Self Wright

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A bunch of DFW stuff

(found this while cleaning up old notes)

Orwell and Wells

Another long-form article that I found relevant to the current time; here’s the full article, which was originally written in August 1941, or about eight decades ago.

I present my selections here, but the full article is well worth reading too. Some historical context is needed, but you can get away with very little, and a lot of the content should map to equivalent situations today.

This was written in the middle of the Second World War, about eight years before he wrote 1984.

What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses.

History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner.

But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger.

… nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

Random Note #6782036478

A perspective on waste and social media.

From this article

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)

“On Cyberspace”

Warning: From 1995 (25 years ago!)

Today the term “cyberspace” sounds silly (perhaps “internet culture” comes closest) but here’s a 10-min clip of Neil Postman talking about it.

My first observation is his prescient (and today, contrarian) comments:

  • people becoming “information junkies
  • globally connected world leading to a “reversion to tribalism” instead of bringing people together
  • people retreating away from public forums, and a reduced ability to solve problems together
  • “… am I using the technology, or is it using me?” (!)

My second observation is the format of this interview itself!

How rare it is now, to see a discussion like this, question-and-answer, uninterrupted every five minutes by an advertisement, without dramatic inflection.

Where could this even happen? Who would today’s equivalent of Charlayne Hunter Gault be? It certainly wouldn’t happen on TV! (The closest things come to this today are in “long-form podcasts”, like Joe Rogan or Lex Fridman)

Random post #743447

Came across this article from six years ago, on the hilarity, or seriousness, and the need, or abuse, of “emotional support animals”.

The author managed to get an exemption for carrying around a turtle (“Turtle“), and a snake (“Augustus“), a turkey (“Henry“), an alpaca (“Sorpresa“), and a pig (“Daphne“) everywhere, just to show how.

Reflecting on whether it is reasonable to be this inclusive of man’s best friends, I called the Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, who is best known for his book “Animal Liberation,” which makes a utilitarian argument for respecting the welfare and minimizing the suffering of all sentient beings.

Singer takes a dim view of the emotional-support-animal craze. “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he said, so “there is sometimes an issue about how well people with mental illnesses can look after their animals.” He went on, “If it’s really so difficult for you to be without your animal, maybe you don’t need to go to that restaurant or to the Frick Museum. ”

During check-in, the ticket agent, looking up to ask my final destination, did a double take.

She said, “Oh . . . have you checked with . . . I don’t think JetBlue allows . . .”

“Give me one second,” the agent said, picking up the phone. “I’m checking with my supervisor.” (Speaking into phone: “Yes, with a pig . . . yeah, yeah . . . in a stroller.”) The agent hung up and printed out boarding passes for me and the pig’s owner, Sophie Wolf.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake,” he said. “If there’s a problem, Verna, at the gate, will help you. Does she run fast?”

I’m pleased to report that passing through security with a pig in your arms is easier than doing so without one: you get to keep your shoes on and skip the full-body scanner.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t read it (and seen the accompanying pictures).

Of course, this was six long years ago, and I’m sure this must feel quite normal now for everyone.

P.S. couldn’t come up with a title for this post, and http://www.randomnumbergenerator.com helped out.

On electronic self-absorption

(Quote from the Thought Catalog collection 2010-2015)

Rango

Stumbled across “Rango” while scrolling through Netflix and … yes, this was clearly the Great American Movie.

Nothing before or after merits that title, for me.

The opening:

We are gathered here today to immortalize in song, the life and untimely death of a great legend. So sit back, relax, and enjoy your low calorie popcorn and assorted confections, while we tell you the strange and bewildering tale of a hero who has yet to enter his own story.

Human Mental Games

Was watching Queen’s Gambit today (up to four episodes now), and realized how different the attitude to chess (and perhaps Go too) would’ve been back then.

Today, in a post-Deep Blue, post-Alpha Go, post-<you-know-what> world, we don’t see any mystery about any game of thought.

We simply assume it isn’t even worth trying to get better at it, because why bother — why bother if we can never get as good as machines are?

This earlier time seems so different, because there isn’t a limit perceived to how good someone can be. Contrast this with today, when we are circumscribed somehow, by the knowledge of a “ceiling of competence”. Yes, it’s still a good sport to watch, but it means less, somehow.

What might be the equivalent of this today?

What still counts as an area where humans can compete, where the frontier is open, where we might be surprised at how good one of us is?

A prescient interview by Aldous Huxley

Remember, this interview was filmed just over six decades ago, and reference a book written nine decades ago (Brave New World).

Of course, his interviewer is humoring him and not quite taking him seriously 🙂

Some excerpts:

(Transcript here)

On organization and technology

HUXLEY: Well another force which I think is very strongly operative in this country is the force of what may be called of overorganization. Er…As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations, and incidentally the advance of technology is being accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It’s now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than it was ever possible before, and so that you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems controlled by bureaucracy, either the bureaucracies of big businesses or the bureaucracies of big government.

Here, the television can be a proxy for other digital media not conceived of at the time

HUXLEY: Well, at the present the television, I think, is being used quite harmlessly; it’s being used, I think, I would feel, it’s being used too much to distract everybody all the time. But, I mean, imagine which must be the situation in all communist countries where the television, where it exists, is always saying the same things the whole time; it’s always driving along. It’s not creating a wide front of distraction it’s creating a one-pointed, er…drumming in of a single idea, all the time. It’s obviously an immensely powerful instrument.

And here the key difference between Brave New World and 1984:

Well, this book was written at the height of the Stalinist regime, and just after the Hitler regime, and there he foresaw a dictatorship using entirely the methods of terror, the methods of physical violence. Now, I think what is going to happen in the future is that dictators will find, as the old saying goes, that you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them!

HUXLEY: But, if you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled, and this they will do partly by drugs as I foresaw in “Brave New World,” partly by these new techniques of propaganda. They will do it by bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery. I mean, I think, this is the danger that actually people may be, in some ways, happy under the new regime, but that they will be happy in situations where they oughtn’t to be happy.

On political personalities

This is something taken for granted now (!) but it seemed to elicit an “oh, really? huh …” response.

WALLACE: You write in Enemies of Freedom, you write specifically about the United States. You say this, writing about American political campaigns you say, “All that is needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look sincere; political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate, the way he is projected by the advertising experts, are the things that really matter.”

HUXLEY: Well, this is the…during the last campaign, there was a great deal of this kind of statement by the advertising managers of the campaign parties. This idea that the candidates had to be merchandised as though they were soap and toothpaste and that you had to depend entirely on the personality.

On advertising

WALLACE: In regard to advertising, which you mentioned just a little ago, in your writing, particularly in “Enemies of Freedom,” you attack Madison Avenue, which controls most of our television and radio advertising, newspaper advertising and so forth. Why do you consistently attack the advertising agencies…

HUXLEY: Well, no I…I think that, er…advertisement plays a very necessary role, but the danger it seems to me in a democracy is this…I mean what does a democracy depend on? A democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance. But what these people are doing, I mean what both, for their particular purposes, for selling goods and the dictatorial propagandists are for doing, is to try to bypass the rational side of man and to appeal directly to these unconscious forces below the surfaces so that you are, in a way, making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground.

WALLACE: You said something to the effect in your essay that the children of Europe used to be called ‘cannon fodder’ and here in the United States they are ‘television and radio fodder.’

HUXLEY: Well, after all, you can read in the trade journals the most lyrical accounts of how necessary it is, to get hold of the children because then they will be loyal brand buyers later on. But I mean, again you just translate this into political terms, the dictator says they all will be ideology buyers when they are grown up.

On technology and power

HUXLEY: Well, I think one of the reasons is that these are all instruments for obtaining power, and obviously the passion for power is one of the most moving passions that exists in man; and after all, all democracies are based on the proposition that power is very dangerous and that it is extremely important not to let any one man or any one small group have too much power for too long a time.

After all what are the British and American Constitution except devices for limiting power, and all these new devices are extremely efficient instruments for the imposition of power by small groups over larger masses.

On individuals and groups

WALLACE: Well, you ask this question yourself in “Enemies of Freedom.” I’ll put your own question back to you. You ask this, “In an age of accelerating overpopulation, of accelerating overorganization, and ever more efficient means of mass communication, how can we preserve the integrity and reassert the value of the human individual?” You put the question, now here’s your chance to answer it Mr. Huxley.

HUXLEY: Well, this is obviously…first of all, it is a question of education. Er…I think it’s terribly important to insist on individual values, I mean, what is a…there is a tendency as a…you probably read a book by Whyte, “The Organization Man”, a very interesting, valuable book I think, where he speaks about the new type of group morality, group ethic, which speaks about the group as though the group were somehow more important than the individual.

And I think it’s extremely important for us to stress this in all our educational life, and I would say it’s also very important to teach people to be on their guard against the sort of verbal booby traps into which they are always being led, to analyze the kind of things that are said to them.

A national comparison

(we don’t have the Soviet Union any more, but … still …)

WALLACE: Well, Mr. Huxley, take a look again at the country which is in the stance of our opponent anyway, it would seem, anyway it would seem to be there, Soviet Russia. It is strong, and getting stronger, economically, militarily, at the same time it’s developing its art forms pretty well, er…it seems not unnecessarily to squelch the creative urge among its people. And yet it is not a free society.

HUXLEY: It’s not a free society, but here is something very interesting that those members of the society, like the scientists, who are doing the creative work, are given far more freedom than anybody else. I mean, it is a privileged aristocratic society in which, provided they don’t poke their noses into political affairs, these people are given a great deal of prestige, a considerable amount of freedom, and a lot money.

I mean, this is a very interesting fact about the new Soviet regime, and I think what we are going to see is er…a people on the whole with very little freedom but with an oligarchy on top enjoying a considerable measure of freedom and a very high standard of living.

On Freedom

WALLACE: Mr. Huxley, let me ask you this, quite seriously, is freedom necessary?

HUXLEY: As far as I am concerned it is.

WALLACE: Why? Is it necessary for a productive society?

HUXLEY: Yes, I should say it is. I mean, a genuinely productive society. I mean you could produce plenty of goods without much freedom, but I think the whole sort of creative life of man is ultimately impossible without a considerable measure of individual freedom, of initiative, creation, all these things which we value, and I think value properly, are impossible without a large measure of freedom.

Thoughts on continuing to use Twitter

Context

In a previous post1, I mentioned how my experience of Twitter is actually quite nice and I don’t encounter any of the craziness that other people report.

Is that still true? Well, yes and no.

The problem: “political” content

There isn’t really any escaping (hmm, what should I call it) “unexpected content” on Twitter, as long as the entity being followed is a Person and not a Topic2.

I had earlier decided to be “casual” in my use of Twitter, which led to me randomly following and liking posts and people in my stream.

The problem is, the “information ecosystem” for all “political facts”3 is extremely polarized. There are competing narratives4 for each “event”, and being neutral as a matter of principle, I end up seeing both sides.

This isn’t bad per se, and is … at least informative, but it puts me at odds with the (hmm, what should I call them) “reductionists”, who want to neatly classify profiles (people) based on who they follow and what they like.

So there really isn’t any more “casual use” on the platform, and there is much more that could be said about why that is, why the incentives turned out this way, “what could have been“ and so on, but either way, there is a need for a more guarded interaction.

Give up on Twitter?

For better or worse, I have found, and keep finding, really interesting stuff on Twitter. There are people who share interesting images, or links, or articles. There are people who provide expert opinions on topics I like.

For me, this is a supplement to Reddit, except without strong subreddit boundaries.

Which is to say: there is real utility for me on Twitter, and I don’t want to lose that.

A task for myself: I should try to figure out what I’m really following on Twitter anyway. What are some themes in what I like, etc. Again, I don’t actually have time to do this thoroughly, so maybe just broad impressions.

Decisions/actions

What I’ve decided to do for now, slowly, gradually, is filter out any profiles where I judge most tweets are political.

I don’t have time to sit down and do this at one go5

So instead, each time I find myself scrolling through my feed, and I see too much political content6, I’ll ask myself if there is any topically interesting tweets at all from this profile, and if not, simply un-follow.

I’ve done this a bit already, and I expect it’ll be a few months before I’ll (probabilistically) get close to examining all my follows, but that’s the plan for now.

Digression: what is the best way to “thread” posts?

Retro-actively go back and apply a common tag? Create a linked list of posts? Lazy right now so will do neither.

There are a bunch of non-linear textual tools I use locally for this, but what’s the online equivalent? Again, lazy right now, will stick to WordPress, with its linear post timeline. But later … maybe one of TheBrain, Roam, or Notion.

Some other options

Just to brainstorm alternatives (for my future self, in case he has more time and interest)

  1. I could create multiple twitter accounts, for different “bundles of interest”, each me7, but a part of me.
  2. I could create a pseudonymous account and allow that one to be the one where I resume casually browsing stuff8.


  1. “Using Twitter the right way” ↩︎
  2. There are many possible ways a “topic” could be represented, I guess the spectrum runs from loosely-specified (think tags, hashtags, phrases) to strictly-specified (think subreddits) ↩︎
  3. So much of “putting words in quotes”, right? ↩︎
  4. Though well-visualized in Twitter’s new conversation view, so good on that. ↩︎
  5. The total number of profiles I’ve ended up following is surprisingly high, nearly 5000! It would take a couple hours, at least, to go through all of them. ↩︎
  6. Sometime later, I should mention how my news consumption patterns changed for the better in general. ↩︎
  7. Like namespaces within me, which is how I would really want profiles to be, dis-aggregated and reflecting our true sub-selves. ↩︎
  8. The right way for this would have been a single “read-only” view that everyone could have, of the entire graph of tweets. Imagine if we had the contract “you can either be authenticated and share/comment, or be pseudonymous and like/follow, but not comment.” ↩︎

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