to go to fancy schools and fritter away their lives on impractical subjects like physics and chemistry. In much of Eastern Europe, the Jews born around 1880 were the first generation that was free to pursue what they wanted and seek their own lot in the world.

The end date around 1920 is more depressing: any Jew born after this time probably wasn’t old enough to escape the Nazis. Almost all the famous Hungarian Jews became physics professors in Europe, fled to America during WWII using channels open to famous physicists, and then made most of their achievements on this side of the Atlantic. There are a couple of stragglers born after 1920 who survived – George Soros’ family lived because they bought identity documents saying they were Christian; Andrew Grove lived because he was hidden by righteous Gentiles. But in general Jews born in Europe after 1920 didn’t have a great life expectancy.

All of this suggests a pretty reasonable explanation of the Martian phenomenon. For the reasons suggested by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, Ashkenazi Jews had the potential for very high intelligence. They were mostly too poor and discriminated against to take advantage of it. Around 1880, this changed in a few advanced Central European economies like Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Austria didn’t have many Jews. Germany had a lot of Jews, but it was a big country, so nobody really noticed. Hungary had a lot of Jews, all concentrated in Budapest, and so it was really surprising when all of a sudden everyone from Budapest started winning Nobel Prizes around the same time. This continued until World War II, and then all anyone remembered was “Hey, wasn’t it funny that so many smart people were born in Budapest between 1880 and 1920?”

And this story is really, really, gloomy.

For centuries, Europe was sitting on this vast untapped resource of potential geniuses. Around 1880, in a few countries only, economic and political conditions finally became ripe for the potential to be realized. The result was one of the greatest spurts of progress in scientific history, bringing us relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear bombs, dazzling new mathematical systems, the foundations of digital computing, and various other abstruse ideas I don’t even pretend to understand. This lasted for approximately one generation, after which a psychopath with a stupid mustache killed everyone involved.

I certainly can’t claim that the Jews were the only people being crazy smart in Central Europe around this time. This was the age of Bohr, Schrodinger, Planck, Curie, etc. But part of me wonders even here. If you have one physicist in a town, he sits in an armchair and thinks. If you have five physicists in a town, they meet and talk and try to help each other with their theories. If you have fifty physicists in a town, they can get funding and start a university department. If you have a hundred, maybe some of them can go into teaching or administration and help support the others. Having this extra concentration of talent in central Europe during this period might have helped Jews and Gentiles alike.

I wonder about this because of a sentiment I hear a lot, from people who know more about physics than I do, that we just don’t get people like John von Neumann or Leo Szilard anymore. That there was some weird magical productivity to the early 20th century, especially in Central Europe and Central European immigrants to the United States, that we’re no longer really able to match. This can’t be a pure numbers game – the Ashkenazi population has mostly recovered since the Holocaust, and people from all over the world are coming to American and European universities and providing more of a concentration of talent than ever. And even though it’s impossible to measure, there’s still a feeling that it’s not enough.

I started down this particular research rabbit hole because a friend challenged me to explain what was so magical about early 20th century Hungary. I think the Jewish population calculations above explain a lot of the story. I’m not sure whether there’s a missing ingredient, or, if so, what it might be. Maybe it really was better education. Maybe it really was math competitions and talent searches.

Or maybe it was superintelligent Martian scouts with an Earthling fetish.

30 Day Music Meme day 12

May. 26th, 2017 09:26 am
ghoti_mhic_uait: (Default)
[personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait
the list )

When I was 12, Everything I do (I do it for you) was number one for 16 weeks. Everyone was talking about Bryan Adams. So I listened to everything he'd released at that point, and that's why even though I was wee at the time it was released, it's going into the pre-teen slot. Imagine a lonely, depressed 12 year old in a 3 bed semi in a small town. Then I heard this, and it was like all the hope in the world wrapped up in one small Canadian.

The Best Was Yet To Come by Bryan Adams.

Those Modern Pathologies

May. 25th, 2017 08:54 pm
[syndicated profile] slatestarcodex_feed

Posted by Scott Alexander

[Related to: The Fidget Spinner Is The Perfect Toy For The Trump Presidency, In Defense Of Liking Things, Open Marriage Is A Neoliberal Pathology]

That modern pathology, the Pyramid of Cheops

The final triumph of modern individualism is an afterlife ensconed in a giant stone structure, carefully segregated from any other souls, based entirely around stuff. No county churchyards here. No slow surrender to nature and the weeds. Just piles of golden goblets and jeweled necklaces, carefully guarded by snake-infested traps. And, of course the bones of dead servants, guaranteed to keep serving you in the great beyond. Of course Heaven is neoliberal. There is no alternative!

That modern pathology, heterosexual intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation

Sex can bring people together. It can cement relationships between people and families. It can pulse with celestial fire, it can shatter inner worlds, it can inspire transcendent art, it can remake souls. Of course moderns took one look at all of that and thought: you know what the only acceptable purpose of sex is? Making a smaller copy of myself.

But calling this narcissism would be missing half the picture. It’s equally related to a sort of productivity fetish, a mindset where anything that doesn’t leave a material token didn’t really happen. Enjoyed the company of your closest friends? Not real unless you put the pictures on Facebook, tagged #bestiesforever. Broadened your horizons with a trip to another culture? Not real without crushed pennies or some other gift-shop tchotchke. Met your soulmate? Not real unless you’ve got a lump of screaming flesh to show for it. This is what capitalism does – reduce experiences to souveniers, reduce relationships to commodities, demand that everything good be mediated by a material end product in order to model the laboring-for-others that workers are told is their only life purpose.

That modern pathology, Homer’s Odyssey

If Harry Potter wasn’t vapid enough for you, now we have a travelogue for the Instagram generation.

Odysseus’ only salient characteristic is being “polymetis”, Very Smart. This is enough to give him a raving fan club of front-row-kids and aspirational Ivy Leaguers, the same people who thought Hermione Granger’s straight A’s made her a symbol of an entire generation of womenhood. Odysseus proves his chops in his very first adventure, where he encounters Lotus-Eaters who convince most of his men to eat a magic fruit that leaves them drugged and listless; Odysseus nobly drags them back to the ship and forces them to keep on rowing for him.

Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives! It is only thanks to Odysseus that this catastrophe is averted. One might think a few readers would note that a few months later, the vast majority of sailors in Odysseus’ fleet died horribly, eaten by cannibals. One might think a few readers would wonder if, really, the guy who dragged galley slaves back to their galleys only to get them killed a few months later was really such a good guy. In fact, nobody asks this question, because Odysseus is Very Smart. It’s no coincidence that the Odyssey came out in the generation of the invasion of Iraq War – if Very Smart people declare that dying horribly was the right thing to do, and then it turns out it wasn’t, at least they were benevolent technocrats with your best interests in mind.

Odysseus then goes on to have sex with various sorceresses and sea-nymphs while protesting that he doesn’t want to have sex with them and is loyal to his far-off wife. This is portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. Also, his sailors get turned into pigs, eaten by sea monsters, and drowned in a giant whirlpool. This is not portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. In one scene, some starving sailors eat a sacred cow belonging to the Sun God; this is portrayed as clearly justifying their deaths.

We can start to sketch a psychological picture of the sort of person who could enjoy the Odyssey. They identify with Odysseus, that’s obvious. They want to feel like they’ve suffered – after all, suffering is ennobling! – but they don’t want to actually suffer. They imagine the “suffering” of having to have sex with lots of sea nymphs they’re not super-interested in, all while their friends and subordinates are massacred all around them (but only for good reasons, like them stealing cattle, or them not being Very Smart). At the end of all of it, much like the rich kids attending the Fyre Festival, they can show up on their front doorstep and say “Oh, what suffering I have seen – and I the only survivor!”

The Odyssey is a book for rich individualist aspirational Very Smart narcissists who simultaneously want to outsource their ennobling hardships to the lower classes, and remain so contemptuous of those lower classes that they imagine them literally getting turned into swine by a sorceress, and end up having sex with that sorceress, who is unable to resist them because they are Very Smart.

I weep for the modern generation.

That modern pathology, the Aristotelian theory of virtue

You see, perfect virtue in all things approaches the mean. The traditionalist who wants to make the system more conservative is unvirtuous. And the radical who wants to make the system more progressive is exactly equally unvirtuous. The virtuous person is the liberal intellectual who considers both positions, then places himself exactly in the middle.

Anybody who seems too fiery, too deep, or too sincere is automatically wrong. You can reject both the grandparents who urge clean and sober living, and the hippies who tell you that drugs are the only way to break outside the system and achieve true consciousness, in favor of having a joint or two whenever you feel like it. You can reject both the ascetic who urges simple water, and the aesthete who urges fine wine, in favor of the bottle of Diet Coke already in your fridge.

Aristotle reduces virtue to abandoning the highs of ecstasy and the lows of misery in favor of the comfortable neoliberal plateau of watching Mad Men on TV and ordering off Amazon Echo. No wonder his message resonates so well with millennials.

That modern pathology, Catholicism

The Old Testament God demanded adherence to hundreds of rules and rained down collective punishment on entire nations for breaking them. But you are a yuppie with an hour a week for religion, tops, and consider yourself part of a different species from anyone who doesn’t go to a Starbucks at least twice a week. You get your coffee in packets from Keurig, your razors in packets from Dollar Shave Club, and your juice in packets from Juicero. If only there were some large corporation that would package religion and send it to your doorstep for one low price.

Enter Catholicism. God loves you, just for being you. He suffered and died for you two thousand years ago, granting you redemption. All you have to do to pick it up is sign on the dotted line and pay ten percent of your income.

Consider eg the ritual of confession. You eliminate your sin in a standardized dyadic interaction no harder than eliminating your muscle tension at the massage parlor, or eliminating your back pain with a chiropractor. It’s quick, impersonal, and completely tailored to your individual sinner profile.

Or consider the Eucharist. The Prozac generation has already had personal change reduced to the process of swallowing a pill, and the Catholic Church is eager to comply, reducing finitude to a DSM-V ailment curable with correctly prepared bread products. The Church is a corporation the same as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and we already know the sacred ritual for interacting with corporations. And so our consumer culture reduces the human relationship with the Divine to literally consuming God.

And like all good corporations, you can rest assured that the whole thing is organized in a very logical top-down chain under the absolute command of an incredibly rich guy who lives in a house covered in gold. “Father, am I forgiven now?” “Um, one second, let me check with the manager in branch headquarters”. And why shouldn’t he? The word “Catholic” means “universal”; we’re so separated from our own neighbors that we’d rather our religion come in the form of Standardized Religion Product shipped in from Rome than anything which forces us to confront people near us as individuals, or trust our local communities for anything more than naming the parish church.

Let’s be honest: the recent success of Catholicism is the ultimate sign of our inability to deal with the world through anything other than a late capitalist lens of standardizaton, corporatism, and carefully-packaged pablum. It’s the perfect religion for the Age of Trump.

Interesting Links for 25-05-2017

May. 25th, 2017 12:00 pm
andrewducker: (Default)
[personal profile] andrewducker
highlyeccentric: Manuscript illumination - courtiers throwing snowballs (medieval - everybody snowball)
[personal profile] highlyeccentric
Currently Reading: Too many things for work. A selected-poems book of Carol Ann Duffy's work. The Rose & The Dagger, which is the sequel to the YA Sheherazade one called The Wrath and the Dawn.

Recently Finished:

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a reasonably good book. On the other hand, I really didn't need another christian-allegory spec fic in my life. At least Susan Cooper has a good world-built reason for DARKNESS SWALLOWING EVERYTHING MUST BE RESISTED CAN NEVER BE DEFEATED, and also she has Merlin.

Protagonist: a+ grumpy girl child
11-y old heterosexual romance plot: unnecessary and annoying.
Protagonist magical-genius younger brother: great character, but gave me a weird 'oh hai autistic stereotype' feeling.

I appreciate the effort to make the mother an Interesting Career Scientist, too, but ffs, you can't have a physics research lab in your basement.

I feel like this Toast piece on AWIT reflects probably a better reading of the book than I have:

Meanjin Autumn 2017 (Vol. 76, Issue 1)Meanjin Autumn 2017 by Jonathan Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This wasn't a great issue, IMHO. I was displeased with it from the outset, where in the opening pages the results of the Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize were announced. The announcement noted the huge disparity between #s of men and women (candidates? Shortlist? Unclear), and then offered absolutely nothing further. They had thoughts on why there were more poems about animals than politics, but not about why more men than women, and gave no indication of any desire to do anything ABOUT that.

I really enjoyed Matthew Fishburn's essay on the collecting of indigenous skulls (by white people) in early NSW.

Andrea Baldwin's memoir-essay Occasionally, A Stranger to Watch the Stars With is worth a read.

John Clarke's Commonplace has some interesting gobbets in it.

Otherwise, I was not hugely impressed by any of this issue - particularly not the poetry.

The Dishonesty of DreamsThe Dishonesty of Dreams by A.J. Odasso

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this. Not, perhaps, as much as I loved Devil's Road Down -I may never love any poetry collection like I love that chapbook - but this is a more mature style of poetry, and contains a number of my favourites, like Carnal Knowledge, and Five Times I Lived By Water.

Up Next: I've got a short-story collection by Ivan E Coyote near to hand...

Music notes: New Paramore album is excellent (I missed them the first time around but I am enjoying this revival). Under the influence of a fandom chain of suggestion I bought two Adam Lambert albums and am enjoying 'For Your Entertainment' extensively.

Weather for happiness

May. 25th, 2017 07:49 am
mtbc: maze F (cyan-black)
[personal profile] mtbc
Thanks to a high-pressure system this morning is warm and sunny. Dundee is generally relatively sunny and today's temperature is projected to reach around 70°F which is nothing by American standards but pleasant nonetheless. Still, while wearing a short-sleeved shirt on my drive into work, I brought a sweater in to counter our building's climate control. This is a common occurrence: for example, I recall working as a research assistant in the University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering one summer and often walking out into a wall of heat at the end of the day, then the next summer I was a visiting scholar in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Ohio State University and encountered the same phenomenon, enough that I would bring trousers to change into from my shorts once I had arrived at my office and its cooler climate. (I have not needed to wear shorts here in Scotland.) I wonder how much energy we would save by not managing office buildings' climate quite as needlessly aggressively as seems commonplace.

My good feeling this morning in the sunshine reminds me of how much I enjoy such weather. Indeed, I might now have been working in University of Arizona's Department of Computer Science if not for those meddling kids: I was much attracted by the weather and a great-looking job vacancy for which I was very well qualified but my impressions of Tucson's public school system prevented me as a parent from risking such a move. Providence's schools already turned out to be quite bad enough, we left there after one academic year, not that we had moved there for the weather.

In returning to the US someday it would of course be good if that did make me as much happier as expected; I do indeed already bear climate in mind when considering to where I might move. Usual American house features like good porches and wire mesh for windows are also important though at our present house I do at least have a table in the back yard at which I can sit. The house I owned in Ohio had three separate porches. Locally we are not much troubled by winged hematophagic grazers; the insects that do fly into the house can become stimulating playthings for our cat. [personal profile] mst3kmoxie would note with disdain that the snakes that entered our house in Ohio similarly became playthings; I would try to clean up their remains before she came downstairs in the morning.

Update: It reached 77½°F.

(no subject)

May. 25th, 2017 08:06 am
ghoti_mhic_uait: (Default)
[personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait
the list )

A song you never get tired of. I was looking for something with a lot of range, to keep my interest up. Something a bit meaty, by a band I love. So I give you Astronomy by the Brain Surgeons. It was actually written for Blue Öyster Cult but is one of the BÖC songs that the Brain Surgeons, formed by Al Bouchard after leaving BÖC, kept playing. Al is now in a Blue Öyster Cult/Alice Cooper covers bande, Blue Coupe, with Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper.

Ancient music

May. 24th, 2017 09:53 pm
mtbc: maze G (black-magenta)
[personal profile] mtbc
Of the hymns last Sunday in church I noticed that I most liked How Great Thou Art in preference to the more modern ones from Mission Praise. I got to thinking about older music. BBC Radio 3 has The Early Music Show and [personal profile] emperor used to present a great local radio show with similarly early music but I wondered how much further back we can go. For religious music, with my background in Christianity I naturally thought of the mysterious cantillation signs for the Book of Psalms. Some searching online finds me CDs by Esther Lamandier which perhaps I ought to investigate. I don't immediately find an easy way to sample them though I guess there are probably also other relevant artists.


May. 24th, 2017 11:02 pm
legionseagle: (Default)
[personal profile] legionseagle
The New York Times and other US-based MSM outlets are currently publishing sensitive details likely to impede investigation of the Manchester bomb, details whih they seem to have got from intelligence sharing between US and UK intelligence sources. It shows the hollowness of all the "thoughts and prayers" rhetoric. That's not the behaviour of an ally, it's that of the worst sort of collaborateur, the sort who does it not from conviction but for gain.

ETA I'm not the biggest Andy Burnham fan out there, but I sympathise with him here where the acting US Ambassador seems to be giving him assurances that either can't or won't be kept.

Hippo, Birdie, Two Ewes

May. 24th, 2017 10:08 am
onyxlynx: Festive pennants in blue & purple with word "Birthday" centered. (Birthday)
[personal profile] onyxlynx
to [personal profile] lydy! Have a magnificent day!

(Oooh, the sun just came out!)

Reading Wednesday 24/05

May. 24th, 2017 12:37 pm
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Recently read: The hundred trillion stories in your head, a bio of Ramón y Cajal by Benjamin Ehrlich. (Contains some detail of Ramón y Cajal's rather grim childhood.)

Currently reading: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Partly because it's Hugo nominated, and partly because [personal profile] jack was excited to talk about it so I've borrowed his copy. I'm halfway through and enjoying it a lot; it's a bit like a somewhat grimmer version of Leckie's Ancillary books. It has too much gory detail of war and torture for my preferences but it's also a really engaging story.

Up next: Quite possibly Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, since I'd like to read at least the Hugo novels in time for Worldcon.