Potent Quotables, “PC Police” Edition

Here is an instance where Noam Chomsky is on point. It comes from a 1994 interview prompted by the furor over The Bell Curve.

Part of what is happening is simply a scam. The trick is to take some position that will be greatly welcomed by the powerful (say, the editors and readers of the Wall Street Journal, etc.) with no need for concern about the status of the alleged empirical grounds or the validity, or even sanity, of the arguments.

Service to power will suffice to guarantee rave reviews, massive exposure, huge sales and the other corollaries to service to power. Then, the authors pray that someone will condemn them—if not, they can invent it. At this point they can portray themselves as tortured victims of powerful forces—like Black mothers, the radicals who (as we know) run the universities, etc.

The original gets huge media exposure, and the suffering of the victims who dared to brave the Black mothers and radicals who rule the world even more so. As I say, it’s a scam, quite a comical one in fact, but one that works brilliantly in a highly conformist intellectual culture, with remarkable intellectual and moral standards.

The “political correctness” comedy has many of the same features. In fact, the remarkable issue of the New York Times Book Review that was led off by a long praise of Herrnstein–Murray had many examples of the scam: effusive praise for a book that “dared” to say the elite had merit, even notice of the “brave, heroic” book by Harold Bloom that had the courage to say that students should read Shakespeare.

One must be awe-struck in admiration of this heroism. In the intellectual culture, it is all taken quite seriously, an interesting indication of that culture’s character.

Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Six

PREVIOUSLY, ON DARIA: Thirteen years or so after high school, Our Heroine is a washed-up academic with a series of advanced degrees, failed relationships and irregularly successful writing efforts behind her. She left her cheating boyfriend and moved back to Boston, to live with her friend Jane Lane. Jane, now running an art shop specializing in custom movie and TV props, introduced her to a social circle featuring both old and new faces. Soon, friendship got the better of caution, and Daria found herself agreeing to cosplay Edward Elric at a science-fiction and fantasy convention.

At the convention, Daria finds herself out of place, but at just the right time to be a sympathetic listener for Saavik—a clerk, aspiring actor and Tom Sloane’s girlfriend. Their night takes a turn for the fantastical when a woman from Daria’s past arrives with a business proposal… from the Sandman, Dream of the Endless.

Content note: Frank discussion of physical intimacy. On-screen portrayal thereof at maybe a soft R. Brief violence. One instance of homophobic language. Adult 4chan Man.
Continue reading Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Six

A Potent Quotable

Here is physicist John Archibald Wheeler, interviewed in the documentary The Creation of the Universe (1985):

There’s nothing deader than an equation. You write that down in a square on a tile floor. And on another tile on the floor you write down another equation, which you think might be a better description of the Universe. And you keep on writing down equations hoping to get a better and better equation for what the Universe is and does.

And then, when you’ve worked your way out to the end of the room and have to step out, you wave your wand and tell the equations to fly.

And not one of them will put on wings and fly.

Yet the Universe flies!

It has a life to it that no equation has, and that life to it is a life with which we are also tied up.

I saw that documentary as a kid, and that little speech was one part that stuck with me ever after. For the story of how Wheeler made this point to his physics classes, see arXiv:1405.2390, page 292.

Evergreen

In 1940, Jorge Luis Borges published “Definición de germanófilo” [“Definition of a Germanophile”], in which he explained what kept happening when he tried to discuss the threat of Nazi Germany. I quote a passage from Eliot Weinberger’s translation:

I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtues. The apologists of Amigas, Ramirez, Quiroga, Rosas or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them. The Hitlerist is always a spiteful man, and a secret and sometimes public worshiper of criminal “vivacity” and cruelty. He is, thanks to a poverty of imagination, a man who believes that the future cannot be different from the present, and that Germany, till now victorious, cannot lose. He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

And the thing about the politics of the blood is that it keeps on pumping.

Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Five

PREVIOUSLY, ON DARIA: Our Heroine has a new friend, Saavik, a clerk and aspiring actor who entered Daria’s life by way of being Tom Sloane’s girlfriend. They’re up late together at a science-fiction convention (cosplaying as Edward Elric and Motoko Kusanagi respectively). After a movie in the small hours of the morning, they encounter a woman from Daria’s past, a character that Daria believed she had never really met in the first place. And the visitor is here to tell Daria about a certain proposal….

Content note: One character gets a glimpse of another character’s fantasy that’s a touch TMI.

CHAPTER FIVE

“Perhaps we’d better discuss this outside,” Halloween said.

“Outside?” asked Daria. “In the snow?”

“Doesn’t look like snow,” Saavik said, crossing the lobby to the revolving door and pushing her way through.

Daria followed. The wind that met her as she emerged was as gentle as she expected it to be cutting. She reached out her gloved hands and gathered a few of the… “Cherry blossoms?” They caught in Saavik’s wig and melted to water, like snowflakes, on her face.
Continue reading Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Five

On “Invention”

When I was a little younger than Ahmed Mohamed is now, I invented the distance formula for Cartesian coordinates. I wanted to make a simulation of bugs that ran around and ate each other. To implement a rule like “when the predator is near the prey, it will chase the prey,” I needed to compute distances between points given their $x$- and $y$-coordinates. I knew BASIC, and I knew the Pythagorean Theorem. However many people had solved that before me, it wasn’t written down in any book that I had, so I took what I knew and figured it out.

Those few pages of PowerBASIC on MS-DOS never amounted to much by themselves, but simulating ecosystems remained an interest of mine. I returned to the general idea now and then as I learned more.

And then, hey, what’s this? It looks like a PhD thesis.

“I bet every great mathematician started by
rediscovering a bunch of ‘well known’ results.”
—Donald Knuth, Surreal Numbers

Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Four

PREVIOUSLY, ON DARIA: Thirteen years or so after high school, Our Heroine is a washed-up academic with a series of advanced degrees, failed relationships and irregularly successful writing efforts behind her. She left her cheating boyfriend and moved back to Boston, to live with her friend Jane Lane. Jane, now running an art shop specializing in custom movie and TV props, introduced her to a social circle featuring both old and new faces. Soon, friendship got the better of caution, and Daria found herself agreeing to cosplay Edward Elric at a science-fiction and fantasy convention.

Content note: A character recalls experiences with Pick-Up “Artistry” and blithe cissexism.

CHAPTER FOUR

The party thrummed and pulsed and mingled with itself. It wound around furniture and up steps. It carried drinks outward from the bar, where Tom watched over the grand central room of the suite, shaking cocktail mixers and spinning bottles with his white-gloved hands. His jacket-over-tunic ensemble gave the appearance of a military uniform, worn by a man with open contempt for his nominal superiors. He took a moment now and then to slide his shades back up the bridge of his nose, so that their oval lenses caught and toyed with the light.

Daria caught sight of Morgan the fire-spinner, currently in heavy makeup as a Borg drone. Ze gave Daria a nod and saluted rather solemnly with an umbrella drink. This prompted the woman with whom Morgan was speaking—a lanky figure dressed as a brown teddy bear—to turn about with an inquiring glance. Jane waved happily and beckoned Daria to join them.

This, Daria was only too happy to do, but it required working her way through a substantial amount of the crowd. A grandiose gesture from a young man she passed nearly connected with the side of her head. He looked over and then made apologetic noises, adding, “Wicked outfit!”

“Thanks,” Daria said. “Excuse me, I have to go meet its maker.”

Every third or fourth person at the party was, Daria estimated, in cosplay to some extent. This was representative of Aletheia on the whole, judging by what she had seen over the past two days.

At last, she stood beside Jane, who hooked an arm around hers and leaned in close. “Told you it would be a hit!” A lock of Jane’s hair flopped forward. A crosscross band just above eyebrow level kept the lock constrained in a bundle.

“You win the bet,” Daria said. “Do you want quatloos or woolongs?”
Continue reading Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Four

Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Three

Content note: Reminiscences of depression and family strife. For the previous chapters, see here and here.

CHAPTER THREE

Daria’s Journal, Inaugurating a Brand New, Posh Hardback Notebook. Tuesday, 15 January 2013.

I braved the slush yesterday and made my way to a stationery store up near Raft. Treated myself to a fistful of disposable fountain pens. I hadn’t known that such things were a thing. Between these, my history of failed relationships and my coffee intake, I must be a Real Writer.

The convention—that is, the fifteenth annual Aletheia—is to kick off this Friday. Jane has Plans for my attendance. I refuse to let this frighten me.
Continue reading Daria Makes a Deal, Chapter Three

Multiscale Structure in Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics

I finally have my thesis in a shape that I feel like sharing. Yes, this took over three months after my committee gave their approval. Blame my desire to explain the background material, and the background to the background….

In a complex system, the individual components are neither so tightly coupled or correlated that they can all be treated as a single unit, nor so uncorrelated that they can be approximated as independent entities. Instead, patterns of interdependency lead to structure at multiple scales of organization. Evolution excels at producing such complex structures. In turn, the existence of these complex interrelationships within a biological system affects the evolutionary dynamics of that system. I present a mathematical formalism for multiscale structure, grounded in information theory, which makes these intuitions quantitative, and I show how dynamics defined in terms of population genetics or evolutionary game theory can lead to multiscale organization. For complex systems, “more is different,” and I address this from several perspectives. Spatial host–consumer models demonstrate the importance of the structures which can arise due to dynamical pattern formation. Evolutionary game theory reveals the novel effects which can result from multiplayer games, nonlinear payoffs and ecological stochasticity. Replicator dynamics in an environment with mesoscale structure relates to generalized conditionalization rules in probability theory.

The idea of natural selection “acting at multiple levels” has been mathematized in a variety of ways, not all of which are equivalent. We will face down the confusion, using the experience developed over the course of this thesis to clarify the situation.

(PDF, arXiv:1509.02958)

Thoughts on Grabthar’s Hammer

And the adventure continues in the third blog post of an unintended trilogy….

The critics panning Pixels lead me to reflect: Galaxy Quest would have failed if the main characters were the kids instead of the actors.

The heroes of Galaxy Quest know less about their own canon than their obsessive fans do. They find it easy to see everything bad about their work, and much harder to remember why it connected with people. The comedy comes from their not easily stepping into the fiction. They’re fish out of water. In Armada, apparently, the gamers find their favorite snack food waiting for them at their battle stations. In Galaxy Quest, on the other hand…

“Are you enjoying your kep’la blood ticks, Dr. Lazarus?”

“Just like Mother used to make.”

[blood tick, still alive, jumps from spoon back into bowl]
Continue reading Thoughts on Grabthar’s Hammer

“And Half the Seed of Europa”

In the previous post, I looked at one way to take the theme of geek-culture wish fulfillment and run sideways with it. Another tempting possibility is a more Evangelion variation: play all the genre conventions absolutely straight, and show just how psychologically damaged every character would be.

Say you’re one of those gamer prodigies who’s whisked off to fight a glorious war in which your mad skills are the key to Saving the World. What happens when the war is over? What happens when you get shipped home with a headful of PTSD? Everything you enjoyed in your old life now reminds you of ordering good men to their deaths.

When you were a child on Earth, you fled all your troubles by escaping into games of war. Then the war found you.

What do you do when you can’t escape any longer?

(Title based on Wilfred Owen.)

Starfighter 2015

Laura Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015) reminded me that I had my own idea for a “reimagining” of The Last Starfighter (1984). In fact, I’ve had this notion knocking around for a few years now, but I’ve never written down a synopsis in an easily accessible format. So, here goes:

Our protagonist is Alix, a young trans woman trying to make it in the field of video-game journalism. Tired of regurgitating press releases for ultimately forgettable AAA titles, she decides to delve into the mystery of Starfighter, a science-fiction action-adventure game that appeared on the net seemingly from nowhere. Nobody knows who wrote the code or even the IRL identities of the people who first noticed it, but once it caught a little attention, its popularity snowballed. Alix, a fiend at Starfighter herself, gets a lead on where it might have come from. The movie opens with her on her way to a big SF/gaming convention in some large city. At the convention, she meets a fellow we’ll call Greg, because he asked for it. Greg knows Starfighter amazingly well, not just its game mechanics and the design of its fictional world, but the details of its code, too. They joke around about Phillips-head sonic screwdrivers, reversing the polarity on the main deflector dish and so on.

Alix and Greg are walking back to the convention after dinner with some champion Starfighter players, when some ominous guys who have been skulking about the shadows burst out and instigate a fight scene. Greg snaps into action and fights them off, using martial-arts moves that escalate until they really should be impossible without wire work. Just when the ominous guys have been roundly trounced, their reinforcements arrive, and they run over Alix with a Humvee. Fade to white.

Alix awakens, floating in microgravity, wearing a jumpsuit uniform over skin that feels a bit too much like plastic.
Continue reading Starfighter 2015

Those Who Aspire to Solaria

A certain mindset sees the movie Aliens and thinks it would be awesome to be a Space Marine. Because it’s like being a Marine, but in space.

A certain mindset skims a bit of cyberpunk fiction and thinks the future will be amazing, because Ruby-coding skills will clearly translate to proficiency with katanas. You know, katanas.

A certain mindset learns a little about the Victorian era and is instantly off in a fantasy of brass-goggled Gentlemen Aviators, at once dapper and wind-swept, tending the Tesla apparatus on their rigid airship. All art in the genre carries the tacit disclaimer in its caption, “(Not pictured: cholera.)” In the designation steampunk, the -punk has nothing to do with anarchy (in the UK or elsewhere), the suffix having been conventionalized into a mere signifier of anachronism. A steampunk condo development promises units for the reasonable price of 2 to 7.5 million dollars apiece.

[To be fair, Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), which is in some part responsible for the whole wibbly-wobbly steamery-punkery, did spend some of its time with the run-down and the passed-over. It also, I’m guessing unintentionally, underscored the incoherence of the premise, when in its final pages, Ada Lovelace describes a fanciful notion of the late Charles Babbage, whose fictional version dreamed of doing computation with electricity. The fictional Babbage’s never-implemented plan relied on such hypothetical devices as resistors and capacitors. The book’s plot begins in 1855; the Leyden jar was invented 110 years earlier. Carl Friedrich Gauss built a working telegraph years before the historical Babbage even designed his Analytical Engine. But our aesthetic can’t allow that, of course.]

It is against this background that we should read “Silicon Valley is a Science Fictional Utopia,” a recent piece in Model View Culture. I have enjoyed and appreciated MVC quite a bit in the past few months, which is why I was rather flummoxed to find a statement in that essay that just refused to parse. The overall thesis sounds roughly right to me, but not all the examples seem to fit as written. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:
Continue reading Those Who Aspire to Solaria

Back in the Rotation

First they came for the Nobel laureates, and I did not speak out, because I was a new PhD with a handful of papers.

Then they came for the titled gentry, and I did not speak out, because I ride the bus.

Then they came for the millionaires, and I did not speak out, because I don’t have dental coverage.

Then they came for the bestselling authors, and I did not speak out, because I write fanfiction on my blog.

Then they came for the people with over a million Twitter followers, and I did not speak out, because I have 973.

Then they started to wonder what good it did to “come for” these people, since everyone they came for was still rich and powerful.

Then I spoke out, because, honestly… Phrasing!

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"