Here’s a riddle:
“As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kitts.
Kitts, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?”
This riddle simultaneously tests the reader’s memory, multiplication, reading comprehension, and lateral thinking skills. It’s as old as the hills (which isn’t saying much since many hills were formed yesterday) and there are several apparently correct ways to solve it. And your idea of the correct answer tends to change the longer you think about it.
The classic answer is “one”. If the narrator met the others on the road, then they must have been going in the other direction, away from St Ives.
But wait: what if the narrator is on horseback, and the others are on foot? Then he could have easily overtaken them on the road.
And wait a little more: the wording is crafty. The man has seven wives; we’re not told that they’re on the road with him. Maybe they’re at home, fanning themselves in a couch while exclaiming “lack a day!” or whatever women in the 18th century did. Same for sacks, cats, and kitts. “With” is a preposition that can either mean “accompanied by” or “characterised by”, and its usage here is unclear.
And all the narrator knows is that these people are on the road to St Ives. They needn’t be going there: maybe they’ll stop halfway, have a picnic, and then go back home. I don’t think there’s anything worth seeing at St Ives.
Even as a straightforward multiplication problem, the riddle is confusing. Is the answer 2,802 (the geometric series of wives, sacks, cats, kitts, plus the narrator and the husband?). But surely the 49 sacks don’t add to the count – their only purpose is to store the cats and kitts – so the answer is 2,753. Except line six explicitly tells us to count the kitts, cats, sacks, and wives…but doesn’t say to include the narrator or the husband. So maybe it’s 2,800.
To summarise, the correct answer is 1, 9, 2802, 2753, 2800, 69, 420, 666, 1234567890, and many others besides, your choice of which depends on grammatical and syntactical ambiguities. Being able to calculate correctly is no use against such quicksand.
In IT, you hear the analogy “steel door in a cardboard wall” to mock a security system that tries to defend the indefensible. Here, mathematics is like a steel-framed bridge spanning two cliffs made of chalk. You can use a calculator to add up numbers. You can create a futuristic quantum D-wave supercomputer with no purpose except to add up numbers. It still won’t help. There’s no way to know how many people were going to St Ives, because the answer rests not on mathematics but on the English language.
Caricatures – and minimalistic art – are compelling arguments for the existence of magic. Start with a blank page, add a line, add another line, add a third line, and a bird explodes into life, convulsing the page with movement.
You may have seen Scott McCloud’s explanation of how comics work: they’re a subtractive art that works by stripping away details and forcing the viewer’s mind to fill the empty holes. Art is a heavy stone, and either the artist or the audience can carry it. For realistic art, the artist has done all the heavy lifting. David Ligare’s Naxos (Thrown Drapery) requires little reconstructive work for the audience: everything he wanted to say is there on canvas. But for a caricature, the “real” picture exists in the viewer’s mind: and the drawing is a series of keys and ciphers recalling it to memory.
That makes the magic even cooler, though. Because you performed the trick of making the bird looked real. Your mind contained the blaze: all the artist did was light a match. It also implies the possibility of failure: a person who has never seen a bird would never know what it looks like based on a three line sketch. A caricature is worth a thousand words…but you have to write the thousand words yourself.
This also explains how (successful) caricatures are frequently so different to each other. They rely on cached images in the viewer’s brain, and two people might have different caches. As an example: Ben Garrison is a political cartoonist who supports Donald Trump. He has often been noted for his flattering depictions of Trump’s physique.
I would call this a caricature of Trump. Garrison has identified certain qualities (Trump’s height and powerful build) and created an image his audience will instantly recognise.
Anti-Trump cartoonists draw him differently: a grossly obese pile of half-melted wax perpetually throwing a tantrum (art by Damien Glez, reproduced here for educational purposes):
Again, an unrealistic pastiche of traits, but you can easily recognize the figure being depicted. People are made of different, sometimes contradictory elements (Trump is tall and muscular but also somehow fat and shapeless) and a cartoonist can choose which traits to emphasise or ignore.
(I’ve noticed a lot of people laughing at Garrison’s depictions of Trump, but nobody laughing at Glez’s. Maybe this is for tribal reasons, but some of us also seem uncomfortable with cartoons that improve reality instead of mocking and defacing it).
But caricatures have a dark side. They are unreliable. They can reify lies or misconceptions. A cartoon short man wearing a bicorn hat will instantly be identified as “Napoleon” even though the real Napoleon wasn’t short. And even if Trump starts cycling steroids and pumping weights to become the muscular ubermensch of Ben Garrison’s nocturnal dreams, left-wing cartoonists will still draw him as a fat manbaby.
* * *
It seems to me that history is a caricature. And the longer the given period of history, the more extreme the caricatures become.
Nobody’s ever written a complete biography of a person. It would be unreadable. Nobody wants to hear about the shit Arthur Schopenhauer took on Monday 21 May 1810, at 3:31pm. Nobody even knows these things to begin with.
Biographers – even honest ones – curate what they need from their subject, slicing out sections with the care of a florist taking a graft from a plant. Their choice is driven by the same factors as Garrison and Glez’s – personal taste, propaganda, and (overwhelmingly) availability bias. Biographers can’t write about what they don’t know about. We portrayed dinosaurs as huge lizards for decades, not because of malicious conspiracy, but because the feathers didn’t survive fossilization.
According to some people, biographical flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Some of history’s most famous and heavily emulated heroes – Jesus Christ, Siddh?rtha Gautama, – have an element of interpretability. They’re like blank canvasses. Or half-drawn birds. Their words are open to translation, their private thoughts unknown and inscrutable. Traditionalists, radicals, kings, and paupers all see themselves reflected in these figures. People love them for the same reason they love getting a blank tile in the game of Scrabble – you can make it say whatever you want.
Some of pop culture’s thorniest debates (what would Martin Luther King Jr have really thought about black people rioting in 2020?) touch on this anxiety. How is it that one man is being split into two or three or more by his biographers? Which is the real one? Is this not an insult to his memory? Does he even have a memory to be insulted? Does he even exist except as a puppet to be manipulated by his followers?
According to the Church of Scientology, founder L Ron Hubbard is “much-decorated war hero who commanded a corvette and during hostilities was crippled and wounded”. Other biographies regard him a different way. Competing caricatures. I think the internet’s current conception of him as a worthless con artist misleading as well: he could also be a brilliant author. There’s a battle happening between caricatures, with the real L Ron Hubbard (if he can even be reconstructed) gradually getting trampled.
History contains wars. History also is a war. WWII ended almost eighty years ago now, but the iconomachy of competing images – Winston Churchill, saint or sinner? – continues.
* * *
H. P. Lovecraft was a New England fantasist whose big idea was to de-emphasise the human experience. The earth isn’t the center of the universe, and the human mind isn’t the center of all possible mind-spaces. This seems obvious now, but wasn’t in the 1920s. In the average science fiction (or scientifiction) story from this period, aliens from distant worlds are portrayed as people. There’s always the scene where the bug-eyed monster lusts after our women: human males like attractive girls, so aliens will as well.
But in Lovecraft’s work, the cosmos has no pivot, core, or central reference point. Aliens aren’t failed humans. Humans aren’t failed aliens. Us and the Other are orthogonal to each other, beyond comparison. We occupy a certain niche, and in another niche, another sentient lifeform might exist. We would each regard the other as being unthinkable, horrific, and perhaps not even alive.
Lovecraft was shy and afraid of disease. He was also a bigot, even by the standards of his day. This may have been informed by his philosophy: if humanity exists in a tiny margin of sense and order, any attempts to leave that niche will probably corrupt everything (he married a Jewish woman, of course). If he’d lived a century later, he’d be one of those “online thought leaders” with ten thousand Youtube videos who never showers or leaves the house.
For years, Lovecraft’s status within the fantasy and horror community was such that the World Fantasy Award was commemorated by a bust in his image. Eventually, Lovecraft’s racism cast a shadow over his work, and the bust became controversial.
Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.
This is 2011 WFA winner Nnedi Okorafor’s summation of HP Lovecraft: a racist man. Nothing else about him matters. She alludes to his skill as a writer only once, and it’s only as an adjective to racist.
I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.
But are people honoring the talent, or honoring the racism? It’s fully accurate to state that Lovecraft was bigoted against blacks. What is, perhaps, inaccurate, is that this needs to be the dominant memory of his legacy, ahead of his literary talent or influence. Her blog post is restrained, the comments section less so.
These old ways are dying i say throw the little fucker’s malignant image into the dust bin of history. Good riddence to bad rubbish.
Yes, Lovecraft’s racism was part of his character and I don’t want people to stop discussing that. But there’s the opposite extreme of viewing historical figures solely as cultural footballs. Team Racism does not win if Lovecraft’s face is on the WFA prize. A statue dedicated to HP Lovecraft is not a statue dedicated to racism. It remains a statue of HP Lovecraft: who was a complex and troubled person irreducible to politicized buzzwords.
* * *
In 1484, a man called Christopher Columbus resolved to sail westward from Spain to the Indies across the Atlantic Ocean. But there was a problem: it was impossible.
Obviously, America is in the way. But even in theory, sailing to the Indies wouldn’t work. According Eratosthenes the world is 40,000km around, and Japan’s coast is approximately 20,000 kilometers from the Canary Islands. A 15th century ship couldn’t have made that kind of journey.
But Columbus had salesmanship, so he shopped around for smaller estimates of the Earth’s size. He finally settled on an estimate of 29,000km. He furthermore insisted that the landmass of Eurasia took up about six sevenths of the earth’s circumference, leaving only one seventh of the circumference covered in the Atlantic. As a result, he calculated a voyage that was many thousands of kilometers shorter than it actually would have been. The Spanish monarchs were dumb enough to finance it.
Deception, math errors, stupidity…but it led to the great success of the century, perhaps the millennia. The colonization of the new world.
For years, the caricature of Columbus as a brave explorer dominated. But as with Lovecraft, other caricatures have since come to replace it. It appears that Columbus vastly mismanaged his early New World colony. Allegations of tyranny and brutality soon grew to the point where he was arrested and imprisoned upon his return to Spain from the third voyage. “He was a man of his time” isn’t much of an excuse. He wasn’t a man of his time. The other men of his time put him behind bars.
Columbus Day is now a holiday celebrated in the United States. It has also become politically controversial, as the unpleasant connotations of Columbus’s name grow larger in the public’s mind.
For some people, Columbus means “brave explorer”. For others, it’s “tyrant”. A day with Columbus’s name is either symbolic of the first or the second – it can have no other connotations. And as with Garrison and Glez’s radically different visions of Trump, neither side is really correct or incorrect. The concept of Columbus somehow instantiates both ideas, although not among the same people at the same time.
I assume one of the two narratives will finally crush the other some day. Probably the politically correct one. Columbus, Ohio will have to change it’s name, or exist as a flagrant reminder of colonialist brutality. The 2355 people surnamed “Columbus” in the United States will probably seem as socially ridiculous as the handful of people still surnamed “Hitler”. It should be impossible for one person to insist that their distorted reality is the true one, but in practice it happens all the time. Even Ben Garrison would probably start drawing Trump has morbidly obese if he had a gun held to his head.
Trump, who is eminently still alive, largely exists as a word-cloud associative symbolism matrix (tall + fat + weird hair + orange skin + (…)). Political cartoonists grab whatever keywords they need to describe him, and as the years condemn, they’ll soon grab fewer and easier words. Trump will simplify. Flatten. He’ll lose dimension. He’ll break free from reality, the words absorbing his essence.
The problem with history is that it keeps getting longer, which means everyone inside it gets smaller, and simpler.
Earlier, I said that Napoleon wasn’t short, and he wasn’t. But the day might come when he’s historically short: when so many new events and faces are crowding the books that he’s crushed away to almost nothing. In ten thousand years, his final protean nub of biography will be something like “SHORT. FUNNY HAT.”
In the Hindi language there is a word called ???, Jhootha, which literally means “food partially eaten by someone”. All of history is Jhootha, masticated stickily in someone’s mouth and then spat in a chewed-up lump into your mind. There’s bite marks all over your conception of Donald Trump. Saliva is dripping from your mental cache of HP Lovecraft and Christopher Columbus. Jhootha has a second meaning, by the way: Liar.
In the world of Star Trek there’s an impossible game that you win by refusing to play. Aside from getting a good performance out of Marina Sirtis.
There are things like that in our world too: ambiguous scenarios where “winning” is as imponderably subjective as Charlie Sheen’s sexuality. Years ago, researchers conducted a study where first-graders were given an unsolvable math problem. American first-graders abandoned the problem after thirty seconds. Japanese first-graders worked on it for an entire hour until stopped by the testers.
This is sometimes cited as a story of how American children lack willpower and need instant gratification and blah blah smartphones. Is it, though? The problem was unsolvable. Putting any amount of effort into it is a waste of time. Maybe this is a story about how American children are better at questioning authority.
Or consider the Marshmallow test. You offer a child a choice: one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if he sits patiently for twenty minutes. Apparently, children who choose to wait go on to have positive life outcomes like lower crime rates and higher SAT scores and the ability to plug USB drives in correctly first try.
But what if this is the tail wagging the dog? Disadvantaged children often come from homes where adults are untrustworthy and lie to them. They might think “I don’t know if you have marshmallows and I don’t want to waste 15 minutes finding out. I’m calling your bluff right now.” The causation might be wrong: poor impulse control doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes mistrust for adults.
Or what if children don’t care about marshmallows? Or what if they’d be just as satisfied with one marshmallow as with two and want to get on with their day? It’s actually pretty unclear what lesson we can take from this about the psychology of children.
I’m reminded of those “experiments” where you walk up to a person in a mall and offer them $100 today or $102 tomorrow. Nearly everyone takes the $100, even though an interest rate of 2% a day is amazing. Wow, people are stupid. Unlike you and I, who are smart.
…But wait, you also have to price in possibilities such as
- The experimenter is a con artist
- You won’t be able to find the guy tomorrow and collect your $102
- You can’t get off work tomorrow
- You’ll get in a car crash tomorrow
- Society will have collapsed by tomorrow
This is the flaw in both the experiment and Marxist-derived economics – not all money is equal. We’re not making an apples-to-apples comparison of $100 vs $102. We’re comparing a solid $100 in your hand right now vs a rubbery, nebulous, sorta-maybe $102 tomorrow that you might never even get. Actual money is vastly more valuable than hypothetical future money, and the person who chooses the $100 is making the correct choice.
Rotten.com was a website that collected pictures of dead people. As old as the internet itself, it survived lawsuits, DDOS attacks, and being featured on the Howard Stern show. In 2017, it finally went offline. The website that harvested death became death. If it was a human body, it would have decayed to bones by now.
Imagine a website, Botten.com, that collects pictures of dead websites. It wouldn’t be exciting: just screenshots of 404 and ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED messages. Dead people rot; dead websites cease to exist. At least it’s not the other way around. I’m glad my body will hang around as an annoying smelly mass instead of vanishing peacefully into the ether. No matter how unloved and ignored I was in life, someday it’ll end, and then someone – if only the county medical examiner – will pay attention to me.
Rotten.com had a FAQ page, and one of the questions was “are they real”? They, meaning the pictures. As if car crash victims are like freakish Bigfoot sightings instead of something that could happen to any of us this afternoon.
The webmaster’s reply was stark. “Pictures of this nature aren’t particularly rare; they are merely hidden from the public in most cases.”
Hidden by whom? Traditionally, the media and the government stopped you from seeing upsetting photos. It used to be easy (and common) for a state actor to control and prohibit the release of a photograph, and there are photos that we know exist and which we’ll never see. Diana, Princess of Wales, shattered like a bisque doll against the asphalt of a Parisian tunnel. Rudolf Hess, post mortem after what was either suicide or extrajudicial execution by MI6 agents at Spandau Prison. Photos can die, but they can also be imprisoned and serve life sentences.
In 2020, social media is the primary way people view images, and the volume of digital data overwhelms traditional state censorship. 95 million photos are shared on Instagram every minute. Far more than anyone wants to look at. When you scroll a feed, you’re rolling the dice that the next picture won’t be of an amputated penis.
Hiding atrocities now falls to contractors for Facebook and Twitter, typically located in the Philippines or India. These business process outsourcing (BPO) companies provide human content moderation at scale for large companies. They’re the thin brown line separating Facebook from 4chan. Scrolling social media all day might not seem like an especially demanding job, but apparently the job causes psychological problems.
“The despair and darkness of people will get to you”
In his first few weeks on the job, Rahul felt shocked by the graphic videos he encountered of car crashes and child abuse. Eventually, he grew desensitized.
“It gets to a point where you can eat your lunch while watching a video of someone dying. … But at the end of the day, you still have to be human.” Rahul said he didn’t see a therapist — it wouldn’t have been useful to him, he said.
…it was a graphic video of a child being abused that stuck with him. After seeing the video, he began to notice a change in his own behavior that worried him. “I am not a bad person,” he told Rest of World. “But I’d find myself doing little diabolical things, saying things I would regret. Thinking things I didn’t want to.”
This reminds me of a six year old article from Wired, outlining the same problem.
Eight years after the fact, Jake Swearingen can still recall the video that made him quit. He was 24 years old and between jobs in the Bay Area when he got a gig as a moderator for a then-new startup called VideoEgg. Three days in, a video of an apparent beheading came across his queue.
“Oh fuck! I’ve got a beheading!” he blurted out. A slightly older colleague in a black hoodie casually turned around in his chair. “Oh,” he said, “which one?” At that moment Swearingen decided he did not want to become a connoisseur of beheading videos. “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it,” says Swearingen, now the social media editor at Atlantic Media. (Swearingen was also an intern at WIRED in 2007.)w of humanity.”
Some content moderators end up traumatized by their experiences, and some are now suing the the companies they used to work for. Others (like Swearingen) have the opposite problem: they’re not traumatized. Quite the reverse: looking at horrible things is becoming far too comfortable for them.
Is there a solution?
Some people enjoy seeing this content. Or are stimulated in some way by it. Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not newspaper column documented the bizarre and unfortunate, and became an American institution. Rotten.com got millions of clicks a month in 1997. In recent years, subreddits like /r/watchpeopledie have replaced them. Whether this is normal or not is up for debate: it’s conceivably useful.
Someone on Hackernews had the idea of outsourcing content moderation to /r/watchpeopledie.
It’s kind of brilliant. There’s clear lines of supply (disturbing pictures + people who like looking at them) and demand (content moderation + boredom alleviation) on both sides. People would do this job for free, or for MTurk-level wages.
I can think of only two problems with this idea
1) Everyone has different triggers. Perhaps I enjoy beheading videos, but am upset about animal abuse. A /r/watchpeopledie user can selectively avoid links containing disturbing content, whereas a content moderator has to view everything.
2) Doing something recreationally doesn’t mean you’ll succeed with it as a job. Game development studio Ion Storm hired level designers who had created mods for Doom and Quake, on the theory that the skill would translate to the work environment. Often, it didn’t. Doing something for fun is a radically different vibe, because you have agency and can choose the shape of your task. At work, the task’s shape is imposed on you by management. It’s not the activity that’s fun, it’s the freedom.
This record from 1969 contains half an hour of beach noises. “This is a joke” would be a reasonable first impression. So would “this was both created and should be experienced under the influence of drugs”. But after a few minutes, the repetitive pounding conjures images: waves curving and breaking like glass, droplets descending in curtains of diamonds, the beach drinking, the sea regenerating. The ocean is an eternal breathing lung, and this exact noise has happened over and over for as long as liquid water has existed on the planet. Thirty minutes contains four point four billion years. It’s a little awesome.
Listen long enough, and you start hallucinating. Your Broca and Wernicke’s areas start mistaking the crashing waves for vowels and consonents, as if the sea is speaking as well as breathing. At one point, a low, droning hum (a foghorn?) emerges through the sound of waves. It almost seems to drill through them, like an ice augur. The foghorn tells a wordless story of man appearing and gaining ascendance over nature: but then the foghorn vanishes, and the waves remain.
Environments 1 was the work of a fascinating person from the 60s counterculture: Irving Solomon Teibel. He seems to have been somewhere between a musician, an inventor, and a con artist.
To rip the band-aid off, Environments is not what it appears. This is not the sound of nature. It’s the sound of a computer. It’s not a natural beach. It’s eight minutes of tape hacked up with a razorblade, reassembled in certain patterns, and supplemented with synthetic waves of white noise. It contains an “ocean” to the extent that an Ashlee Simpson album contains “singing.” That it sounds like the real thing is largely because your brain was primed to expect it, and never questions that assumption.
One of Teibel’s interests was psychoacoustics: the impact of audio on humans. Countless people have to put on a fan to help them sleep. Others need to turn a fan off. Stephen King writes to loud rock music. I can’t write to a radio half a block away. The potential for audio to be used as a tool of relaxation or healing was a topic of interest in the late 60s, and in that spirit, Teibel decided to record the ocean.
Using a Uher portable stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder, he recorded tapes of beaches all across the eastern seaboard of the United States of America, seeking the noises he heard in his head. All his attempts failed. For whatever reason, real-life beaches didn’t sound right. The missing link was neuropsychologist called Louis Gerstman, who had access to an IBM 360 at a time when mainframe computers cost around two million dollars. He and Teibel laboriously altered the tapes until they had arrived at a “right” sounding ocean that was, in fact, heavily artificial.
With this knowledge in mind, it’s easy to see where Teibel’s ocean was change, and why. The “sentence-like” quality of the waves is deliberate: the creator wanted to evoke a language. The way they stay at precisely the same volume throughout is another choice. By the way, I’ve heard rumors that the droning noises aren’t foghorns, but Irv Teibel’s mouth.
“Listen to a computerized beach for an hour” was a rough sell, so Teibel worked over his product with consummate salesmanship. It was sold as a restfulness enhancer, and the cover plastered with exhuberant user reviews (“HAVEN’T FELT SO GOOD SINCE MY VACATION”; “cured my insomnia!”; “BETTER THAN A TRANQUILIZER,”; “fantastic for making love!”) that were almost certainly written by Teibel himself. It worked. The record was picked up for distribution by Atlantic, and was soon selling thousands of copies. He presaged Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports by a full nine years, but he isn’t remembered as a pioneer of ambient music. Teibel had a similar problem to Delia Derbyshire (who created the electronic Dr Who theme) – you don’t want to invent something too early, or you won’t be part of the seminal “scene” and everyone will forget to credit your innovations.
Psychologically Ultimate Seashore was side A of Environments. The reverse contains Optimum Aviary, which is just a curio. I don’t like the sound of birds, nor the shrill and irritating recording.
And apparently the seashore still wasn’t psychologically optimum enough, because the CD re-release of the 1969 vinyl contains several more changes. It’s doubled in length by (you can hear a clumsy cut where this happens), and has been equalized to take advantage of the flat response digital audio offers. A weird little joke (Teibel recording himself saying “skoosh!” or something) is excised. The CD release is best viewed as a remix. Many more Environments were released after this, but the first is the most famous.
Teibel described his work as “more real than real,” which raises the question: is that a contradiction of terms? Can something be realer than real? If reality isn’t to our liking, can we improve it, or does that mean it’s no longer reality?
As a child, I found a pebble at a beach that was nearly a perfect cube, as if cut with a chisel. It was a naturally-occurring rock, but it didn’t look “real” to my eye. I could have changed its shape, smashing off its corners so that it resembled other pebbles…but would this have brought it closer to nature, or farther away?
Another Teibel LP (perhaps his second most famous, after Environments) is The Altered Nixon Speech. It contains Richard Nixon’s August 15, 1973 speech, creatively edited so that he’s confessing to the Watergate break-ins. “My effort throughout has been burglary and bugging of party headquarters, obstructing justice, harassing individuals, and compromising those agencies of government that should be above politics.”
The recording was made in a spirit of fun – Teibel wasn’t trying to hoax anyone – but it’s an interesting “reality improvement”, from Teibel’s perspective. As a NYC-dwelling hippie of Jewish descent, he probably viewed Nixon as a crook. He probably also saw his altered Nixon speech as closer to the truth than the one Nixon actually gave.
Computers are cheaper than they were in 1969, and although Teibel was one of the first digital tinkerers with the truth, he wasn’t the last. Farms of online trolls are forging videos to sway elections. Thousands of rappers are time-aligning and pitch-correcting their voices for Soundcloud tracks. Millions of young women use Facetune to transform their bodies for Instagram likes. In the accelerated evolution of digital media, it’s easy for a new reality to supplant an old one. Not everyone shares Teibel’s essentially prosocial outlook, or his sense of fun. Can we gild the lily? Should we?
Maybe the waves really are speaking. “We are not the sea.“
Let’s read a book together: Faucault’s histoire de la folie à l’âge classique:
“A book is produced. […] its doubles begin to swarm. Around it and far from it; each reading gives it an impalpable and unique body for an instant; fragments of itself are circulating and are made to stand in for it, are taken to almost entirely contain it, and sometimes serve as a refuge for it; it is doubled with commentaries, those other discourses in which it should finally appear as it is, confessing what it had refused to say, freeing itself from what it had so loudly pretended to be.
(Foucault, cited in Eribon 1991: 124)
…But we aren’t reading “a” book. We’re not reading the same thing and participating in a shared experience. We’re reading two different things: even though the above text might have all the same letters and words.
The thing is, they’re not being read by the same person.
Byron wrote Don Juan in 1819. It had a complicated publication history. Due to concerns over blasphemy and libel the book was released in two editions – a very expensive bound edition without an author’s name, and a very cheap bootleg that was distributed among anarchists.
From an evolutionary perspective this is r/K selection. An author wants his work to survive. They can do this by a) making their work so valuable and precious that it can’t be thrown away b) making it so cheap that it CAN be thrown away (and ends up becoming landfill, outlasting civilisation). Byron seems to have tried both strategies at once.
Were both editions the same book? I’d argue they’re not: the first edition was read by the upper class, and the second by anarchists. The first would have been read in a spirit of transgression: you were doing something naughty and beneath your station. A rich person reading Don Juan is like a rich person picking their nose at the dinner table. An anarchist would have read Don Juan as brutal, well-deserved skewering of Romantic literary conceits: one spark dancing in the all-consuming fire immanentizing the eschaton et cetera next paragraph
I sometimes wonder if there’s any point in writing anything. Any idea more complicated than “I exist” is going to be get misinterpreted by someone, somewhere. Readers are like distorted mirrors: light pours into them and is reflected, corrupted. Although from their perspective, it’s being reflected correctly. No other interpretation is valid except the reader’s. Don Juan is an anarchist anthem. Or it’s a toy for the enemies of the anarchists. It’s somehow both, and neither. It’s intended meaning was probably something else entirely.
Books tend to be used for propaganda. In the antebellum south, slave owners frequently justified using verses from the Bible. But freed slaves also relied on scripture, particularly the slave-freeing narrative of Exodus. “The Bible says” is often a less honest version of “I say”.
But a more fundamental issue is that words are a representation of a message, but not a complete representation. Sentences lack the context present in the author’s mind. The reader has to supply their own context, and they usually attribute the one they personally prefer.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
- She said she did not take his money.
This is the infamous “eight sentences in one”, where the meaning shifts depending on which word carries the emphasis. Additional permutations can be generated by emphasising multiple words (eg, She said she did not take his money.) None are correct. There’s additional pieces of context (who’s “she”?) that would further modify how the sentence is read.
This suggest that it’s a waste of time to hone and shape your writing. The point is to find the right audience, a group of people who are already attuned to your intended meaning. Early screenings of This is Spinal Tap were reportedly filled with squares who didn’t get the joke, and who thought that Spinal Tap was a real band. Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest clearly thought that the audience would be full of smart people like them, the idiots. The space of the human mind is pretty broad, and it can be hard to accept that you don’t occupy a prestiged position within it.
Have you ever wondered why Nigerian scam emails are always so…obvious? Why don’t they vary their pitch a little – by claiming to be from Senegal, say? This is actually intentional: they’re supposed to be obvious, because they only want gullible people to respond to their emails. Sending out millions of spam emails is the easy part: the hard part is finessing the repliers. You don’t want to spend three weeks talking to a person, only for them to decide you’re ripping them off. If you’re smart enough to notice that all scam emails are from the same country, you’re smart enough to not give a credit card number to a stranger. The scammers have found a way to filter their readers so that only the very, very stupid respond.
I think a true writer would use a similar technique. Somewhere out there is a person who thinks my unintelligible drooling makes sense. The challenge for me is to find that person. If it’s you: hello. Please never leave. You’re all I have.
It might be easier to create a perfect reader than a perfect book. I imagine a sociopath writer by crippling the brains of his reader so that they’re exactly that. It’s lucky that writers seldom become totalitarian dictators. Don’t think that Will Self’s new book is excellent? With the right cocktail of drugs you will. With the right frontal lobe excised, you will. You need the correct motivation. It will be fun.
In 1982, Viking Press published four novellas by Stephen King, themed loosely (and probably ex-post-facto) after the four seasons. Someone else did it first, of course, and King seems to be referencing Vivaldi’s sonatas (even presenting the seasons in the order of Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter). This kind of performative literary touch might indicate an attempt to step outside the horror genre, and the novellas back this up. They’re not King’s usual work.
The first novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, impresses the heck out of me, every time I read it. I think it’s one of the best things he ever wrote.
It contains the famous line “prison is no fairytale world”. But King’s Shawshank is a fairytale world: and the character of Andy Dufresne is as much a folk figure as Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. The plot is very famous thanks to a Frank Darabont movie: it’s about a wrongfully convicted man (but everyone behind bars is wrongfully convicted, the worldly narrator explains), and the ingenious use he finds for a poster of a Golden Age Hollywood actress.
But a straight telling of the plot doesn’t do justice to how rich an experience “Rita Hayworth” is. Its pages seem to bleed colour and sound. Literally everything about it is fascinating, from the desperate thrust of the main story to the little asides and sketches about incarcerated life. King always shines when writing about guys in prison, probably because they “contain” the action and actors in one place (subverting the questions about “why doesn’t [insert bozo] run away?”), as well as allowing time to move as fast or as slow as he chooses.
The ending is genuinely moving, even if you know what’s going to happen. Early in the story we get a vignette about a con who owned a pet pigeon. The day after he gets paroled, the pigeon is found “dead as a turd”. That’s life. The pigeon dies. “Rita Hayworth” is a legend where the pigeon gets to live, winging away into the blue silent sky.
“Apt Pupil” is a portrait of a young sociopath. Thirteen-year-old Todd Bowden accosts an elderly German immigrant and threatens to expose his secret: he’s a former Nazi commandant called Kurt Dussander, who ran an extermination camp. Bowden doesn’t want money, he wants knowledge. He’s is obsessed with the Holocaust. Obsessed with mass graves and incinerators. He wants to hear about the Holocaust from someone who actually perpetuated it. He wants to become Dussander’s pupil.
This character is totally believable – thanks to the internet, you can encounter Todd Bowden online any time you want to. The world is full of Holocaust fetishists – let’s face it, there’s something chic and sexy about the Final Solution that other historical tragedies lack: it’s the Rolls Royce of genocides. The Bowdens of the world aren’t overtly pro-Nazi – far from it, in fact. Even notorious Nazisploitation flick Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS dutifully informs the viewer that it’s only staging depictions of the Holocaust “with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again”. Whether or not you believe these cover stories, the disconcerting reality is that people still pay money to watch Judenfleisch get brutalized.
The story takes unpredictable turns, and avoids several obvious cliches. Although the relationship between Bowden and Dussander is initially one of extortion, soon they’re both in over their heads and reliant on the other to survive. Dussander doesn’t want his identity revealed. Bowden doesn’t want his all-American parents to discover his Nazi fetish. A game theoretician could teach a class based on “Apt Pupil”: Dussander and Bowden each have the ability to destroy each other, and this gives them perfect trust, as any betrayal will be punished by the other. In real life the strongest teams aren’t the Justice League, they’re La Cosa Nostra: bad guys with guns held to each other’s heads. Nevertheless, the mental (and soon physical) violence soon increases, to the point where the story explodes. A nice little tale about rattling skeletons and having them rattle you back.
“The Body” sees King going for an easy score. Plucky children, 1950s Maine, dark secret: how can you go wrong? It has plenty of connective tissue to other King stories (the character of Ace Merrill appears in a few other tales, and even Joe Camber’s mad dog Cujo gets a shout-out), but the strongest link might be to King’s own childhood.
The actual plot (four young boys go into the woods because they’ve heard there’s a dead body) is slender and almost irrelevant. The focus is on their characters, and the idealism of childhood interacting with the complexities of a world where trains and dogs and guns can kill you. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the white picket fences of the 1950s often concealed scenes of unpleasantness, even horror, and a lot of King’s work consists of vivisecting America’s Leave It To Beaver era for the modern reader’s education. I like “The Body”, but compared to “Rita Hayworth” and “Apt Pupil” it seems conservative and safe: King colouring well between the lines.
The final novella is the least like the others. “The Breathing Method” is quite brief, almost a short story, contains overt supernatural and horror elements, and is detached from its central character in a way the others aren’t. It still has a stately literary air that separates it from his “I Was a Teenage Grave-Robber” stuff, but next to the first three it’s as insubstantial as breath on a winter’s day.
It’s about a woman way up shit creek. She’s pregnant, and the father has booked it out of town. She approaches a doctor, although not for the reasons you might expect. She wants to keep the baby, and she needs the doctor’s help.
King has made no bones about his difficulties in writing female characters, and here he avoids that difficulty by telling the story from the perspective of the male doctor. This is probably for the best, but it creates a lot of distance between us and the main character. It’s like trying to feel empathy for a person you can only glimpse through a periscope. But, importantly, it also casts the tale’s supernatural (or magical realist) elements under a shadow. Is this the truth? Or only what the narrator believes or wishes was the truth?
Hard though it might be to believe, in the 1980s the question existed as to whether King could escape the horror ghetto. These days the question is settled, and the new one is should he write outside that ghetto. Whatever you might think his neverending quest to write the Great American novel, this was an early, profitable attempt at broadening his portfolio. I just wish the final story was longer. If these are seasons, Stephen King Metro is built on the Equatorial line, where winter only lasts for a few days.
The Portuguese were probably more technologically advanced than China by the mid 16th century. They had arquebuses, matchlock muskets, and breech loaded cannons. We know this stuff was better than the Chinese equivalents, because the Chinese copied them. After the battle of Shancaowan, the Ming captured some Portuguese swivel guns and produced their own imitations, which they called “Folangji”. When a Ming prince received a shipment of Folangji to deal with a seditious local lord, he literally wept for joy.
It’s surprising, considering that China had the first guns, rockets, and cannons. It’s like if Apple’s next iPhone was a reverse-engineered Huawei.
How did Europe leapfrog over China’s early technological advantage? One explanation I’ve heard is that early Chinese cannons were never as useful against Chinese walls as early European cannons were against European walls.
European fortifications were made of solid courses of stone blocks mortared in place. They were rigid, hard, and inelastic. Fire a cannon at stone, and it cracks.
Chinese fortifications tended to be two relatively thin layers of brick, with a large interior cavity (several meters thick) filled with packed dirt. This is a very strong design against sharp, sudden force, as the dirt absorbs the impact. Another difference was that Chinese walls tended to be sloped, which better deflected projectiles than the vertical surfaces of European castles.
So where the Europeans were firing early cannons at castles and seeing encouraging results, the Chinese were taking an opposite lesson: that cannonry were toys with largely just a ceremonial purpose.
Ironically, their advanced walls caused their artillery to stagnate.
Technology is a evolutionary process. You build a thing, then build a better thing, then build a better thing. Crude early artillery in the 13th century soon evolved into the powerful bombards that felled Constantinople. But the danger of evolutionary processes is that you can get stuck in a local maximum – where no further adaptation is worthwhile because you’ve hit some barrier or another. Your stepwise process becomes thing -> better thing -> better thing -> same thing -> same thing -> same thing -> (…) -> amazing thing. The Europeans had a logical hill-climbing path that the Chinese didn’t, and the early Chinese advantage was wasted because they got stuck.
Similar to the argument that the wheel never took off among the Incas because, without gearing, wheels are of limited use in the mountainous Andes. But of course, unless you use wheels a lot, you’ll never think about gears.
“Hey, it’s ya boiiiiii. Thanks for the 200 bits, cancerfart420. Holy shit, these queue times are seriously pepega. I just wanna frag out, man. Okay, my team’s here. PogU. Ready to get carried, boys? Here we go.
“Oh my God. That guy was trash. Trash. Terrible. Complete dogshit. The only reason he killed me was because I missed my shots and he hit his shots. Literally, that’s the only reason he beat me. If I hit my shots and he missed his, he’d be dead. That’s how trash he is.
“Holy shit, that gun keeps melting me. Nerf that shit already. I asked a dev about adding some extra bloom to the recoil pattern, and he said they’d consider it. That’s right. I talk to game devs on Twitter. No kappa. You won’t hear me mention it, though, I keep that fact on the down-low.
“This kid’s aim is feelsweirdman. I don’t want to be that guy, but could he be…hacking? Okay. That does it. I’m spectating this little shit. Oh, look, he has “TTV” in his name. I’m not telling you to go to his Twitch stream and bully him. I’d get banned if I did that. All I’ll do is insinuate that he’s hacking and then loudly read his Twitch handle to my viewers.
“Goddamn, I’m actually whiffing everything. Okay, I’m changing my mouse sens again. Please watch me for 5 minutes while I do this. This is now a tech support stream. Wait, why does my mouse have “CPI”? Is that the same thing as “DPI”? Can someone tell me? Also, why aren’t my stream alerts working? I need my chat to diagnose and fix everything wrong in my entire life.
“This is gonna be a huge nade. Huge. Kobe. Do you know that ‘kobe’ means a grenade thrown with accuracy and precision while ‘yeet’ means a grenade thrown with raw power ? I’m sure this is the first streamer you’ve ever seen explain this. Glad to help educate y’all.
“Okay, I see some little kids causing trouble in chat. Where are my mods? For the last time, I’m not a racist. All I did was call a black teammate a monkey and tell him to get back to Africa. How’s that racist? Technically we’re ALL monkeys and we ALL come from Africa. Try reading a book sometime, 4head. Anyway, that incident happened fifteen whole days ago, and I apologised for it. Yes, you heard me. Even though I did nothing wrong and was 100% in the right, I still apologized. That’s the kind of guy I am.
“Just drop it. I’m not here for drama. I just come on here to chill with you guys and to spread positive vibes. Yo, thanks for the 500 bits. My boy cancerfart420 going crazy today.”
“Fan theories” have become increasingly popular in recent years (now you know what they are). Like the related phenomenon of “creepypastas”, they’re exciting at first but soon fall into repetitive cliches: bad guy is secretly good, good guy is secretly bad, dumb guy is secretly a genius, up is secretly down, main character is secretly dying of cancer and hallucinating. There’s 10-15 basic fan theories and soon you’ll have seen them all.
However, the best fan theories are compelling enough to make people forget that they’re theories, and start talking about them as if they’re accepted canon.
In Star Wars, the Imperial stormtroopers miss a lot. They do more missing than Graham Lineham addressing a transgender man. Their accuracy has become such a joke that it’s given rise to terminology such as the Stormtrooper effect.
In 2015, a theory was proposed that stormtroopers are being ordered to miss, in order to keep Luke alive and fulfill Vader’s plans. It was posted on the Fan Theories subreddit, and the author never pretends it’s anything more than fanciful speculation. The theory quickly spread across the internet, however, and soon nobody was treating it as a theory. Soon, it became a generic “checkmate, atheists” rebuttal to the most casual mention of Stormtrooper accuracy. For example, this meme on imgur (with no less than THREE lines of text explaining the joke, holy shit dude) has the top-voted comment :
haven’t we established that the stormtroopers miss on purpose?
…No. We have not. There is zero textual evidence that they miss on purpose. There’s a theory that they do, and in light of the facts, the theory’s probably wrong.
1) Why fire guns at all if they want the heroes to live?
As any marksman is taught, you never, ever point a gun at something you don’t want to kill. It doesn’t matter if you try to miss. What if a stormtrooper kills Luke with a stray shot? Blast rifle bolts have an area effect (as seen in the Docking Bay 94 scene, where blasts take out large sections of concrete), so even a “miss” might kill Luke with shrapnel.
2) They miss when there’s no reason to.
We see Stormtroopers miss R2D2 and C3PO on the Tantive IV, miss Han Solo when he’s leaving Mos Eisley, miss Ewoks, etc.
3) It’s not true that they want everyone on the Millenium Falcon to escape.
Luke Skywalker needs to live because he’s capital-I Important. Leia needs to live because she knows the location of the Rebel base. They could have plausibly wanted Han Solo alive, as he was the pilot of the ship.
…But why miss when shooting at Chewbacca, a wookie of no tactical value?
4) there aren’t many positive examples of Stormtroopers hitting shots.
Here we see Stormtroopers storm the Tantive IV, and accomplish the feat of killing several guys in a narrow hallway with no cover. It looks like hard work.
Here’s the scene of the execution of the Jedi. Stormtroopers shoot them at point blank range. Not an amazing feat of marksmanship.
4) “These blast points… too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
Ben Skywalker’s quote re: a wrecked sandcrawler doesn’t necessarily imply that stormtroopers are good shots. He could mean “they knew where to aim, as opposed to Sand People who just blast away indiscriminately”. This is the risk of using dialog as evidence.
When consuming art, it’s possible to see things that aren’t there. Sometimes these mirages persist, are spread across time and culture, and the imaginary thing becomes part of the “official” tale. Nowhere in the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty does it say that he’s an egg.
“Stormtroopers miss on purpose” was created as an imaginative “what if” theory. However, it now seems to be accepted as the gospel truth of what’s happening in Star Wars. Much of history is probably composed in a similar way.