The Dim-Post

December 3, 2016

Does this happen to anyone/everyone else?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:26 pm

I’m writing a review of a book, and I needed to find a passage in the text to quote it. And, as always, I remembered the exact location of the text on the page: like, I knew it was on a left-hand side of the page near the bottom, and it was. But I can rarely remember at what point it was in the book. The start? The end? No idea.

And I’ve just checked a couple of books I read a very long time ago (Dice Man and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which gives you a pretty good fix on my reading habits in my early twenties) and looked for passages I remember from them. Same deal. I remember the spatial location with total accuracy, but not which part of the book its from with any accuracy at all (unless there’s some very obvious clue in the passage). Is this a fairly common human thing, or a weird Danyl thing?

December 2, 2016

The end of the world and literary criticism

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:54 am

This fucking guy:

In ten years the human race may cease to exist but we can take refuge in the fact Kiwis will be the last ones standing.

At least that’s the prediction of climate change specialist Guy McPherson.

The University of Arizona emeritus professor, who is on a national speaking tour, delivered his prophecy to a room full of followers at the Wintec Campus in Hamilton this week.

Abrupt rises in temperature will wipe out the entire human species by 2026, he said, yet Kiwis are in a better position than anyone else on the planet.

But New Zealand isn’t exempt from McPherson’s initial prediction.

“I can’t imagine there’ll be a human on the planet in 10 years and probably a lot less than that.

“If I die next week I will have only lost nine years and 51 weeks compared to the last person on the planet – tops.”

There’s a great book of literary criticism by Frank Kermode called The Sense of an Ending:  

The anxiety reflected by the fin de siècle is perpetual, and people don’t wait for centuries to end before they express it. Any date can be justified on some calculation or other.

And of course we have it now, the sense of an ending. It has not diminished, and is as endemic to what we call modernism as apocalyptic utopianism is to political revolution. When we live in the mood of end-dominated crisis, certain now-familiar patterns of assumption become evident.

We don’t like to think our lives constitute a brief and not important instant in the history of the world, Kermode argues. It’s much more exciting to think we’re at the end of things. The culmination. It’s why so much literature is apocalyptic and why alarmists like McPherson have such traction. People have always thought the world was just about to end.

The most plausible book I’ve read about the near climate-changed future is Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s set in the American South-West, which is collapsing under a prolonged drought. Major cities and entire regions have lost their water; there are huge refugee camps, massive migrations, hatred and contempt for the refugees, fundamentalism – it looks exactly like our world does today, in other words, only moreso. The climate has changed. The world goes on. It’s really, really horrible for lots of people, but fine for many more. Sometimes when you look at the complexity and madness of the world it seems impossible to think it can continue like this. But it can.

December 1, 2016

Two perspectives on superintelligence

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 12:44 pm

Here is an interview with Intel’s anthropologist:

Western culture has some anxieties about what happens when humans try to bring something to life, whether it’s the Judeo-Christian stories of the golem or James Cameron’s The Terminator.

So what is the anxiety about? My suspicion is that it’s not about the life-making, it’s about how we feel about being human. What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us? And that concern isn’t universal, as other cultures have very different responses to AI, to big data. The most obvious one to me would be the Japanese robotic tradition, where people are willing to imagine the role of robots as far more expansive than you find in the west. For example, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a book called The Buddha in the Robot, where he suggests that robots would be better Buddhists than humans because they are capable of infinite invocations. So are you suggesting that robots could have religion? It’s an extraordinary provocation.

Here is the parable of the sparrows from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: 

It was the nest-building season, but after days of long hard work, the sparrows sat in the evening glow, relaxing and chirping away.

“We are all so small and weak. Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!”

“Yes!” said another. “And we could use it to look after our elderly and our young.”

“It could give us advice and keep an eye out for the neighborhood cat,” added a third.

Then Pastus, the elder-bird, spoke: “Let us send out scouts in all directions and try to find an abandoned owlet somewhere, or maybe an egg. A crow chick might also do, or a baby weasel. This could be the best thing that ever happened to us, at least since the opening of the Pavilion of Unlimited Grain in yonder backyard.”

The flock was exhilarated, and sparrows everywhere started chirping at the top of their lungs.

Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?”

Replied Pastus: “Taming an owl sounds like an exceedingly difficult thing to do. It will be difficult enough to find an owl egg. So let us start there. After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.”

“There is a flaw in that plan!” squeaked Scronkfinkle; but his protests were in vain as the flock had already lifted off to start implementing the directives set out by Pastus.

Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.

I am not too worried about superintelligence. I’m more concerned that we’re slowly entering into a world in which psychology is a science, rather than a pseudo-science, and expert knowledge of how to mislead and manipulate and generally exploit people’s cognitive biases will be asymmetric.

November 30, 2016

Losing faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:03 am

The NYT has an article about lack of faith in democracy, accompanied by this graph:


You could read this a number of ways. A lot of people on the left will say that democracy has failed to give voters an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus so people are losing confidence in it. I wonder if it has to do with the education system in the post-war era being very focused on stopping people from becoming Nazis, and gradually trending away from that towards skills and vocation based training. Also, younger people do tend to be disengaged from the political process. Maybe their views will trend up as they begin to vote and self-identity as supporters of a party and there is actually no problem here, just an artifact of the way the data is presented?

When I was in my early twenties I was a libertarian, and could not see the point of central or local government. Then I went overseas and found myself backpacking around the Middle-East, in places where there was basically no central or local government, and found that the streets were filled with sewerage and wild dogs, because there aren’t free market solutions to those problems. So maybe younger people don’t see the importance of democracy because they’ve always lived in one?


November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro is dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:23 pm

Via RNZ:

Castro, 90, has been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. In 2008, he ceded power to his younger brother, Raul Castro, who announced his brother’s death on Friday evening.

The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.

“Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the moment,” he said in 1959.

Who was the least evil communist dictator? Was it Castro? Maybe Kruschev? I don’t think you can count Deng Xiaoping.

November 26, 2016

Sending the cavalry into the jungle

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 3:00 pm

The editor of the New Yorker has a long article about Obama and Trump’s victory. I thought this was a pretty good summary of the new media environment:

“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”

The identity politics debate in the US rolls on. I liked Michelle Goldberg’s take on it, which argues that left-wing politics have to be identity politics, but:

I certainly won’t mourn if the more illiberal aspects of social justice politics wither before the Trump juggernaut. Campus leftists who formerly disdained free speech will learn its absolute importance when faced with a regime that attacks protesters, the media, and dissenting artists. Perhaps progressive activists, newly aware of how many Americans reject their intellectual priors, will stop responding to clumsy questions with a sneering, “It’s not my job to educate you.” I’d like to see the language of privilege jettisoned altogether in favor of civil rights or equal justice, since the number of people who want to see their own privilege dismantled is vanishingly small. Maybe Everyday Feminism, the website that encompasses everything insufferable about social justice culture, will finally be revealed as an elaborate right-wing psy-ops campaign.

It feels to me as if a lot of the backlash against identity politics is about the culture of the movement, not the values. The sanctimony, the intellectual arrogance, the jargon, the sneering, the intolerance; you can’t dump identity politics but you can dump the toxic culture associated with it in a heartbeat. I’m also dubious about the idea that the left revert to discussing class instead of race, gender etc. Nobody under the age of 50 self-identifies as ‘working class’, and economic class has little predictive power when determining how people vote. That feels a lot like fighting the war before the last war.

Room at the top

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:12 am

Via the Herald:

Thirty-three of New Zealand’s most senior editors have urged the Commerce Commission to rethink its plan to reject the NZME-Fairfax merger. They are at loggerheads with a group of 11 former editors who say the Commerce Commission got it right.

Thirty-three senior editors seems like quite a lot of editors for two media companies who have sacked their subs and most of their actual reporters. A few years ago a friend of mine was working at Fairfax, on one of the late shifts. Some major news event had happened, and she was the only reporter in the office, but the news editor, the group editor, the Stuff editor and the Dom-Post editor were all clustered around her desk demanding copy.

November 22, 2016

Quotes of the day

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:04 pm

With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning

Guy Debord, writing about ‘post-truth politics’ back in 1968.

And I’m finally reading Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (this book gets name checked a lot in early Stephen King, and many of the scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot and It are borrowed directly from Metalious). It is exactly what I was in the mood for after all the Russian history and Marxist theory I’ve been reading all year. Sample quote:


November 19, 2016

Supposing about Trump

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:26 am

I’ve been thinking about this Frost poem recently:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

I thought this Scott Alexander blog about the left ‘crying wolf’ about Trump’s victory was interesting. I don’t agree with his conclusions but he makes some important arguments.

I’ve read an awful lot of takes on what Trump will and/or won’t do, and I think one of the main reasons he’s frightening is that no one really knows what he’ll do. Will he be like Hitler! Or Reagan! Or Berlusconi? Or George W? Or Putin? Or some new and totally different thing? Who can tell? Maybe some of the people making wild guesses will turn out to be correct. But I’m really over all the punditry jeers about how bumbling and incompetent his transition is and how ineffective he’ll be in government. The exact same people spent a year laughing at how hopeless Trump’s campaign was and he left the entire US political establishment in a smoking ruin. Here’s a Hollywood reporter article on his instantly notorious strategist, Steve Bannon:

In a nascent administration that seems, at best, random in its beliefs, Bannon can seem to be not just a focused voice, but almost a messianic one:

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Bannon represents, he not unreasonably believes, the fall of the establishment. The self-satisfied, in-bred and homogenous views of the establishment are both what he is against and what has provided the opening for the Trump revolution. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,” he continues. “It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what’s going on. If The New York Times didn’t exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on The New York Times. It’s a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information — and her confidence. That was our opening.”

“I am,” he says, with relish, “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.”

Mark Lilla has what will probably be the canonical article on ‘the left must abandon identity politics to win’. He advocates a return to traditional ‘pre-identity liberalism’. But that’s a form of liberalism that appealed to class consciousness (ie basically just another form of identity politics) and that sense of class solidarity between workers doesn’t really exist any more.  It was also a very unequal form of liberalism in terms of outcomes, thus the emergence of race and gender based identity politics. This stuff is the solution to a problem. I agree that a lot of it seems like a flawed solution, but you can’t just dump it all without addressing the problems.

The left sure do seem to have a lot of intellectuals who claim they know exactly what to say to win the elections, and the uncultured, unintellectual right sure do seem to win a lot of elections. That’s all I know right now.

National disasters and data harvesting

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:26 am

Labour have come up with some clever ideas in the past to scam people into letting their data be harvested for the party’s voter contact database, but the earthquake is an actual national tragedy so this one seems kind of gross to me.

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