October 6, 2009

Hand Me the Gun and Ask Me Again

Alan Jacob's article in the latest New Atlantis on the utopian vision of Iain M. Banks (on of the few modern science fiction writers worth reading) is now available online:

The philosophy of Banks's Culture is that of Liberalism--Liberalism writ not just large but as large as possible. The Culture is, as one commentator has written, a "liberal Utopia"; but like all Utopias, it contains its dark places and puzzles, and perhaps even the seeds of its own critique. However, it is impossible to understand either the Culture's philosophy or its limitations without first understanding the technology that makes the Culture possible: the technology of the Minds...

Minds are artificial intelligences of almost infinite scope and power, and they govern the worlds in which inhabitants of the Culture live. A few of these worlds are planets, but far more often Culture citizens live on Orbitals--vast rings, each "like a god's bracelet," that orbit stars and rotate in order to produce appropriate gravity--and on great interstellar ships. (Tens of millions of people may live on a ship; tens of billions on an Orbital.) The Mind of the ship or Orbital controls its every function and monitors every inhabitant to ensure contentment. The Minds are fully sentient and have their own personalities; they manifest themselves to Culture citizens through android avatars and through "terminals": everyone has a terminal at all times, which he or she can use to ask questions, place orders, give information, relay messages, and so on. Citizens can tell the Minds to leave them alone, to cease monitoring their conversations, and it appears that the Minds do so, at least temporarily; there are no HAL 9000s in Banks's fictional world--no Mind ever harms a person, though in one strange case in Look to Windward (2000), a Mind decides to destroy itself. But it only does so after ensuring that the Orbital it governs is taken care of by its chosen successor.

...all of these resources are overseen by the Minds, who in general take an ironic attitude towards their own outrageous power. We see this especially in one of the most treasured features of Banks's universe, the self-naming of the Minds that control ships--that, in a sense, are the ships. Every reader of Banks will have favorite ship names; here are some of mine: Prosthetic Conscience; No More Mister Nice Guy; So Much for Subtlety; Of Course I Still Love You; Attitude Adjuster; Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill; I Blame the Parents; You'll Clean That Up Before You Leave; Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall.

The ship names are a very nice example of the blend of carefully thought-out world-building and humorous adventurism, tinged with self-aware irony and a hint of darkly ulterior motives, that characterizes Bank's books, which, for some reason, no one has ever tried to make a movie out of, which I think is easily understood in some cases -- Excession, Use of Weapons -- and totally inexplicable in others -- Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, or even The Algebraist.

I'd never read any of Bank's commentary on the Culture (outside of the novels, which I've read most of), so I'd always assumed that the tension Jacobs identifies between Bank's professed admiration for the Culture and the flaws in the Culture the novels reveal was intentional. In fact, I'd thought that the obivous overarching purpose of the novels was the development of a subtle but stinging critique of the Culture (and by extension, Utopia in general). But perhaps I've been reading my own biases into the books.

September 28, 2009

unconcious grand theft auto

Jim Rossignol relates the details of a review of the fifth edition of Grand Theft Auto, as he (literally) dreamed it:

GTA5 would, I/they explained, feature apartments across the city into which your character could walk, and rather than entering the living cutscenes of the previous games, he'd face a kind of dynamic soap opera, which would resolve in a mission. Each of the apartments contained the characters of popular sitcom, Friends, but these were placeholders, so as not to spoil the game for viewers.

Crucially, said Alan Yentob, the game was "a mindbomb of satire". While GTA4 might have piled on the vicious mocking and black humour, this was a crafted, calculated assault on American culture that would remap the gamers who played it. Kieron agreed, sipping white wine as he explained how the United States was already on the precipice of a revolution, and would now be pushed over by a videogame that had pinpointed and exploded every hypocrisy and falsity in its culture.

"The game is so excruciating," said Alan Yentob, "that no-one could ignore this shit any longer."

September 24, 2009

poulos on beck

Prompted by Nate Silver's (inaccurate) characterization of Glenn Beck as a "post-modern conservative", based upon, I think, the belief that anyone who has a slippery and unstable set of convictions must be post-modern, and vice-versa, a belief which is one of the leading indicators that one is not even a hyper-modernist, but an unreconstructed modernist, James Poulos talks briefly about the difference between Beck and post-modern conservativism, which leads him to this excellent encapsulation of the problem with Glenn Beck:

A word about Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is the worst. But why? Not so much because of who he distrusts or why. From where I'm standing, Beck is so awful because he theatrically combines and conflates performances of ultimate sincerity with performances of ultimate sarcasm. I think this is a telltale sign of a soul disordered by a confusion of love, power, and resentment. It becomes impossible, in such a person, to tell quite where their selfless solidarity, their egotism, and their hatred borne of weakness begin or end. And the titillating quality of this unstable charisma is precisely what they latch onto and exploit to become less a famous person than a famous happening. Their individual being becomes incidental to the phenomenon they represent. They actually corrode or dissolve their own identity in order to experience some hugeness that seems impossible to experience as a normal, integral human being.

May 8, 2009

treadarounds and other surprisingly accurate absurdities


[from a New York Times blog on "Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas", about the cartoons of Steven M. Johnson; link via Pruned]

March 26, 2009

on solitary confinement

Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker on solitary confinement (via Ross Douthat and Ta-Nehisi Coates) caused me to question something (the morality of that punishment) which I had never questioned before, and so I highly recommend reading it. Perhaps the single thing which stuck most with me, concerned as I am with the question of whether the human experience is essentially similar or dissimilar over the course of history, was the revelation that the widespread and long-term use of solitary confinement in America is a practice that is essentially contained to the past twenty or so years. The piece builds, though, to a very important argument, which is not so much about our policies as it about how our policies reveal us. I am extremely sympathetic to this argument, because it extends my concerns about the moral and pragmatic futility of torture:

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement--on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

February 24, 2009

nothing useful* can be said in one hundred and forty words or less

More evidence to confirm my opinion that twitter is overhyped (1. media misses out on the blogging 2. media swears it will get with the new media 3. twitter is the new media 4. media says twitter is 'important'):

"How do we hold back the tide? We must make a case that turns public opinion"
"Brought work home. My sister is here who is a huge dog person. That means one thing tonight. Westminister Dog Show on TV"
"Great lunch at mcdonalds-quarter pounder with cheese-off to nordstroms-valentines day."
"On way bk to frigid waterloo. Will my car start at airport."
"Ultimately, I think the whole debate over the NYT is silly. Op-ed pages are meaningless in the 21st century. We need to focus on raw info."
"I'm advocating a US goal of 100% carbon-free electricity in 10 years"

*I lied. You can say lots of useful things in one hundred and forty words or less. But the set of things you can usefully communicate in one hundred and forty words or less is considerably smaller than the set of things you can't usefully communicate in one hundred and forty words or less. The former set consists mostly of things like "Meet me at the 14th and U at seven pm", which are completely valid things to be communicating to other people, but unlikely to seriously affect (at least, for the better) the way that people write and think. On the other hand, twitter could help you hang out with Shaq in a diner.

January 5, 2009

do not understand

Twitter. Or rather, the idea that twitter is a peculiarly powerful and useful format for communication, the razor-sharp edge of communications technology, important not just as a place to keep track of/converse with friends/a network of contacts, but for discussing ideas. The twitter over twitter reminds me of the Second Life silliness (no, I do not care to find a reference article about this silliness, but I expect that you either know what I am talking about or don't care), with businesses, universities, etc. rushing to establish a 'presence' in Second Life, which remains primarily a place for people to (a) make likenesses of themselves that can fly and (b) imitate the opposite sex for sexual pleasure (I can report that a appeals to me a lot more than b, as well as that I have not yet established a presence in Second Life).

For instance: compare the experience of bldgblog at blogspot and on twitter.

Perhaps Geoff Manaugh is particularly bad at twittering/unable to communicate with the (extreme) brevity the format requires. But I doubt it. Exhibit 1: BLDBLOG. Exhibit 2: the Shortys, which seem to me to be an (unintentional) (but quite convincing) indictment of the notion of producing consistently non-trivial content in the twitter format. Though I won't argue with the nomination of the_real_shaq in the #sports category.

Perhaps twitter is a better version of facebook status updates, without the invitations to toss snowballs/give your friends virtual bumperstickers. That (a better version of facebook, not a place to toss virtual bumperstickers) I can see the need for (though the primary asset of facebook is of course its userbase, not its functionality/design/interface and I don't think it is much more likely that twitter will displace facebook with the masses than that virb will experience a massive upsurge in popularity and finish off myspace).

Maybe someone will correct my failure to understand (probably by saying that I have either created (a) a false dichotomy or (b) a straw man; I will respond by noting that pointing that out is cliche).

December 30, 2008

limits/no limits

Saw Michael Phelps interviewed by Colbert about his book "No Limits" (currently No. 11 on the non-fiction bestseller list, if I recall something I read somewhere earlier correctly); Colbert tried to get him to admit that it was possible that he had been endowed with physical gifts that made him peculiarly capable of achieving the athletic feats he has, but Phelps refused, saying (I'm paraphrasing) that he believes anyone -- anyone -- could, with sufficient dedication duplicate his feats.

Obviously, he doesn't really believe that. No paraplegic, for instance, could, no matter how hard he believed that he had no limits, swim like Michael Phelps, and I am sure (hopeful?) that Phelps would agree.

But I do think Phelps' adamant insistence that anyone -- anyone -- could, with sufficient dedication, duplicate his feats reveals a simple and important fact about people: we want to believe that our successes (though probably much of the time not our failures) are dependent solely on our own effort, even to the degree that we are willing to believe that our talents, our gifts are merely the accumulation of our efforts, not something that we possessed prior to any effort. This helps us to maintain an illusion of autonomy, which is ultimately destructive, as it is largely false and, like all delusions, leads us to great despair when it is punctured. Which is not to say that our efforts are not important -- stewardship of talents and all that -- but rather that they pale in importance relative to exterior/prior factors in determining our successes.

December 19, 2008

the moral and practical futility of torture, continued

[or, once again I ignore my self-imposed moratorium on policy and politics]

Don't take my word for it; take the word of Major Matthew Alexander (a psuedonym), the interrogator whose team in Iraq secured the location of Zarqawi:

In the last weeks of the Bush Administration, they're waging a campaign to convince the public that President-elect Obama's plans to close Guantánamo, ban torture, and stop extraordinary renditions will make America less safe. Here's how one of the administration's apologists recently put things in an op-ed in the New York Times: "if we'd gotten our hands on a senior member of Al Qaeda before 9/11, and knew that an attack likely to kill thousands of Americans was imminent, wouldn't waterboarding, or taking advantage of the skills of our Jordanian friends, have been the sensible, moral thing to do with a holy warrior who didn't fear death but might have feared pain?" You actually did have "holy warriors" in your custody who were plotting to kill American soldiers and innocent civilians, and got the results that enabled U.S. fighter bombers to take out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. What do you think of these claims?

In Iraq, we lived the "ticking time bomb" scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda's best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn't matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him.


The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The majority of suicide bombings are carried out by foreign fighters who volunteered and came to Iraq with this motivation. Consequently it is clear that at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics. Americans have died from terrorist attacks since 9/11; those Americans just happen to be American soldiers. This is not simply my view-it is widely held among senior officers in the U.S. military today. Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "U.S. flag-rank officers maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq-as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat-are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo." We owe it to our troops to protect them from terrorist attacks by not conducting torture and we owe it to our forefathers to uphold the American principles that they passed down to us.

So I suppose I can add a fourth reason to my list of reasons (see entry on Feb. 15) to oppose the practice of torture: it costs American lives.

::Ross Douthat thinking about torture, very carefully and very honestly. I think he's more wrong than right and the issue is not as difficult as he makes it seem (because most of the difficulty lies in the assumption that torture is pragmatically useful, which seems logical (of course if I smash his toes he will be more likely to tell me what I want to know!) though the evidence contradicts); but I find his thinking helpful, particularly as he seeks to spread the guilt around and avoid permitting us to cleanse our own consciences by laying all the blame at the feet of our leaders.

November 12, 2008

get your rulers out, kids, we're measuring meaning

I mentioned a couple posts ago a brief essay on happiness at Culture11 which I largely agreed with; now I will quote from one (in the same series on happiness, but this one is by Will Wilkinson) which I find self-evidentially absurd (and it saddens me to know that, clearly, not everyone agrees):

"More interesting, and much more compelling, were those who chose to admit the evidence, but argued that happiness isn't everything. Sure, family can be a pain, but it's meaningful. Indeed, the Newsweek article that imparted the unhappy news to a broad American audience noted that "parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who've never had kids." If meaning is an excellent reason to have children (and I'm not saying it isn't), perhaps it is also at least as good as happiness as an argument for generous child tax credits. And with meaning firmly in hand, perhaps happiness mavens disappointed by the numbers can jump from one paradox of prosperity to another.

Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What's so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can't just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some of them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we'll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.


There is certainly more than one way of winning an argument, but there's just one way of knowing: the empirical way. If there's a way of knowing something about meaning -- including whether measuring meaning threatens meaning -- that's the way [emphasis mine]. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of meaning. But there is more than a little something wrong in blind pursuits when the means to enlightenment are at hand."

It must be very easy, being sure and right all the time (in particular, being sure and right that you have answered, definitively, the question "how do we know", a question to which a full third of the discipline of philosophy is devoted, is a neat trick). I suppose the reason I cannot be a libertarian of the Wilkinsonian variety is that I am neither sure nor right all the time.

::I recommend to you this related post by Helen Rittenmeyer at Pomoco; your reading of it, however, will be incomplete unless you wade through the comments, particularly the exchange between Helen, Jonathan, and Ryan.

November 4, 2008

modernity, happiness, sedation, autonomy

Culture11 is running a series examining the notion of happiness; one of the pieces, by Peter Lawler, is more or less consonant with my suspicions. I'll let Ivan Kenneally (at Postmodern Conservative) summarize, since no one paragraph in Lawler's piece captures the entire thrust of the argument:

"...Peter Lawler insightfully examines the evidence that, despite breathless exertions in the service of creating a secular paradise, the modern attempt to "master and possess" nature has failed to make us fundamentally happier. The crux of the problem has to do with our interpretation of the individual as an agent of autonomous freedom untethered from any natural bounds--happiness is now to be sought against the obstacles of nature rather than consonant with the purposes and limitations it might illuminate. As a consequence, happiness is delinked from virtue, once understood to be its requisite condition, and the experience of happiness is severed from the edifying lessons of melancholy and misery. If we want to be truly happy we have to learn to be truly good, and goodness requires the fortifying experience of struggling with, rather than evading, the characteristic human encounter with alienation and loneliness."

If I were to highlight one point that I believe is particularly accurate, it is tying the flowering of a great deal of the problems of the modern [1] condition to the insistence on autonomy (the modern understanding of which is at once new and not new).

[1] I don't want to take the time or space to defend this, but I would generally argue that most people -- including traditional postmodernists such as Foucault and Rorty -- are (hyper)modern, not truly postmodern, in that traditional postmodernism is merely a working out of the consequences of being radically serious about the foundational assumptions of modernism (see Nietzsche, the only essential postmodernist), not a break with those assumptions)