lazer-guided commentaries

Flimsy Moral Logic and Just Deserts

Let us take as true that choice ⇒ action ∧ action ⇒ consequences. If you choose to act, then you will act; and if you act, the consequences of that action will ensue.

From this it follows that choice ⇒ consequences. If you choose to act, consequences of that action will ensue.

Alternatively, taking contrapositives, ¬consequences ⇒ ¬action ∧ ¬action ⇒ ¬choice and thus ¬consequences ⇒ ¬choice. If the consequences of a choosable action aren’t manifest, then you must not have chosen to take that action. (Let’s ignore failed actions. This is, after all, flimsy moral logic.)

However, not provable from our starting point is consequences ⇒ choice. That is, we cannot show from observing consequences of some choosable action that a choice was made to take that action.

Despite this, an awful number of people seem to think if you’re suffering some kind of unpleasant situation, it must be because you’ve chosen some action that leads to it.

...and anyway not zoned for it.

Charles Yu’s 2010 novel, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” includes this little gem:

Thirty-one is a smallish universe, slightly below average in size. On the cosmic scale, somewhere between shoe box and standard aquarium. Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it.

I’ve been sitting here feeling smug, because I suspect that I spy a Vernor Vinge reference in there, and I haven’t found anywhere else on the internet that makes that particular meaningless little observation. Hooray!

Favourite Speculative Fiction

A few of my favourite authors and works of speculative fiction (SF, a.k.a science fiction):

  • Vernor Vinge, in particular A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky. Both are, to me, tremendously exciting books. I particularly enjoyed “Deepness” because of the (at times blunt) allegory with our twentieth century and its accelerating race headlong into the unknown. The climax of the book is thoroughly electrifying. “Fire” has some lovely moments too, both from the viewpoint of a society that has long ago passed the critical moments of a singularity and from the viewpoint of a medieval society undergoing first contact. Vinge is adept at expressing not only the vast potential of the post-human condition, but also its horror and claustrophobia. He is the originator of the very idea of a technological singularity, and his writing has been influential on many other authors whose work I enjoy. (His other books are good, though not great, as well; and the until-recently hard-to-find novella True Names is credited with inventing the notion of cyberspace or virtual reality, as well as giving glimpses into what a post-human future could be like.)

  • Neal Stephenson, in particular The Diamond Age and his most recent, Anathem, though all his other books are highly stimulating and entertaining as well (in particular Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon). I have a particular soft spot for “The Diamond Age” for some reason: something about it (the Mouse Army; the way Miranda and Hackworth commit to their charges; the way the Primer teaches) really pushes some kind of emotional button. Stephenson’s commentaries on social issues and morality are thought-provoking, too, both in “The Diamond Age” and his other novels.

  • Greg Egan, in particular Permutation City, Diaspora and some of his short stories. Another programmer-turned-science-fiction-author, Egan writes the hardest of hard SF. “Permutation City” is a mind-blowing (and at times very difficult) exploration of the fundamental nature of reality and experience that deeply changed the way I see the world and led me down some pretty dark paths in philosophy. His writing isn’t quite solely responsible for my current philosophical positions (Absurdism, moral anti-realism), but it certainly helped me get traction on some of the relevant issues.

What I'm reading

I've not been reading an awful lot recently; perhaps keeping some kind of record will help get me started again. Pauline's short-story reading at Decongested was great fun — perhaps I'll get into going to more of that kind of thing.

Over the last few months, though, I've managed:

  • Lattimore's translation of the Odyssey. The copy I received from a second-hand seller on Amazon was a kind of parallel text, so heavy were the marginal annotations. Still, they were helpful in a way, pointing out internal connections and cultural background I wouldn't have picked up otherwise. I also picked up Lattimore's translation of the Iliad, but having read that a few years back, I'm not ready to read it again yet, even though it's in a different translation.
  • Matter, Iain M. Banks. I enjoyed this — I've not enjoyed all of his recent SF work, but this one felt to me like a return to form.
  • The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks. I'd read this before, many many years ago, and it was good to read it again. I read it this time in preparation for the Guardian Book Club evening where he was interviewed about it. He's a charismatic speaker, very entertaining. The Guardian published a report of the evening, and you can listen to a podcast of the discussion.
  • I've started re-reading The Silmarillion. I read this when I was about thirteen, I think, and I'm enjoying refreshing my memory. So far, no surprises; it's like everyone says, a fairly dry piece of work. One for the nerds.

Next in the queue: The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche; This Is Your Brain On Music, Daniel Levitin; The Universe Next Door, Marcus Chown; Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon. Most probably interleaved with some lighter fare, too.

Field Day

Yesterday I attended Field Day in Victoria Park in the rain. Chris and I spent most of the day at the Homefires Stage. Particularly good were:

For some reason, the stage was more than an hour behind schedule all day, but we didn't much mind, having nowhere in particular else to be. In the intervals when we sampled others of the many delights on offer we managed to catch part of Lightspeed Champion's performance (I wasn't paying much attention), part of Richie Hawtin's set (lumpy, crowded, good visuals, average sound) and the end of Foals' set (undistinguished pop a la mode, carefully coiffed, styled, packaged and presented; maybe check back if they ever do anything original[1]). Apparently there was a whole village-fete style thing happening elsewhere in the park which I managed to completely miss — I shall have to check that out next year.

In terms of new music, and things slightly out of the ordinary, Field Day has been a great success. Great fun.

Footnote [1] — ok, I will admit I was getting pretty grumpy by that point so no doubt my mood coloured the interpretation of the music

Unspectacular spectacular

I watched Moulin Rouge yesterday evening. I'd sum it up as visually spectacular, and slightly deficient in plot. It was interesting hearing Mr McGregor and Ms Kidman sing, and there were some clever cultural references. I also enjoyed the use of the Shakespearean idea of the play-within-the-play reflecting the play itself (and for a moment I felt that they'd managed to carry it further, to push the film out into the real world somehow... it was only a fleeting sensation though, and I can't remember why it struck me).

It's been an uneventful weekend otherwise. I put a new cover on my motorbike, replacing the one that was stolen; I visited the warehouse-sized ASDA supermarket at the end of the D6 bus route; and I read a little further through Bleak House. It's finally become cold enough that I've unlimbered the heavy artillery of winter clothing: the possum/merino gloves. The Met Office has taken back their earlier misprediction of snow; now they're mispredicting mere overcast days. Summer's just a fading memory.

Well at least it was fun. Oh, wait

I was sitting on the sofa chatting to Sally earlier this week, describing to her my heroic ride through the cold on the way back from Brighton. She wondered why I hadn't been wearing the windproof, waterproof one-piece suit I own. The one that, after a moment's thought, I realised I had been carrying with me. Both there and back. The one I'd completely forgotten about and that would have spared me a good three hours of arctic-level windchill.

What's the word for the opposite of "astute?" ( suggests dense, dull, dumb, idiotic, imperceptive, naive, obtuse, retarded, slow, stupid, and unintelligent.)

In other news... what I'm reading

I've picked up Bleak House from Project Gutenberg, inspired by the current BBC production thereof, and am about half-way through. It's great, so far! It's enormously satirical, and very, very funny in places. I've only read one other Dickens novel — Great Expectations — and if I recall correctly it wasn't particularly humorous. (On the other hand, I was fifteen at the time and probably wasn't paying attention properly.)

Becky returned my copy of the Bone People, which I'm really looking forward to re-reading — that's next in the queue. After that, Steve's promised to lend me the latest (and last, thankfully) in Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Shadow" series — much lighter fare. By comparison, just reading the table of contents of the Bone People was enough to remind me of enough of the story to provoke an emotional response.

I recently re-read Sophie's World, which was interesting. My philosophical positions have changed quite a bit since I last read it (chiefly because of Greg Egan's books); it's pointed out a few areas I feel like looking more deeply into. One thing I like about the book is the way a few Scandinavianisms have crept through the translation into English: the descriptions of the last day of school before the summer holidays; the description of the Major's cabin by the lake; a few idiomatic puns that only make sense if you know how it would have read in the original Danish.

Finally, I spent a weekend recently ploughing through Ken MacLeod's trilogy about (among other things) space travel, various takes on a bunch of -isms (including but not limited to the usual suspects of anarchism, libertarianism, capitalism, socialism, communism, and their pairwise hyphenated hybrids), and a fairly conservative vision of a post-singularity future (complete with vile offspring).

A Weekend in Brighton

View from West Point, at Saltdean, 19 Nov
2005Sunday was my flatmate Claire's birthday, and some months ago she arranged a large house in Saltdean, near Brighton, and invited her friends down for the weekend.

I rode my motorbike there and back. It has just in the last week or so turned cold, and the trip proved something of an education in techniques for staying warm at 70mph (that's 112km/h for you S.I.-using modernist hipsters in New Zealand) with nothing between you and the ambient degree or so below zero except a couple of layers of cotton and a pair of summer riding gloves. The main, somewhat naive technique — liberal application of polypropylene underwear and general doubling-up of items of clothing — proved insufficient to the challenge, and passers-by[1] were treated to the spectacle of a shivering, stamping, arm-flailing, hand-rubbing, moaning, groaning, Michelin-man of a motorcyclist at regular intervals along the M23.

The weekend was great fun — once I'd arrived and regained feeling in my extremities through the magical restorative action of neat whiskey — starting off with an evening trip to a local pub in Rottingdean just over the hill, followed the next morning by a traditional English breakfast involving all manner of fat-laden meat products. On Saturday afternoon we visited the Lanes, shopping for bits and pieces (very cool earrings for some; very cool hats for others; and drinks for all, come 4pm). Brighton's brilliant: lots of interesting shops, and lots of cool people, thanks I suppose to the university. It reminds me of Wellington in a way.

After returning home for our meal of supermarket pizza and red wine, we caught the bus back into Brighton where we stayed for the next eight hours or so in a succession of increasingly loud and confusing clubs. I particularly enjoyed this part of the weekend: it's not often I go out dancing, and the clubs we visited were just great fun. I think pretty much everybody had a great time. I had so much fun that Sunday was a day of enforced quiet contemplation while waiting for the monstrous hangover — severe enough to make even a full English breakfast unappetizing — to pass. So it goes. What a waste of good scrambled eggs.

Eventually I recovered enough to attempt the trip home, this time wearing almost every piece of clothing I thought to take with me, as well as two pairs of gloves, a balaclava, and a scarf. Lessons learned: 1) Heated grips are not as ridiculous as they might seem on the counter in the shop at the height of summer, although a heated saddle still seems a little over the top. 2) The headlight on my bike is almost unusably dim, except on full-beam, when it is blinding. 3) It's at about this time of year that frost starts to form on the roads in the evenings.

I arrived home safely, despite a couple of frost-related hair-raising moments, and caught up on sleep with an early night. Overall, it was a great weekend: good company, lovely location, perfect weather, dancing like a mad eedjit, and plenty of bacon. Many thanks to Claire for organizing the whole thing.

Footnote [1] — One observant gentleman wryly inquired: "Cold knees?"

I think my response was "Shit, yes!"

Inappropriate Bread

According to Google, mikeb is the only person in the world who has written the exact phrase "meats, cheese, and inappropriate bread" into a webpage!

Update: As expected, mikeb once was the only person in the world who etc.