Reading Journal

Starts Mar. 2016. Re-reads in different months are recorded multiple times.

2017

June

  • Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

    Today liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.

    Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers – held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time – are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.

    Darwin has shown that we are animals; but – as humanists never tire of preaching – how we live is ‘up to us’. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion – not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.

    Humanists turn to Darwin to support their shaky modern faith in progress; but there is no progress in the world he revealed. A truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope.

    Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. In pre-Christian Europe it was taken for granted that the future would be like the past. Knowledge and invention might advance, but ethics would remain much the same. History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning. Against this pagan view, Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence. That is why among the ancient pagans it was unknown.

    The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.

    If the hope of progress is an illusion, how – it will be asked – are we to live? The question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this – and a great many have had happy lives. The question assumes the aim of life is action; but this is a modern heresy. For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.

    Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?

    If Darwin’s discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist, culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day. In Victorian times this was a conflict between Christians and unbelievers. Today it is waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.

    When humans arrived in the New World around twelve thousand years ago, the continent abounded in mammoths, mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and dozens of similar species. Most of these indigenous species were hunted to extinction. North America lost over 70 per cent and South America 80 per cent of its large mammals, according to Diamond.

    Many other animals seem to have a hormone-regulated response to environmental stress that switches their metabolism into a more economical mode whenever resources become scarce. Inevitably, the energy-hungry processes of reproduction are the first to be targeted.… The telltale hormonal signature of this process … has been identified in captive lowland gorillas, and in women.

    According to Illich, ‘The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour’ – not much more than he could travel on his own feet. Which is more important today: the use of cars as means of transportation, or their use as expressions of our unconscious yearnings for personal freedom, sexual release and the final liberation of sudden death?

    Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: ‘We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.’ Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors.

    They hope to recover the unreflective faith of traditional cultures, but this is a peculiarly modern fantasy. We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives. A view of the world is not something that can be conjured up as and when we please. Once gone, traditional ways of life cannot be retrieved. Whatever we contrive in their wake merely adds to the clamour of incessant novelty. However much they may wish it, people whose lives are veined through with science cannot return to a pre-scientific outlook.

    In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview. From the standpoint of anyone who values freedom of thought, this may be unfortunate, but it is undoubtedly the chief source of science’s appeal. For us, science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising – and in some measure delivering – the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches have become sanctuaries for doubt.

    In all its practical uses, science works to entrench anthropocentrism. It encourages us to believe that, unlike any other animal, we can understand the natural world, and thereby bend it to our will. Yet, in fact, science suggests a view of things that is intensely uncomfortable to the human mind. The world as seen by physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg is not an orderly cosmos. It is a demi-chaos that humans can hope to understand only in part. Science cannot satisfy the human need to find order in the world. The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things. Even the most basic features of our ordinary experience may be delusive.

    Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species.

    Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage.

    Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practised’. As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’. In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:

    only tormented persons want truth. Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women, not truth. Only if the mind Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness: then it hates its life-cage and seeks further.

    Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin.

    Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.

    Gaia theory re-establishes the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind’s primordial religion, animism. In monotheistic faiths God is the final guarantee of meaning in human life. For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.

    In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: ‘Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.’

    As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs.

    A hundred years ago, Schopenhauer was vastly influential. Writers including Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, were deeply affected by his philosophy, and the works of musicians and painters such as Schoenberg and de Chirico were infused with his ideas. If he is scarcely read today, it is because few great modern thinkers have gone so much against the spirit of their time and ours.

    Sex, as Schopenhauer wrote in one of the many inimitably vivid passages that enliven his works, ‘is the ultimate goal of nearly all human effort.… It knows how to slip its love notes and ringlets into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts’. When we are in the grip of sexual love we tell ourselves we will be happy once it is satisfied; but this is only a mirage.

    If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.

    If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself.

    Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds. Nietzsche knew this; but he could not accept it. He was trapped in the chalk circle of Christian hopes. A believer to the end, he never gave up the absurd faith that something could be made of the human animal. He invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give history meaning it had not had before. He hoped that humankind would thereby be awakened from its long sleep. As could have been foreseen, he succeeded only in adding further nightmares to its confused dream.

    If solipsism is the belief that only I exist, Idealism is the belief that only humans exist.

    Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist – he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese thought has been nominalist – it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts. Plato’s legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters – the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated, in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of its murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet.

    Halobacteria date back to the beginnings of life on earth. They are organisms which can detect and respond to light by virtue of a compound called rhodopsin – the same compound, present as a pigment in human eyes, that enables us to see. We look at the world through eyes of ancient mud.

    The old dualisms tell us that matter lacks intelligence and knowledge can exist only where there are minds. In truth, knowledge does not need minds, or even nervous systems.

    Conscious perception is only a fraction of what we know through our senses. By far the greater part we receive through subliminal perception. What surfaces in consciousness are fading shadows of things we know already.

    Consciousness is a variable, not a constant, and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. We fall into sleep in obedience to a primordial circadian rhythm; we nightly inhabit the virtual worlds of dreams; nearly all our daily doings go on without conscious awareness; our deepest motivations are shut away from conscious scrutiny; nearly all of our mental life takes place unknown to us; the most creative acts in the life of the mind come to pass unawares. Very little that is of consequence in our lives requires consciousness. Much that is vitally important comes about only in its absence.

    As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.

    When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.

    was no longer young enough to behold at every turn the magnificence that besets our insignificant footsteps in good and evil. I smiled to think that, after all, it was yet he, of us two, who had the light. And I felt sad. A clean slate, did he say? As if the initial word of each our destiny were not graven in imperishable characters on the face of a rock.

    Our microworlds and microidentities do not come all stuck together in one solid, centralized, unitary self, but rather arise and subside in a succession of shifting patterns. In Buddhist terminology, this is the doctrine, whose truth can be verified by direct observation, that the self is empty of self-nature, void of any graspable substantiality.

    Each activity connects perception to action directly. It is only the observer of the creature who imputes a central representation or central control. The creature itself has none: it is a collection of competing behaviours. Out of the local chaos of their interactions there emerges, in the eye of the observer, a coherent pattern of behaviour.

    We are possessed by the notion that there must be a central controller, when in truth there are only the shifting sceneries of perception and behaviour. Selfhood in humans is not the expression of any essential unity. It is a pattern of organisation, not unlike that found in insect colonies. Around eighty years ago, the South African poet and naturalist Eugene Marais published The Soul of the White Ant, a path-breaking study of the life of termites. In it he gave his reasons for thinking that ants have a soul, or psyche, but one that is communal. The soul of the white ant is not the property of any individual insect, but of the entire nest, the termitary. At the time, this was a revolutionary result; but it has been confirmed by later research.

    The unified, continuous self that we encounter in everyday experience belongs in maya. We are programmed to perceive identity in ourselves, when in truth there is only change. We are hardwired for the illusion of self.

    The illusion of enduring selfhood arises with speech. We acquire a sense of ourselves by our parents speaking to us in infancy; our memories are strung together by many bodily continuities, but also by our names; we contrive shifting histories of ourselves in a fitful interior monologue; we form a conception of having a lifetime ahead of us by using language to construct a variety of possible futures. By using language we have invented a fictive self, which we project into the past and the future – and even beyond the grave. The self we imagine surviving death is a phantom even in life.

    Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see our selves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.

    Contemporary philosophers are not so bold as to claim that philosophy teaches us how to live, but they are hard put to say what it does teach. When pressed they may venture the opinion that it instils clarity of thinking. A worthy object, to be sure. But clear thought can be inculcated by the study of history, geography or physics. Rigour of mind should not need a university department of its own.

    That man is the noblest creature may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim. G. C. LICHTENBERG

    Morality is supposed to be universal and categorical. But the lesson of Roman Frister’s story is that it is a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times.

    The idea of ‘morality’ as a set of laws has a biblical root. In the Old Testament, the good life means living according to God’s will. But there is nothing that says that the laws given to the Jews apply universally. The idea that God’s laws apply equally to everyone is a Christian invention.

    Mass murder is a side effect of progress in technology. From the stone axe onwards, humans have used their tools to slaughter one another. Humans are weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing.

    Between 1917 and 1959 over 60 million people were killed in the Soviet Union.

    Progress and mass murder run in tandem. As the numbers killed by famine and plague have waned, so death by violence has increased. As science and technology have advanced, so has proficiency in killing. As the hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder.

    what Shalamov drily called ‘literary fairy tales’, deep human bonds are forged under the pressure of tragedy and need; but in fact no tie of friendship or sympathy was strong enough to survive life in Kolyma: ‘If tragedy and need brought people together and gave birth to their friendship, then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great,’ Shalamov wrote.

    Why should my future goals matter more than those I have now? It is not just that they are remote – even hypothetical. They may be less worth striving for: ‘Why should a youth suppress his budding passions in favour of the sordid interests of his own withered old age? Why is that problematical old man who may bear his name fifty years hence nearer to him now than any other imaginary creature?’

    Caring about your self as it will be in the future is no more reasonable than caring about the self you are now. Less so, if your future self is less worth caring about.

    For Taoists, the good life is only the natural life lived skilfully. It has no particular purpose. It has nothing to do with the will, and it does not consist in trying to realise any ideal. Everything we do can be done more or less well; but if we act well it is not because we translate our intentions into deeds. It is because we deal skilfully with whatever needs to be done. The good life means living according to our natures and circumstances. There is nothing that says that it is bound to be the same for everybody, or that it must conform with ‘morality’.

    Seeing clearly means not projecting our goals into the world; acting spontaneously means acting according to the needs of the situation. Western moralists will ask what is the purpose of such action, but for Taoists the good life has no purpose. It is like swimming in a whirlpool, responding to the currents as they come and go. ‘I enter with the inflow, and emerge with the outflow, follow the Way of the water, and do not impose my selfishness upon it. This is how I stay afloat in it,’ says the Chuang-Tzu.

    The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.

    As Borges writes of Jesus: Night has fallen. He has died now. A fly crawls over the still flesh. Of what use is it to me that this man has suffered, If I am suffering now?

    As Joseph de Maistre commented on Rousseau’s dictum that men are born free but are everywhere in chains: to think that, because a few people sometimes seek freedom, all human beings want it is like thinking that, because there are flying fish, it is in the nature of fish to fly.

    But the perennial romance of tyranny comes from its promising its subjects a life more interesting than any they can contrive for themselves. Whatever they become, tyrannies begin as festivals of the depressed. Dictators may come to power on the back of chaos, but their unspoken promise is that they will relieve the boredom of their subjects.

    No polytheist ever imagined that all of humankind would come to live in the same way, for polytheists took for granted that humans would always worship different gods. Only with Christianity did the belief take root that one way of life could be lived by everyone.

    Polytheists may be jealous of their gods, but they are not missionaries. Without monotheism, humankind would surely still have been one of the most violent animals, but it would have been spared wars of religion. If the world had remained polytheist, it could not have produced communism or ‘global democratic capitalism’.

    Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for truth. No pagan is ready to sacrifice the pleasure of life for the sake of mere truth. It is artful illusion, not unadorned reality, that they prize. Among the Greeks, the goal of philosophy was happiness or salvation, not truth. The worship of truth is a Christian cult.

    Since deliverance is assured, why deny ourselves the pleasure of life?

    Humans cannot leave behind the life they share with other animals. Nor are they wise to try. Anxiety and suffering are as natural to them as serenity and joy. It is when they believe they have left their animal nature behind that humans show the qualities that are theirs alone: obsession, self-deception and perpetual unrest.

    Those who spurn their animal nature do not cease to be human, they merely become caricatures of humanity.

    David Hume saw humans as a highly inventive species, but otherwise very like other animals. Through the power of invention they could ease their lot, but they could not overcome it. History was not a tale of progress, but a succession of cycles in which civilisation alternated with barbarism. Hume expected no more than this. Perhaps for that reason, he has had little influence.

    Technological immortalists imagine that the society that exists today will last for ever. In fact, by the time the techniques are available to bring them back to life, the frozen dead will long ago have melted away. War, revolution or economic collapse will have laid waste to the cryonic mausoleums in which they silently await their resurrection.

    In his book The Soul of the Ape, Eugene Marais – himself a morphine addict – showed that wild chacma baboons used intoxicants to disrupt the tedium of ordinary consciousness. In times of plenty when many other fruits were easily available, they went out of their way to eat a rare plumlike fruit, after which they showed all the signs of intoxication. Summarising his findings, which are supported by later research, Marais wrote: ‘The habitual use of poisons for the purpose of inducing euphoria – a feeling of mental wellbeing and happiness – is a universal remedy for the pain of consciousness.’

    Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

    Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible – that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.

    But we are not embrained phantoms encased in mortal flesh. Being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures. Our flesh is easily worn out; but in being so clearly subject to time and accident it reminds us of what we truly are. Our essence lies in what is most accidental about us – the time and place of our birth, our habits of speech and movement, the flaws and quirks of our bodies.

    Cybernauts who seek immortality in the ether are ready to disown their bodies for the sake of a deathless existence in the ether. Perhaps someday they will achieve what they crave, but it will be at the price of losing their animal souls.

    Fernando Pessoa writes: Only if you don’t know what flowers, stones, and rivers are Can you talk about their feelings. To talk about the soul of flowers, stones, and rivers, Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions. Thank God stones are just stones, And rivers just rivers, And flowers just flowers.

    Anyone who truly wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.

    Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature. KARL KRAUS

    Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.

    We think of the Stone Age as an era of poverty and the Neolithic as a great leap forward. In fact the move from hunter-gathering to farming brought no overall gain in human well-being or freedom. It enabled larger numbers to live poorer lives. Almost certainly, Paleolithic humanity was better off.

    There was never a Golden Age of harmony with the Earth. Most hunter-gatherers were fully as rapacious as later humans. But they were few, and they lived better than most who came after them.

    ‘We are inclined to think of hunter-gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free,’ writes Marshall Sahlins.

    The shift from hunter-gathering to farming is conventionally viewed as a move from a nomadic to a settled life. In reality it was almost the opposite. Hunter-gatherers are highly mobile. But their life does not require continuous movement into new territory. Their survival depends on knowing a local milieu down to its last details. Farming multiplies human numbers. It thereby compels farmers to expand the land they work. Farming and the search for new lands go together.

    Even today, the hunter-gatherers of the Arctic and the Kalahari have better diets than poor people in rich countries – and much better than those of many people in so-called developing countries. More of the world’s population is chronically undernourished today than in the Old Stone Age.

    History is a treadmill turned by rising human numbers. Today GM crops are being marketed as the only means of avoiding mass starvation. They are unlikely to improve the lives of peasant farmers; but they may well enable them to survive in greater numbers. Genetic crop modification is another turn in a wheel that has been in motion since the passing of hunter-gathering.

    Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.

    The Nazis were committed to a revolutionary transformation of European life. For them, becoming modern meant racial conquest and genocide. Any society that systematically uses science and technology to achieve its goals is modern. Death camps are as modern as laser surgery.

    Any country that renounces technology makes itself the prey of others that do not. At best it will fail to achieve the self-sufficiency at which it aims – at worst it will suffer the fate of the Tasmanians. There is no escape from a world of predatory states.

    In late Tsarist times, Russia was the world’s largest grain exporter. Under the Soviet system the country’s food supply came from small allotments run by former peasants. The end result of communist modernisation was to return Russians to subsistence farming.

    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994, the population of Rwanda, favoured by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992, the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children for every woman.… though total food production improved dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth.… Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early nineties. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world’s twenty-seven water-stressed countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi set out to solve the population problem in the most direct way.

    In the Persian Gulf, poor and rapidly growing populations need high and rising oil prices to survive. At the same time, rich countries need stable or falling oil prices if they are to continue to prosper. The result is a classical Malthusian conflict.

    Whatever else they may be, future wars will be wars of scarcity. Waged against the world’s modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor, they are certain to be hugely destructive. We may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace.

    It was such experiences that compelled Russell to revise his view of human nature: ‘I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.’

    Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.

    Among Christians, only Protestants have ever believed that work smacks of salvation; the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature. The pygmies of the African rainforests – now nearly extinct – work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling.

    Other animals do not pine for a deathless life. They are already in it. Even a caged tiger passes its life half out of time. Humans cannot enter that never-ending moment. They can find a respite from time when – like Odysseus, who refused Calypso’s offer of everlasting life on an enchanted island so he could return to his beloved home – they no longer dream of immortality.

    Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

  • Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Books 1 - 3) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

May

March

  • Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano

    Fear of living, fear of falling, fear of losing your job, your car, your home, your possessions, fear of never having what you ought to have in order to be. In the widespread clamor for public security, imperiled by lurking criminal monsters, the members of the middle class shout loudest. They defend order as if they owned it, even though they’re only tenants overwhelmed by high rents and the threat of eviction.

    In one way or another we’re all imprisoned, those in jail and those of us outside. How can the prisoners of need be free, since they live to work and can’t afford the luxury of working to live? And the prisoners of desperation, who have no work and never will and who survive only by robbery or by miracle? What about the prisoners of fear, are we free? Aren’t we all prisoners of fear, those on top, on the bottom, and in the middle, too? In societies obliged to live by everyone-for-himself, we’re all prisoners, the guarded and the guards, the chosen and the pariahs.

    Statistics compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies show the largest weapons dealers to be the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. China figures on the list as well, a few places back. And these five countries, by some odd coincidence, are the very ones that can exercise vetoes in the UN Security Council. The right to a veto really means the power to decide. The General Assembly of the highest international institution, in which all countries take part, makes recommendations, but it’s the Security Council that makes decisions. The Assembly speaks or remains silent; the Council does or undoes. In other words, world peace lies in the hands of the five powers that profit most from the big business of war.

    U.S. Public Health Service statistics show that eight out of ten drug users are white, but of those in jail for drugs only one in ten is white. Several uprisings in federal prisons labeled “racial riots” by the media have been protests against unjust sentencing policies. Crack addicts are punished a hundred times more severely than cocaine users. Literally one hundred times: according to federal law, a gram of crack is equivalent to one hundred grams of cocaine. Practically everyone imprisoned for crack is black.

    over the past thirty years, formal working hours, which tend to be less than real hours worked, have gone up significantly in the United States, Canada, and Japan and diminished only slightly in a few European countries. This trend constitutes a treacherous attack on common sense by the upside-down world: the astonishing increase in productivity wrought by the technological revolution not only fails to raise wages but doesn’t even diminish working hours in countries with state-of-the-art machines. In the United States, frequent polls indicate that work, far more than divorce or the fear of death, is the principal source of stress, and in Japan karoshi, overwork, kills ten thousand people a year.

    I suspect that this urge to work has something to do with fear of unemployment—though in Switzerland unemployment is an abstract threat—and with fear of free time. To be is to be useful; to be you have to be salable. Time that isn’t money, free time lived for the pleasure of living and not dutifully in order to produce, provokes fear. There’s nothing new about that. Along with greed, fear has always been the most active engine of the system that used to be called capitalism.

    McDonald’s gives its young customers toys made in Vietnamese sweatshops by women who earn eighty cents for a ten-hour shift with no breaks. Vietnam defeated a U.S. military invasion. A quarter of a century after that feat, which cost many lives, the country suffers globalized humiliation.

    His working life had begun in 1965 when he took power by killing half a million Communists or alleged Communists. In the end he had no choice but to leave the government, but he hung on to the savings he managed to set aside during his more than thirty years of labor: $16 billion, according to the July 28, 1997, issue of Forbes magazine. A couple of months after Suharto’s retirement, his successor, President Habibie, made a televised speech: he called for fasting. The president said that if the Indonesian people refrained from eating two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays, the economic crisis could be overcome.

    In 1994, Chevron, formerly Standard Oil of California, spent many millions of dollars on an advertising campaign praising its tireless efforts to protect the environment in the United States. The campaign focused on a sanctuary the company built for certain blue butterflies in danger of extinction. The sanctuary costs Chevron five thousand dollars a year. Every minute of the advertising blitz that congratulated the company for its ecological conscience cost eighty times that sum to produce and much more than that to actually flutter its blue wings across the TV screens of North America.

    What is power? An Argentine businessman, Alfredo Yabrán, defined it unmistakably: “Power is impunity.”

    Bishop Juan Gerardi led a task force that rescued the recent history of terror in Guatemala. Bit by bit, through the testimonies of thousands of voices collected throughout the country, he and his colleagues gathered forty years of isolated memories of pain: 150,000 Guatemalans dead, 50,000 disappeared, 1,000,000 displaced refugees, 200,000 orphans, 40,000 widows. Nine out of every ten victims were unarmed civilians, most of them Indians. And in nine out of every ten cases, the responsibility lay with the army and its paramilitary bands. The Church released the report on a Thursday in April 1998. Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was dead, his skull beaten in with a chunk of concrete.

    Forgetting, the powerful say, is the price of peace, and they impose on us a peace based on accepting injustice as an everyday norm. They’ve gotten us used to a peace in which life is scorned and remembering prohibited. The media and the schools don’t do much to help us integrate reality and memory. Every fact appears divorced from the rest, divorced from its own past and the past of every other fact. Consumer culture, a culture of disconnectedness, trains us to believe things just happen. Incapable of recalling its origins, the present paints the future as a repetition of itself; tomorrow is just another name for today. The unequal organization of the world, which beggars the human condition, is part of eternity, and injustice is a fact of life we have no choice but to accept.

    To mention only a few bonfires: in 1870, when the armies of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay razed Paraguay, the historical archives of the vanquished were torched; twenty years later, the government of Brazil burned all the papers that testified to three and a half centuries of black slavery; in 1983, the Argentine brass set fire to all the records of their dirty war against their countrymen; and in 1995, the Guatemalan military did the same.

    Effluence, affluence: inundating the world and the air it breathes are floods of crud and torrents of words—expert reports, speeches, government declarations, solemn international accords that no one observes, and other expressions of official concern for the environment. The language of power diverts blame from consumer society and from those who impose consumerism in the name of development. The large corporations who, in the name of freedom, make the planet sick and then sell it medicine and consolation can do what they please, while environmental experts, who reproduce like rabbits, wrap all problems in the bubble-wrap of ambiguity. The state of the world’s health is disgusting, and official rhetoric extrapolates in order to absolve: “We are all responsible” is the lie technocrats offer and politicians repeat, meaning no one is responsible. Official palaver exhorts “the sacrifice of all,” meaning screw those who always get screwed.

    One-quarter of humanity commits three-quarters of the crimes against nature. Each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminum, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone in the South. The average North American puts twenty-two times as much carbon into the air as an Indian and thirteen times as much as a Brazilian.

    The colossi of the chemical, oil, and automobile industries, so central to the theme of the Rio summit, paid a large portion of the cost of the conference. You can say anything you like about Al Capone, but he was a gentleman: good old Al always sent flowers to the funerals of his victims.

    In the United States, the environmental map is also a racial map. The most polluting factories and the most dangerous dumps are located in the pockets of poverty where blacks, Indians, and Latinos live. The black community of Kennedy Heights in Houston, Texas, exists on land ruined by Gulf Oil’s wastes. The residents of Convent, the Louisiana town where four of the dirtiest factories in the country operate, are nearly all black. Most of those who went to the emergency room in 1993, after General Chemical rained acid on the northern part of Richmond on San Francisco Bay, were black. A 1987 study by the United Church of Christ confirmed that the majority of the population living near hazardous waste dumps was black or Latino. Indian reservations take in nuclear waste in exchange for money and the promise of jobs.

    Many U.S. industries had already set up shop on the Mexican side of the border long before the two countries signed a free-trade agreement. They turned the border zone into a vast industrial pigpen. All the treaty did was make it easier to take advantage of Mexico’s abysmal wages and the freedom to poison its water, land, and air. To put it in the language of the poets of capitalist realism, the treaty maximized opportunities to make use of the resources of comparative advantage. Four years before the treaty, the waters near the Ford plant in Nuevo Laredo and the General Motors plant in Matamoros already contained thousands of times more toxins than the maximum allowed on the other side of the border. And in the vicinity of the Du Pont plant, also in Matamoros, the filth was such that people had to be evacuated.

    The rich countries grouped in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development cooperate in economically developing the South by sending it radioactive garbage and other toxic expressions of kindness. The very countries that outlaw the importation of polluting substances shower them generously on poor countries. Just as with pesticides and herbicides banned at home, they export hazardous waste to the South under other names. The Basil Convention banned such shipments in 1992, yet there are more today than ever before. They come disguised as “humanitarian aid” or “contributions to development projects,” as Greenpeace discovered on several occasions, or they come as contraband hidden inside mountains of legal industrial waste. Argentine law bans the entry of hazardous waste, but to solve that little problem all you need is a certificate of innocuousness issued in the country that wants to get rid of the waste. At the end of 1996, Brazilian ecologists managed to put an end to the importation of used car batteries from the United States that for years had come into the country as “recyclable material.” The United States exported used batteries and Brazil paid to receive them.

    Near Stanford University I visited a smaller university that offers courses in obedience. The students, dogs of all races, colors, and sizes, learn to stop being dogs. When they bark, the professor punishes them by squeezing their snouts with her hand and yanking painfully on collars made of sharp steel points. When they remain quiet, the professor rewards their silence with treats. That is how she teaches them to forget how to bark.

    And the countries that smile so nicely for the pictures, those happy protagonists of one economic miracle or another, think they have paid the toll, have passed the pole, and are on a roll, but they are already paying the price of their great leap to modernization: in Taiwan a third of the rice crop is inedible because it’s poisoned with mercury, arsenic, or cadmium; in South Korea the water from only a third of the rivers is drinkable. There are no longer edible fish in half the rivers of China. In a letter he was writing, a Chilean child drew a picture of his country: “Ships depart filled with trees, and ships arrive filled with cars.” Chile today is a long highway bordered by shopping malls, arid lands, and industrial forests where no bird sings; the trees, like soldiers at attention, march off to the world market.

    In 1994 in Laguna Beach, southern California, a deer came out of the forest. Galloping down the street, the deer was struck by a car. It leapt over a fence, crashed through a kitchen window, broke another window, threw itself off a second-floor balcony, burst into a hotel, and, like a bullet stained red with blood, raced past the astonished patrons of beachfront restaurants before plunging into the sea. The police trapped it in the water and hauled it onto the beach, where, bleeding profusely, it died. “He was crazy,” the police explained. A year later in San Diego, also in southern California, a veteran stole a tank from an arsenal. Driving the tank he crushed forty cars, damaged several bridges, and, with police cruisers in hot pursuit, ran down whatever crossed his path. When he got stuck on a steep rise, the police climbed on the tank, forced open the hatch, and plugged this ex-soldier full of bullets. TV viewers saw the entire spectacle live and direct. “He was crazy,” the police explained.

    Human rights pale beside the rights of machines. In more and more cities, especially in the giant metropolises of the South, people have been banned. Automobiles usurp human space, poison the air, and frequently murder the interlopers who invade their conquered territory—and no one lifts a finger to stop them. Is there a difference between violence that kills by car and that which kills by knife or bullet?

    In the United States gasoline is three times as cheap as in Italy, the second-most-motorized country in the world, and each American burns on average four times as much gas as the average Italian, which is to say, a lot.

    And when a wayward politician feels wracked by doubts, the companies prescribe an infallible remedy: as Newsweek once put it, “The relationship between money and politics is so organic that seeking reform is tantamount to asking a doctor to perform open-heart surgery on himself.”

    I saw a cigarette ad in a magazine with the required public health warning: “Tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide.” But the same magazine had several car ads and not one of them warned that car exhaust, nearly always invisible, contains much more carbon monoxide. People can’t smoke. Cars can.

    Although most Latin Americans do not have the right to buy a car, it’s everyone’s duty to pay for that right. For every thousand Haitians, barely five are motorized, but Haiti spends a third of its foreign exchange to import vehicles, spare parts, and gasoline. So does El Salvador, where public transportation is so disastrous and dangerous that people call buses “caskets on wheels.” According to Ricardo Navarro, a specialist in these matters, the money that Colombia spends every year to subsidize the price of gasoline would pay for handing out 2.5 million bicycles.

    In Santiago, environmentalists say, each child breathes the equivalent of seven cigarettes a day and one child out of four suffers some form of bronchitis. The city is separated from the heavens by an umbrella of pollution that has doubled in density over the past fifteen years, a period when the number of cars has also doubled.

    the United States and Canada had more motor vehicles than the rest of the world combined, Europe aside. Germany that year had as many cars, trucks, pickups, mobile homes, and motorcycles as all of Latin America and Africa. Yet it’s in the cities of the South where three out of every four deaths by car occur.

    According to World Health Organization projections, in the year 2020 cars will be the third-largest cause of death or disability. Wars will be eighth, AIDS tenth.

    The punishment of Tantalus is the fate that torments the poor. Condemned to hunger and thirst, they are condemned as well to contemplate the delights dangled before them by advertising. As they crane their necks and reach out, those marvels are snatched away. And if they manage to catch one and hold on tight, they end up in jail or in the cemetery.

    Until a few years ago, a man who had no debts was considered virtuous, honest, and hardworking. Today, he’s an extraterrestrial. Whoever does not owe, does not exist. I owe, therefore I am. Whoever is not credit-worthy deserves neither name nor face. The credit card is proof of the right to exist; debt, something even those who have nothing have. Every single person or country that belongs to this world has at least one foot caught in this trap.

    The right to waste, privilege of a few, masquerades as freedom for all. Tell me how much you consume and I’ll tell you what you’re worth. This civilization won’t let flowers or chickens or people sleep. In greenhouses, flowers are subjected to twenty-four-hour lighting so they’ll grow faster. In egg factories, night is denied to the hens. And people, too, are condemned to insomnia, kept up by the anxiety of buying and the anguish of paying.

    People in the United States consume half the sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and other legal drugs sold in the world, as well as half the illegal drugs, which ain’t chicken feed considering that the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population.

    “When you have nothing, you think you’re worth nothing,” says a young man in the barrio of Villa Fiorito in Buenos Aires. And another, in the Dominican town of San Francisco de Macorís, adds, “My brothers work for brand names. They live to buy labels, and they work from dawn to dusk to keep up with the payments.”

    A car crashes on the outskirts of Moscow. The driver crawls out of the wreckage and moans: “My Mercedes … My Mercedes…” Somebody says to him: “Buddy, who cares about the car! Don’t you see your arm is missing?” One look at his bleeding stump, and the man cries: “My Rolex! My Rolex!”

    The golden arches were carried as a standard during the recent conquest of Eastern Europe. When the first McDonald’s opened with pomp and ceremony in Moscow in 1990, the line outside symbolized the victory of the West as eloquently as the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.

    Latin America’s huge cities keep on buying and buying, but they’re caught between the orders the world market takes and the orders the world market gives, the contradiction between obsessive consumption, which requires higher wages, and the obligation to compete, which demands lower ones.

    The leaders who promise to take the countries of the South into the First World by an act of magic that will turn us all into prosperous subjects of the kingdom of waste ought to be tried for fraud and as accessories to a crime. For fraud because they promise the impossible; if we all consumed like those who are squeezing the earth dry, we’d have no world left. And as accessories to a crime because the lifestyle they promote—the huge orgasm of delirious consumption they call happiness—sickens our bodies, poisons our souls, and leaves us without the home the world wished to become long before it existed.

    The NSA, a U.S. spy agency with a budget four times that of the CIA, has the technology to record every word transmitted by telephone, fax, or e-mail in any part of the world. It can intercept up to two million conversations per minute. The NSA’s real mission is to maintain U.S. economic and political control over the planet, but national security and the struggle against terrorism are its formal covers. Its eavesdropping systems allow it to track every message that has anything to do with criminal organizations as dangerous as, for example, Greenpeace or Amnesty International.

    The more relations between people get demonized—they’ll give you AIDS, or take away your job, or ransack your house—the more relations with machines get sacralized. The communications industry, that most dynamic sector of the world economy, sells abracadabras that open the doors to a new era in human history. But this so-well-communicated world looks too much like a kingdom of loners and the mute.

    The colonial powers who drew up the borders were also good at manipulating ethnic contradictions. Divide et impera: one fine day the king of Belgium decided that Tutsis were those who had more than eight cows and Hutus were those who had fewer in the territory today occupied by Rwanda and Burundi. Although the Tutsis, shepherds, and the Hutus, farmers, had different origins, they shared several centuries of common history in the same physical space, spoke the same language, and lived together in peace. They did not know they were enemies but ended up believing it with such fervor that in 1994 massacres between Hutus and Tutsis cost close to a million lives.

    Images of hunger never allude, not even in passing, to colonial pillage. Never do they mention the responsibility of Western powers that yesterday bled Africa through the slave trade and single-crop plantations and that today perpetuate the hemorrhage through hunger wages and ruinous prices. The same is true of news about wars; there is always the same silence about the colonial legacy, always the same impunity for the white boss who mortgaged Africa’s independence, leaving in his wake corrupt bureaucracies, despotic military officers, artificial borders, and mutual hatred. And always the same omission of any reference to the northern industry of death that sells the weapons that so encourage the South to go on killing itself.

    How many people must be slain by war or earthquake or drowned in floods for their countries to become news and show up on the map of the world? How many ghosts must someone dying of hunger accumulate before the cameras focus on him for once in his life? The world is like a stage for a gigantic reality show. The poor, the ones who always get overlooked, only appear on TV as some hidden camera’s object of ridicule or as actors in their own cruelties. Those unknown need to be known, the invisible to become visible, the uprooted to have roots. If something doesn’t exist on television, does it exist in reality? Pariahs dream of glory on the small screen, where any sow’s ear can turn into a silk purse. To get to the Olympus where the telegods reside, one poor soul on a variety show even shot himself on camera.

    In that war of machines led by satellites, radars, and computers, TV screens showcased beautiful missiles and marvelous rockets, extraordinary airplanes and smart bombs that with admirable precision turned people into dust. The venture killed a total of 115 North Americans. Nobody bothered to count the Iraqis, though estimates put the figure as high as a hundred thousand. They never appeared on camera; the only victim shown on TV was an oil-slicked duck. Later on, it came out that the image was a fake; the duck was from another war.

    Years before, Hussein had used U.S.-made poison gas against Iran and then had used the same gas to crush the Kurds, and nobody’s hair got the least bit mussed. But panic descended suddenly with the news that Iraq possessed an arsenal of bacteriological weapons: anthrax, bubonic plague, botulism, cancer cells, and other lethal pathogenic agents that any lab in the United States can purchase over the phone or by mail from a company called American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), located just outside Washington. United Nations inspectors, however, found nothing in the palaces of a thousand and one nights, and war was postponed until the next pretext.

    Do the media reflect reality or shape it? Who begets whom? Is it the chicken or the egg? Wouldn’t a better zoological metaphor be a snake biting its own tail? We give the people what they want, say the media to absolve themselves. But the supply they offer in response to demand creates more demand for more of the same supply; it becomes a habit, creates a need for itself, and turns into an addiction.

    The world has been slipped a lethal cocktail of blood, Valium, and advertising by private U.S. television networks. They’ve imposed a model based on the proven notion that good is what makes the most profit at the least cost and bad is what pays no dividends.

    After all, charity consoles but does not question. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint,” said Brazilian bishop Helder Cámara. “And when I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.”

    The map they taught us gives two-thirds of the world to the North and one-third to the South. Europe is shown as larger than Latin America, even though Latin America is actually twice the size of Europe. India appears smaller than Scandinavia, even though it’s three times as big. The United States and Canada fill more space on the map than Africa, when in reality they cover barely two-thirds as much territory. The map lies. Traditional geography steals space just as the imperial economy steals wealth, official history steals memory, and formal culture steals the word.

    The Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a new set of rules to liberate the circulation of money, was a sure thing at the beginning of 1998. The most-developed countries had negotiated the accord in secret and were ready to impose it on all the others and on the bit of sovereignty those countries still retained. But civil society broke the news. Using the Internet, alternative organizations managed to ring alarm bells throughout the world and pressure governments to good effect. The accord died unhatched.

    Human history is like soccer: her finest trait is her capacity for surprise. Against all predictions, against all evidence, the little guys can sometimes knock the invincible giants for a loop.

    We’ve spent five hundred years learning how to hate ourselves and one another and work heart and soul for our own ruin. That’s what we’re up to. But we still haven’t managed to correct our habit of wandering about daydreaming and bumping into things or our inexplicable tendency to rise from the ashes.

    it’s the adventure of changing reality and changing ourselves that makes our blip in the history of the universe worthwhile, this fleeting warmth between two glaciers that is us.

    In the twelfth century, the official geographer of the kingdom of Sicily, al-Idrisi, drew a map of the world, the world that Europe knew about, with south on top and north on the bottom. That was common in mapmaking back then. And that’s how the map of South America was drawn eight centuries later, with south on top, by Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García. “Our north is south,” he said. “To go north, our ships go down, not up.” If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?

  • Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right To Self Defense by Massad Ayoob

    In the anti-gun Spokane newspaper, internet comments indicated that many people had the clueless idea that Gerlach had shot the man – in the back – to stop the thief from stealing his car. One idiot wrote in defense of doing such, “That ‘inert property’ as you call it represents a significant part of a man’s life. Stealing it is the same as stealing a part of his life. Part of my life is far more important than all of a thief’s life.”

    Analyze that statement. The world revolves around this speaker so much that a bit of his life spent earning an expensive object is worth “all of (another man’s) life.” Never forget that, in this country, human life is seen by the courts as having a higher value than what those courts call “mere property,” even if you’re shooting the most incorrigible lifelong thief to keep him from stealing the Hope Diamond. A principle of our law is also that the evil man has the same rights as a good man. Here we have yet another case of a person dangerously confusing “how he thinks things ought to be” with “how things actually are.”

    As a rule of thumb, American law does not justify the use of deadly force to protect what the courts have called “mere property.” In the rare jurisdiction that does appear to allow this, ask yourself how the following words would resonate with a jury when uttered by plaintiff’s counsel in closing argument: “Ladies and gentlemen, the defendant has admitted that he killed the deceased over property. How much difference is there in your hearts between the man who kills another to steal that man’s property, and one who kills another to maintain possession of his own? Either way, he ended a human life for mere property!”

February

  • The Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible by Richard Blum and Christine Bresnahan

    Given file members.csv,

      Blum, Richard, 123 Main St., Chicago, IL, 60601
      Blum, Barbara, 123 Main St., Chicago, IL, 60601
      Bresnahan, Christine, 456 Oak Ave., Columbus, OH, 43201
      Bresnahan, Timothy, 456 Oak Ave., Columbus, OH, 43201
    

    we can build members.sql to insert entries to MySQL database members with this simple shell script, which expects members.csv as the first command-line argument.

      #!/bin/bash
    	
      # read file and create INSERT statements for MySQL
      outfile='members.sql'
      IFS=',' 
      while read lname fname address city state zip
      do 
          cat >> $outfile << EOF
              INSERT INTO members (lname, fname, address, city, state, zip)
              VALUES ('$lname', '$fname', '$address', '$city', '$state', '$zip');
          EOF
      done < ${1}
    

    Iterating through a file, parsing its fields, and outputting a new file using BASH is a pattern that comes in handy in a wide variety of situations.

  • The Rogue Prince” by George R.R. Martin
  • Practical Vim: Edit Text at the Speed of Thought by Drew Neil

    Between this book, Vim, and Chrome extension Vimium, I’ve rendered my mouse obsolete. I can now eat a sandwich with my right hand while browsing the Internet with my left! It’s like another arm sprouted out of my chest!

January

  • Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin

    Overall, a disappointing read. It’s clear Martin didn’t put his soul into this one. The protagonist’s annoying, the Kaavalar society he spends tens of pages detailing is deathly boring, and the brilliant premise (people living their lives on an alien world receding ever-further from its sun, leading to a soon-to-be eternal night) is squandered on this story.

    Fear was so foolish; nothing mattered, death least of all.

    We abandon our dead in the wild, traditionally, and if the beasts consume what we leave, we do not feel shame. Life should nourish life. Is it not more fitting that his strong flesh should give strength to some swift clean predator rather than a mass of vile maggots and graveyard worms?
    Jaan Vikary

  • Boss Fight Books Presents: Spelunky by Derek Yu
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China by Guy Delisle
  • The World of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia, and Linda Antonsson

    I mean to give the smallfolk peace and food and justice. If that will not suffice to win their love, let Mushroom make a progress. Or perhaps we might send a dancing bear. Someone once told me that the commons love nothing half so much as dancing bears. You may call a halt to this feast tonight as well. Send the lords home to their own keeps and give the food to the hungry. Full bellies and dancing bears shall be my policy.
    Aegon III

2016

December

  • Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming by Peter Seibel

    I think one thing that’s really important is to not be afraid of your ignorance. If you don’t understand how something works, ask someone who does. A lot of people are skittish about that. And that doesn’t help anybody. Not knowing something doesn’t mean you’re dumb – it just means you don’t know it yet.
    Jamie Zawinski, Netscape architect

    We’re all optimists in our profession or we’d be forced to shoot ourselves.
    Joshua Bloch, Java language architect

    The really good programmers spend a lot of time programming. I haven’t seen very good programmers who don’t spend a lot of time programming. If I don’t program for two or three days, I need to do it. And you get better at it—you get quicker at it. The side effect of writing all this other stuff is that when you get to doing ordinary problems, you can do them very quickly.
    Joe Armstrong, Creator of Erlang

    This was my main insight about small companies: to be an entrepreneur you need to get energy from stressful situations involving money, whereas my energy is sapped by stressful situations involving money. My boss was the managing director of this company. The worse things got, the more energetic he would be. He’d come bouncing around and he’d have new technical ideas for software. He was just as happy as a bee. And I realized, that’s what you need, because if it saps your energy, you spend your whole time in a slump.
    Simon Peyton Jones, Creator of Haskell

    And I think that’s easier when you’re younger, because your brain is better at it, or maybe it’s just that you have less distractions. If you have kids, and family, and so on, you just can’t devote as many consecutive hours as when you don’t.
    Peter Norvig, Google AI Research Director

    [On identifying talented programmers] It’s just enthusiasm. You ask them what’s the most interesting program they worked on. And then you get them to describe it and its algorithms and what’s going on. If they can’t withstand my questioning on their program, then they’re not good. I’m asking them to describe something they’ve done that they’ve spent blood on. I’ve never met anybody who really did spend blood on something who wasn’t eager to describe what they’ve done and how they did it and why. I let them pick the subject. I don’t pick the subject, so I’m the amateur and they’re the professional in this subject. If they can’t stand an amateur asking them questions about their profession, then they don’t belong.
    Ken Thompson, Creator of UNIX and the B Programming Language

  • Pet Sematary by Stephen King

    He held her and rocked her, believing, rightly or wrongly, that Ellie wept for the very intractability of death, its imperviousness to argument or to a little girl’s tears; that she wept over its cruel unpredictability; and that she wept because of the human being’s wonderful, deadly ability to translate symbols into conclusions that were either fine and noble or blackly terrifying. If all those animals had died and been buried, then Church could die (any time!) and be buried; and if that could happen to Church, it could happen to her mother, her father, her baby brother. To herself. Death was a vague idea; the Pet Sematary was real. In the texture of those rude markers were truths which even a child’s hands could feel.

    “Daddy, why do people have to be dead?” “I don’t really know,” Louis said. “To make room for all the new people, I guess. Little people like you and your brother Gage.” “I’m never going to get married or do sex and have babies!” Ellie declared, crying harder than ever. “Then maybe it’ll never happen to me! It’s awful! It’s m-m-mean!”

November

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
  • How to Stop Sucking and Be Awesome Instead by Jeff Atwood

    Whether you ultimately achieve readers, or pageviews, or whatever high score table it is we’re measuring this week, try to remember it’s worth doing because, well—it’s worth doing. And if you keep doing it long enough, who knows? You might very well wake up one day and find out you’re an overnight success.

    You won’t—you cannot—become a better programmer through sheer force of programming alone. You can only complement and enhance your existing programming skills by branching out. Learn about your users. Learn about the industry. Learn about your business. The more things you are interested in, the better your work will be.

    The price of control is always more effort and increased complexity. Most people are willing to make a moderate effort, but what differentiates programmers from most people is their willingness and ability to master extreme complexity.

    For Homo logicus, control is their goal and complexity is the price they will pay for it. For normal humans, simplicity is their goal, and relinquishing control is the price they will pay.

  • When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs

October

  • A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
  • The Long Walk by Stephen King
  • My Work Is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti

    It all seemed so enticing, but like every other attraction along the world’s midway the greatest part of its appeal lay in those moments of anticipation. And after it was all over, the particular attraction which had once promised so much would send you on your way unrewarded, purged of your curiosity and the poorer for being so.

    But what could I say to her? That I’m drawn to those old buildings and junk because (voice beginning to seethe) . . . because they take me into a world (the seething builds) . . . a world that is the exact opposite of the one (voice seething to a pitch) . . . the one I’m doomed by my own weakness and fear to live in (uncontrollable, meta-maniacal seething) . . . to live in during my weeks, my months, my years and years of work . . . work . . . work?

    The company that employed me strived only to serve up the cheapest fare that its customers would tolerate, churn it out as fast as possible, and charge as much as they could get away with. If it were possible to do so, the company would sell what all businesses of its kind dream about selling, creating that which all our efforts were tacitly supposed to achieve: the ultimate product – Nothing. And for this product they would command the ultimate price – Everything. This market strategy would then go on until one day, among the world-wide ruins of derelict factories and warehouses and office buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be – will be – only a dense network of computers calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it, their primitive armory proving wholly ineffectual against the smooth and impervious walls of the structure, upon which not even a scratch can be inflicted.

    This practice of his allowed him to express a mode of personal identity, however trivial and illusory, as if such a thing could be achieved merely by adorning oneself with a particular item of apparel or even by displaying particular character traits such as a reserved manner or a high degree of intelligence, all and any of which qualities were shared by millions and millions of persons past and present and would continue to be exhibited by millions and millions of persons in the future, making the effort to perpetrate a distinctive sense of an identity apart from other persons or creatures, or even inanimate objects, no more than a ludicrous charade.

September

  • The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror by Thomas Ligotti

    Look at your body—
    A painted puppet, a poor toy
    Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
    A diseased and suffering thing
    With a head full of false imaginings.
    — The Dhammapada

    As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: “If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.”

    Human puppets could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation.

    The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone.

    You can conceptualize that your life has meaning, but if you do not feel that meaning then your conceptualization is meaningless and you are nobody. The only matters of weight in our lives are colored by rainbows or auroras of regulated emotion which give one a sense of that “old self.” But a major depression causes your emotions to evaporate, reducing you to a shell of a person standing alone in a drab landscape. Emotions are the substrate for the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world. Not knowing this ground-level truth of human existence is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all.

    Panglossian falsehoods convene the crowd; discouraging truths disperse it. The reason: It is depression not madness that cows us, demoralization not insanity that we dread, disillusionment of the mind not its derangement that imperils our culture of hope. An epidemic of depression would quiet those chattering voices in our heads, stopping life dead in its tracks. Providentially, we are endowed with enough manic enthusiasm to keep us plowing onward and making more of ourselves, bragging all the while about what billions of years of evolution have bidden every species to do anyway.

    Every human activity is a tack for killing time, and it seemed criminal to him that people should have their time already killed for them by explorers, inventors, and innovators of every stripe.

  • A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin

    Kings rise and fall, Dunk thought, and cows and smallfolk go about their business.

    [Ser Kyle] “No man ever truly knows what a new wife will bring him.” “Her cunt,” said Plumm, “or what would be the point?”

June

  • The Way of Men by Jack Donovan

    Serious people should be able to admit that something is generally true when it is a verifiable fact. There is no good reason to be coy about it.

    Americans have a strained relationship with the idea of honor. They have always been a little drunk on the idea that “all men are created equal” and politicians have spent two centuries flattering every Joe Schmoe into thinking his opinion is worth just as much as anyone else’s—even when he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

    McKay’s positive prescription for manliness is a welcome change from mainstream “men’s magazines,” which are more interested in creating sociopathic metrosexual super-consumers than writing positively about manhood.

    Aren’t most men today spoiled mamma’s boys without father figures, without hunting or fighting or brother-bonds, whose only masculine outlet is promiscuous sex?

    Men are individuals with their own interests, and they don’t need women to show them how to be men. Women are not selfless spirit guides who have no interests or motivations of their own. Men have always had their own way, The Way of The Gang, and they’ve always inhabited a world apart from women. “Can men change?” is the wrong question. Better questions are: “Why should men change?” and “What does the average guy get out of the deal?” When pressed to answer this question, feminists and men’s rights activists never seem to be able to come up with anything but promises of increased financial and physical security and the freedom to show weakness and fear. Masses of men never rushed to the streets demanding the freedom to show weakness and fear, and they never braved gunfire or battle axes for the right to cry in public. Countless men, however, have died for the ideas of freedom and self-determination, for the survival and honor of their own tribes, for the right to form their own gangs.

    A rite of passage must reflect a real change in status and responsibility for it to be anything more than theater.

    The closest thing they’ve managed is the Tea Party movement which, despite early media hysteria that it was a mob of angry white men, was quickly co-opted by women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, who ended up turning it into something more like a tent revival potluck for heavily armed soccer moms.

  • Becoming a Barbarian by Jack Donovan

    This free-floating state of chaos makes humans nervous, so they frantically adopt symbols that identify them with some group of people — however superficial, transient or inconsequential that group may in fact be. This desperation is exploited by bourgeois consumer culture, which encourages people to identify and arrange themselves according to their entertainment preferences, hobbies or other purchase patterns.

    Success in a given situation depends on observing it as clearly and accurately as possible, orienting yourself within that situation, making a decision about how to proceed based on that data, executing that plan, and then returning to the beginning of the loop to re-assess the situation as it unfolds.

    The patriotic “we the people” has become little more than a sentimental attachment to territory, a love of local history, an idolatry of antiques and a fondness for a cherry-picked selection of ideas which have long since been discarded in practice by those who preside over the institutions wrapped in their regalia. This flag-waving “we” is just another sports team with tradable and interchangeable players, engaged in friendly competition within the same expanding league. Your job is to cheer for the team associated with your geographic region. As long as you keep wearing your team colors and keep giving directions to the players on the field as if they could hear you — as if they would care — you will always be a citizen of the Empire.

  • Free Will by Sam Harris

    [On murderers] Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.

    Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

    Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.

    The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior.

    Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin — which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.

    Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matters relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, often make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse. Consider the biography of any “self-made” man, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make and of which he was merely the beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. And yet, living in America, one gets the distinct sense that if certain conservatives were asked why they weren’t born with club feet or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments.

  • Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters by Helen Smith

    Ultimately, society is asking men to do something that is going against their own interests. Their lives as single men are fulfilling, happy and, if not respected, at least envied by their married brethren. Life as a married man is often difficult with few perks and little in the way of respect or rights. The discrepancy between the life of the freer, single man and the life of the less respected, less free life of the married man is at the heart of why so many men have gone on strike.

    One married guy told me that I could get the same effect by selling my house, giving all my money away and having someone castrate me.

    A stalled nation has its men in idle. Highly active men in a town of 50,000 can do remarkable things—that’s all the Renaissance was. What can a small town do when the street corner is littered with men and feral dogs? Risk aversion does not a ‘Start-up Nation’ make.

  • A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

    Some part of [Tyrion] him wanted those mushrooms, even knowing what they were. He was not brave enough to take cold steel to his own belly, but a bite of mushroom would not be so hard. That frightened him more than he could say.

    Men are born to strive and suffer. Our woes only vanish when we die.
    Hizdahr Zo Loraq

    Silver’s sweet and gold’s our mother, but once you’re dead they’re worth less than that last shit you take as you lie dying.
    Brown Ben Plumm

    Trust no one, my prince. Not your chainless maester, not your false father, not the gallant Duck nor the lovely Lemore nor these other fine friends who grew you from a bean. Above all, trust not the cheesemonger, nor the Spider, nor this little dragon queen you mean to marry. All that mistrust will sour your stomach and keep you awake by night, ’tis true, but better that than the long sleep that does not end.
    Tyrion Lannister

    I want to live forever in a land where summer lasts a thousand years. I want a castle in the clouds where I can look down over the world. I want to be six-and-twenty again. When I was six-and-twenty I could fight all day and fuck all night. What men want does not matter. Winter is almost upon us, boy. And Winter is Death.
    Hugo “Big Bucket” Wull

  • A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

    That was the way of this cold world, where men fished the sea and dug in the ground and died, whilst women brought forth short-lived children from beds of blood and pain.

    On the morning after the battle, the crows had feasted on victors and vanquished alike, as once they had feasted on Rhaegar Targaryen after the Trident. How much can a crown be worth, when a crow can dine upon a king?

    I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood.
    Rodrik “The Reader” Harlaw

    Every man should lose a battle in his youth, so he does not lose a war when he is old.
    Victarion Greyjoy

    When I was a squire young as you, I had a friend who was strong and quick and agile, a champion in the yard. We all knew that one day he would be a splendid knight. Then war came to the Stepstones. I saw my friend drive his foeman to his knees and knock the axe from his hand, but when he might have finished he held back for half a heartbeat. In battle half a heartbeat is a lifetime. The man slipped out his dirk and found a chink in my friend’s armor. His strength, his speed, his valor, all his hard-won skill … it was worth less than a mummer’s fart, because he flinched from killing.
    Ser Goodwin

    I have never known a boy who did not love the Warrior. I am old, though, and being old, I love the Smith. Without his labor, what would the Warrior defend? Every town has a smith, and every castle. They make the plows we need to plant our crops, the nails we use to build our ships, iron shoes to save the hooves of our faithful horses, the bright swords of our lords. No one could doubt the value of a smith, and so we name one of the Seven in his honor, but we might as easily have called him the Farmer or the Fisherman, the Carpenter or the Cobbler. What he works at makes no matter. What matters is, he works. The Father rules, the Warrior fights, the Smith labors, and together they perform all that is rightful for a man.
    Septon Meribald

    You know the best thing about heroes, Jaime? They all die young and leave more women for the rest of us.
    Daven Lannister

    All you Westerosi make a shame of loving. There is no shame in loving. If your septons say there is, your seven gods must be demons. In the isles we know better. Our gods gave us legs to run with, noses to smell with, hands to touch and feel. What mad cruel god would give a man eyes and tell him he must forever keep them shut, and never look at all the beauty in the world? Only a monster god, a demon of the darkness.
    Kojja Mo

    “For all these years I’ve lingered, waiting, watching, and now that the day has dawned I am too old. I am dying, Sam.” Tears ran from [Maester Aemon’s] his blind white eyes at that admission. “Death should hold no fear for a man as old as me, but it does. Isn’t that silly? It is always dark where I am, so why should I fear the darkness? Yet I cannot help but wonder what will follow, when the last warmth leaves my body. Will I feast forever in the Father’s golden hall as the septons say? Will I talk with Egg again, find Dareon whole and happy, hear my sisters singing to their children? What if the horselords have the truth of it? Will I ride through the night sky forever on a stallion made of flame? Or must I return again to this vale of sorrow? Who can say, truly? Who has been beyond the wall of death to see? Only the wights, and we know what they are like. We know.”

May

  • A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

    He [Viserys Targaryen] was a fool about that, and so much else, Dany thought. If he had been wiser and more patient, it would be him sailing west to take the throne that was his by rights.

    The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’ hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, my daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop ’em off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and clever and quick. A kneeler only has t’ kneel.
    Ygritte

    Men like Walton would kill at their lord’s command, rape when their blood was up after battle, and plunder wherever they could, but once the war was done they would go back to their homes, trade their spears for hoes, wed their neighbors’ daughters, and raise a pack of squalling children. Such men obeyed without question, but the deep malignant cruelty of the Brave Companions was not a part of their nature.

    “A man is never so vulnerable in battle as when he flees,” Lord Eddard had told Jon once. “A running man is like a wounded animal to a soldier. It gets his bloodlust up.”

    “If he didn’t frighten me, I’d be a bloody fool.” Bronn gave a shrug. “Might be I could take him. Dance around him until he was so tired of hacking at me that he couldn’t lift his sword. Get him off his feet somehow. When they’re flat on their backs it don’t matter how tall they are. Even so, it’s chancy. One misstep and I’m dead. Why should I risk it? I like you well enough, ugly little whoreson that you are … but if I fight your battle, I lose either way. Either the Mountain spills my guts, or I kill him and lose Stokeworth. I sell my sword, I don’t give it away. I’m not your bloody brother.”

    It all goes back and back, Tyrion thought, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads.

  • A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

    “The men of Westeros are ever-rushing”, complained Salladhor Saan. “What good is this, I ask you? He who hurries through life hurries to his grave.”

    Oh, to be sure, there is much we do not understand. The years pass in their hundreds and their thousands, and what does any man see of life but a few summers, a few winters? We look at mountains and call them eternal, and so they seem … but in the course of time, mountains rise and fall, rivers change their courses, stars fall from the sky, and great cities sink beneath the sea. Even gods die, we think. Everything changes.
    Maester Luwin

    The justice of your cause means naught to the common men of Qarth. Why should my sailors care who sits upon the throne of some kingdom at the edge of the world?
    Xaro Xhoan Daxos

    Knights die in battle,” Catelyn reminded her. Brienne looked at her with those blue and beautiful eyes. “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.”

    [Sandor Clegane] “What evil?” He laughed. “What gods?” [Sansa Stark] “The gods who made us all.” “All?” he mocked. “Tell me, little bird, what kind of god makes a monster like the Imp, or a halfwit like Lady Tanda’s daughter? If there are gods, they made sheep so wolves could eat mutton, and they made the weak for the strong to play with.”

    I do not know … war everywhere … each man against his neighbor, and winter coming … such folly, such black mad folly …
    Maester Luwin

  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

    Tyrion replied with a shrug that accentuated the twist of his shoulders. “Speaking for the grotesques,” he said, “I beg to differ. Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.”

    I ask you, Ned, what good is it to wear a crown? The gods mock the prayers of kings and cowherds alike.
    Robert Baratheon

    “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” He gave a shrug. “They never are.”

    Remember the time he [Stannis Baratheon] proposed to outlaw brothels? The king asked him if perhaps he’d like to outlaw eating, shitting, and breathing while he was at it.
    Renly Baratheon

    In some khalasars, Jhiqui said, the bloodriders shared the khal’s wine, his tent, and even his wives, though never his horses. A man’s mount was his own.

    “Chataya runs a choice establishment,” Littlefinger said as they rode. “I’ve half a mind to buy it. Brothels are a much sounder investment than ships, I’ve found. Whores seldom sink, and when they are boarded by pirates, why, the pirates pay good coin like everyone else.”

    A word, and Dany could have her head off … yet then what would she have? A head? If life was worthless, what was death?

    When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?
    Jeor Mormont

  • The Long Walk by Stephen King

    “Love is a fake!” Olson was blaring. “There are three great truths in the world and they are a good meal, a good screw, and a good shit, and that’s all!”

    But even that’s not the real point of this little expedition, Garraty. The point is, they’re the smart ones. They’re not getting thrown to the lions. They’re not staggering along and hoping they won’t have to take a shit with two warnings against them. You’re dumb, Garraty. You and me and Pearson and Barkovitch and Stebbins, we’re all dumb. Scramm’s dumb because he thinks he understands and he doesn’t. Olson’s dumb because he understood too much too late. They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?
    McVries

    I don’t want to see it anymore. It’s lousy. And it’s a cheat. You build it all around something . . . set yourself on something . . . and then you don’t want it. Isn’t it too bad the great truths are all such lies?
    McVries

    I was one in a million. I wasn’t bright enough to realize the circus fat lady is, too.
    Garraty

    I’ll bet every Long Walk finds some poor dog like Scramm and makes a gesture like this, Garraty, and I’ll further bet it always comes at just about this time in the Walk, when the old realities and mortalities are starting to sink in. In the old days, before the Change and the Squads, when there was still millionaires, they used to set up foundations and build libraries and all that good shit. Everyone wants a bulwark against mortality, Garraty. Some people can kid themselves that it’s their kids.
    Stebbins

  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Created on November 28 2016, last modified on October 14 2017.


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