Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

January 6th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

Paul, seeing my post on Howl, pointed me towards a (much) longer essay, Meditations on Moloch, which also takes its start from the poem. It’s an impressive chain of thoughts by Scott Alexander, stretching from the start of agriculture through to superintelligence. Moloch is the name Alexander plucks from Ginsberg to describe all of them. Moloch is civilization, or the tragedy of the commons, or…

View On WordPress

Dead languages on Genius

January 5th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Dead languages on Genius

The street may find its own uses for things, but so does the academy. RapGenius started as a way to comment on rap lyrics. The expansion to other song lyrics — accompanied by dropping ‘Rap’ from the name — was pretty obvious. Less so is the appeal to the extreme highbrow. Perpetual super-student Chris Aldrich turned me on to the “off-label” uses in a glowing blog post. He mentions a Harvard MOOC…

View On WordPress

Vote Trepanation!

January 4th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

This must be one of the best election campaign posters of all time. No, it wasn’t a joke. Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, trying in 1979 to become an MP, had at that point had a hole in her head for the best part of a decade. In 1970 she drilled through her skull with a dentist’s drill. Then she wiped off the blood and went off to a fancy dress party. Her husband Joey Mellon filmed…

View On WordPress

Pitman, Esperanto, FLOSS

January 4th, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

This LRB comment on the history of shorthand picks up on the slightly unnerving first wave of enthusiasm around Pitman’s shorthand. It appealed to the same kind of geeky idealists who in other generations would speak Esperanto or write open-source software: men who believed that the road to brotherly love was through mastery of a new, better means of communication: You can still read every…

View On WordPress

Fiasco, or how I returned to roleplaying

January 3rd, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

In the last few months, I have got excited about roleplaying for the first time in a decade.

It’s thanks to Fiasco. Fiasco is the most fun, creative, simple roleplaying game I have ever encountered. In fact it seem weird even to call it ‘roleplaying’, considering how different it is from the complex combat heavy rules of Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I’ve even take to describing Fiasco as a ‘storytelling game’, to avoid scaring away potential players. My experience is that people can play through a game and have a great time, without ever associating what they are doing with the word ‘roleplaying’.

Fiasco takes place in a single setting. There is no Game Master. There is no plot prepared in advance. Everything is collectively improvised. The only seed is the ‘playset’, a bare-bones list of possible places, objects, motivations and relationships. These are designed to nudge you towards a black-comedy caper style of play. Fiasco describes itself as a game of ‘people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control’, and names Coen Brothers movies as a major influence.

You start just with a list of 36 possible relationships between characters, and similar lists of places, objects and motivations. Through a semi-random process of selecting them, you collectively sketch out your characters.

The main game is a series of improvised ‘scenes’. Each player in turn is the protagonist of a scene. She sets up a situation and acts it out. Other players perform their own characters as required, or switch and take on minor roles. At some point the other players decide whether it will turn out well or badly for the protagonist (symbolised by handing them a white or black die), and the improv moves seamlessly towards its end.

A game of Fiasco feels something like the roleplaying equivalent of a jam session. You aren’t trying to beat the world, or overcome the obstacles placed by a game-master. You aren’t even trying to get the best outcome for your character. You are trying to have fun.

We found ourselves stripping down even the minimal game mechanics which existed. Provided everybody is on the same wavelength, the stories create themselves, and the rules become just a background rumble.

Fiasco claims to be for 3-5 players. My experience is that 3 works better than 5. That’s mainly because Fiasco lacks a mechanism for time-keeping, and would definitely benefit from having one. It’s very easy to get caught up in a scene and lose track of time, with the effect that any players not involved in a scene get bored. With 3 players, it’s likely that every player will be involved in a scene. With 5, there are likely to be a couple of bystanders.

Even with 3 players, Fiasco tends to go on much longer than its theoretical 2-3 hours’ playtime. I’ve found myself often cutting games short, to avoid people drifting off into exhaustion. Being a single-session game is a curse as well as a blessing — I can’t imagine stopping a game of Fiasco in mid-flow, only to take up the chaos the next week.

January 3rd, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

The journal gives us the workshop of the writer’s soul. And why are we interested in the soul of the writer? Not because we are so interested in writers as such. But because of the insatiable modern preoccupation with psychology, the latest and most powerful legacy of the Christian tradition of introspection, opened up by Paul and Augustine, which equates the discovery of the self with the discovery of the suffering self. For the modern consciousness, the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able best to express his suffering.

The writer is the exemplary sufferer because he has found both the deepest level of suffering and also a professional means to sublimate (in the literal, not the Freudian, sense of sublimate) his suffering. As a man, he suffers; as a writer, he transforms his suffering into art. The writer is the man who discovers the use of suffering in the economy of art—as the saints discovered the utility andnecessity of suffering in the economy of salvation.

Susan Sontag, _The artist as exemplary sufferer_

The Desperate Reader

January 2nd, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Roberto Bolaño on books that appeal to the “desperate reader”. Which, I suspect, are probably the only kinds of books I like:

Let’s take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain ( a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Miserables or War and Peace.


Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or late they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate.


January 1st, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

Here I pause for one moment to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind

Thomas de Quincey, On murder considered as one of the fine arts

January 1st, 2019 § 0 comments § permalink

He was known for his indifference and for wearing a monocle.

Wikipedia tries to sum up somebody’s life

Classifying Accidents

December 31st, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

American doctors need to be very careful to classify each treatment they give, to ensure they can claim payment from insurance companies. Looking at the list of possible treatments, though, makes you wonder if they are being slightly more specific than needed. For example: X35XXXD Volcanic eruption, subsequent encounter W5629XA Other contact with orca, initial encounter W2202XA Walked into…

View On WordPress

December 30th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

there are many people who view Sci-Hub as some kind of a tool to change the system. Like changing the system was a goal, and Sci-Hub was a tool to achieve it.
My view is completely different. For me, Sci-Hub has a value by itself, as a website where users can access knowledge.
The system has to be changed so that websites like Sci-Hub can work without running into problems. Sci-Hub is a goal, changing the system is one of the methods to achieve it.

December 30th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use.
Beginning with ideas. Which ones can we take? Which ones can we give?

John Cage

Hacker News does comparative religion

December 29th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

some of the older Mesoamerican religions are imperative, in that they involve a lot of telling people what to do. Contrariwise, hermetic magic is purely functional, in that the practitioner expresses a series of state transformations with no side effects.

 – source

December 28th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

We have a sacred bond with our clients,” he said. “Money can’t take precedence.

Matt Levine teases out the implications of prostitute-client confidentiality for insider-trading regulation

December 27th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

Multiocular O (ꙮ) is a rare glyph variant of the Cyrillic letter O. This glyph variant can be found in certain manuscripts in the phrase «серафими многоꙮчитїи» (“many-eyed seraphim”).

Real-life Lovecraftian typography, thanks to wikipedia

Graffiti of the ’70s

December 27th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

Graffiti of the ’70s

Unusually, here’s a Guardian article with comments worth reading. It’s about Graffiti, so the Guardianistas are out reminiscing about slogans of decades paste: During Ronald Reagan’s early 80’s anti-Soviet Union sabre rattling era around corner from uni in two foot high lettering with brush in black on bright yellow building site hoarding: MUTATE NOW! AVOID POST BOMB RUSH Northwick Park…

View On WordPress

December 26th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

The thing that resonated most with me–also the thing that my friend thought I had in common with the main character–was the idea that you could make a particular decision, and set yourself down a particular course of action, in order to make yourself become a particular kind of person.

December 25th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

Acedia [sloth] can’t be resisted simply by strengthening our will—we also need to train our will to draw us toward the right things. The opposite of acedia isn’t dutiful work, it’s extravagant joy. Snell writes that “only the lover—the non-slothful—who wills/loves/approves the goodness of the world in comprehensive and ultimate affirmation can celebrate the festival

New paint colors invented by neural network

December 25th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink


So if you’ve ever picked out paint, you know that every infinitesimally different shade of blue, beige, and gray has its own descriptive, attractive name. Tuscan sunrise, blushing pear, Tradewind, etc… There are in fact people who invent these names for a living. But given that the human eye can see millions of distinct colors, sooner or later we’re going to run out of good names. Can AI help?

For this experiment, I gave the neural network a list of about 7,700 Sherwin-Williams paint colors along with their RGB values. (RGB = red, green, and blue color values) Could the neural network learn to invent new paint colors and give them attractive names?

One way I have of checking on the neural network’s progress during training is to ask it to produce some output using the lowest-creativity setting. Then the neural network plays it safe, and we can get an idea of what it has learned for sure.

By the first checkpoint, the neural network has learned to produce valid RGB values – these are colors, all right, and you could technically paint your walls with them. It’s a little farther behind the curve on the names, although it does seem to be attempting a combination of the colors brown, blue, and gray.

By the second checkpoint, the neural network can properly spell green and gray. It doesn’t seem to actually know what color they are, however.

Let’s check in with what the more-creative setting is producing.

…oh, okay.

Later in the training process, the neural network is about as well-trained as it’s going to be (perhaps with different parameters, it could have done a bit better – a lot of neural network training involves choosing the right training parameters). By this point, it’s able to figure out some of the basic colors, like white, red, and grey:

Although not reliably.

In fact, looking at the neural network’s output as a whole, it is evident that:

  1. The neural network really likes brown, beige, and grey.
  2. The neural network has really really bad ideas for paint names.


December 24th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

We moved between two worlds. When we pushed back
our chairs and scattered to our departments, we transformed. I would
watch girls who’d just been near tears in the dorm-room mirrors
suddenly become rapt with life, fingers flying over a harp, a violin,
bodies elastic with motion, voices strolling through Shakespeare’s
forest of words.

In the writing department, I would sit sucking on sugar-free mints,
the fingers of my left hand gripping the edge of a desk, face inches
away from the paper, right hand curled around my pen as tight as
a baby’s fist. At the end of a workshop, my entire body would feel
stiff, my hand arthritic, my head whirring maniacally. I have never
been able to explain what happened to me that year, in those work-
shops, in literature classes. They made us read, and read, and read more, and then write until I thought I would never be able to write again. Entire pages were blackened with furious erasures, notations, triumphant discoveries of the exact word, precisely that word, notebook after notebook, ragged with torn half-pages, stapled photocopies of whatnots, paper-clipped random passing thoughts.

Marya Hornbacher, Wasted