Plus ça change

“How strange is this wild urge for rapid locomotion seizing people of all nations at the same instant. ‘The dead go swiftly’, says the ballad. Are we dead then? Or could this be some presentiment of the approaching doom of our planet, possessing us to multiply the means of communication so we may travel over its entire surface in the little time left to us?”

— Théophile Gautier, 1884

Books Read in 2016

The value in posting this list is not only that it preserves the work it took to compile it, but also that it provides me with some hint as the sources I took this year’s passages from.

Fiction

  • Home Fires by Wolfe, Gene
  • The Forever War by Haldeman, Joe
  • Far North by Theroux, Marcel
  • The Last Wish by Sapkowski, Andrzej
  • The Dark Forest by Liu, Cixin
  • The Killing Machine by Vance, Jack
  • Star King by Vance, Jack
  • Castle of the Otter by Wolfe, Gene
  • The Lions of al-Rassan by Kay, Guy Gavriel
  • The Weird by VanderMeer, Jeff
  • Rendezous with Rama by Clarke, Arthur C.

Non-Fiction

  • The Art of Philosophizing and other Essays by Russell, Bertrand
  • But What if We’re Wrong? by Klosterman, Chuck
  • Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Corbett, Jim
  • Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects by Stevens, Wallace
  • The Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Butler, Samuel
  • The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays by Auden, W. H.
  • The Old Patagonian Express by Theroux, Paul
  • Too High and Too Steep by Williams, David B
  • In Defense of Sanity by Chesterton, G. K.
  • Commonplace Book by Forster, E. M.
  • Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Roosevelt, Theodore
  • By Design by Caplan, Ralph
  • Interaction of Color by Albers, Josef
  • Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by Gordon, J. E.
  • Atlas of Cursed Places by Le Carrer, Olivier
  • The Inevitable by Kelly, Kevin
  • Wind, Sand, and Stars by Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de
  • Code by Petzold, Charles
  • Rats by Sullivan, Robert
  • Cradle to Cradle by Braungart, Michael
  • A Certain World by Auden, W. H.
  • Atlas of Remote Islands by Schalansky, Judith
  • Wayfinding by Arthur, Paul
  • A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Manaugh, Geoff
  • The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell by Russell, Bertrand
  • On Bullshit by Frankfurt, Harry G.
  • Consilience by Wilson Edward Osborne
  • Interdisciplinary Interaction Design by Pannafino, James
  • The Food Lab by López-Alt, J. Kenji
  • Architecture: Form, Space, and Order by Ching, Francis D. K.
  • Nothing to Envy by Demick, Barbara
  • Trillion Year Spree by Aldiss, Brian W, editor.
  • The Big Con by Maurer, David
  • 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Weinschenk, Susan
  • At Ease by Eisenhower, Dwight D.
  • Playing at the World by Peterson, Jon
  • The Progress Paradox by Easterbrook, Gregg
  • Too Big to Know by Weinberger, David
  • The Knowledge by Dartnell, Lewis
  • Data and Goliath by Schneier, Bruce
  • Cubed by Saval, Nikil
  • Good-Bye to All That by Graves, Robert
  • Gunfighter Nation by Slotkin, Richard
  • Symbol by Bateman, Steven
  • A Time of Gifts by Fermor, Patrick Leigh
  • Steering the Craft by Le Guin, Ursula K.
  • How to Lie with Maps by Monmonier, Mark
  • Uncanny Valley by Weschler, Lawrence
  • Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Bierut, Michael

Rereads

  • 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories by Asimov, Isaac

Ken and Robin’s Spy Movies 101

From Episode 227 of Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.

Robin D. Laws

  • Spione (1928)
  • The Parallax View (1974) ✓
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) ✓
  • Notorious (1936) ✓
  • The Third Man (1949) ✓
    • Ken: “You know what’s another good movie with no spies in it? Jaws.”
  • From Russia with Love (1963) ✓
  • Army of Shadows (1969) ✓
  • Ronin (1998) ✓
  • Sicario (2015) ✓
  • Charade (1963)
  • Hopscotch (1980)

Kenneth Hite

  • The Three Days of the Condor (1975) ✓
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) ✓
    • “Since you can’t allow TV shows in Spy Movies 101, we must pass over Alec Guiness with a wistful sigh.”
  • The 39 Steps (1935)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ✓
  • Thunderball (1965) ✓
  • The Ipcress File (1965) ✓
  • The Bourne Trilogy (2000s) ✓
  • OSS-117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) ✓

Art Note, the Old Masters and their Pupils

“The old masters taught, not because they liked teaching, nor yet from any idea of serving the cause of art, nor yet because they were paid to teach by the parents of their pupils. The parents probably paid no money at first. They took pupils and taught them because they had more work to do than they could get through, and they wanted someone to help them. They sold the pupil’s work as their own, just as people do now who take apprentices. When people can sell a pupil’s work they will teach the pupil all they know, and they will see he does it. This is the secret of the whole matter.”

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

The Thundering Heard

Hitchcock: Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in. In other words, since all that was missing was simply natural sound, there was no need to go to the other extreme and completely abandon the technique of the pure motion picture, the way they did when sound came in.

Truffaut: I agree. In the final era of silent movies, the great film-makers — in fact, almost the whole of production — had reached something near perfection. The introduction of sound, in a way, jeopardized that perfection. I mean that this was precisely the time when the high screen standards of so many brilliant directors showed up the woeful inadequacy of the others, and the lesser talents were gradually being eliminated from the field. In this sense one might say that mediocrity came back into its own with the advent of sound.

Brevity

Talking with Gogin last night, I said that in writing it took more time and trouble to get a thing short than long. He said it was the same in painting. It was harder not to paint a detail than to paint it — easier to put in all that one can see than to judge what may go without saying, omit it and range the irreducible minima in due order of precedence. Hence we all lean towards prolixity.

The difficiulty lies in the nice appreciation of relative importances and in the giving each detail neither more nor less than its due […] We are continually trying to see as much as we can, and to put it down. More wisely we should consider how much we can avoid seeing and dispense with.

As regards painting, anyone can paint anything in the minute manner with a little practice, but it takes an exceedingly able man to paint so much as an egg broadly and simply. Bearing in mind the shortness of life and the complexity of affairs, it stands to reason that we owe most to him who packs our trunk for us, so to speak, most intelligently, neither omitting what we are likely to want, nor including what we can dispense with, and, at the same time, arranges things so that they will travel most safely and be got at most conveniently. So we speak of composition and arrangement in all arts.

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

False Premises

Deduction tells you what follows from your premises, but does not tell you whether your premises are true… It can, however, enable you to know that your premises are false. It may happen that the consequences of your premises can be disproved, and in that case your premises must be more or less wrong. Bishop Colenso, in his endeavor to convert the Zulus, translated the Bible into their language. They read it with an open mind, but when they came to the statement that the hare chews the cud they informed him that this was not the case. He was a bookish man, unfamiliar with the habits of hares, but at the instigation of the Zulus he observed a hare and found they were right. This caused him to have ‘doubts,’ which led the authorities to deprive him of his salary.

— Bertrand Russell

The Great Filter

Consider the implications of discovering that life had evolved independently on Mars (or some other planet in our solar system).  That discovery would suggest that the emergence of life is not a very improbable event.  If it happened independently twice here in our own back yard, it must surely have happened millions times across the galaxy.  This would mean that the Great Filter is less likely to occur in the early life of planets and is therefore more likely still to come.

If we discovered some very simple life forms on Mars in its soil or under the ice at the polar caps, it would show that the Great Filter must exist somewhere after that period in evolution.  This would be disturbing, but we might still hope that the Great Filter was located in our past.  If we discovered a more advanced life‐form, such as some kind of
multi‐cellular organism, that would eliminate a much larger stretch of potential locations where the Great Filter could be.  The effect would be to shift the probability more strongly to the hypothesis that the Great Filter is ahead of us, not behind us.  And if we discovered the fossils of some very complex life form, such as of some vertebrate‐like
creature, we would have to conclude that the probability is very great that the bulk of the Great Filter is ahead of us.  Such a discovery would be a crushing blow.  It would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover.

— from Where are they?: Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing by Nick Bostrom

Essentially: there ought to be a lot of extraterrestrial civilizations, but we haven’t seen any. Either we’re the only advanced civilization in the observed part of our universe (unlikely), or all the other advanced civilizations have disappeared through a ‘great filter’ that destroys them under some condition — population, resource use, warfare, etc.

If we find evidence of alien life, it reduces the probability that life is very rare, thus increasing the probability that there is a great filter.

And, if there is a great filter, we have to ask whether it’s behind us (which would be a relief) or whether it’s still ahead of us. If we find fossils of a dead lifeform that was very simple, we could argue that the great filter is something we passed through millions or billions of years ago. If we find fossils of complex lifeforms, it means we may be living through the great filter right now.

Decomposition

People will tell you that science, philosophy, and religion have nowadays all come together. So they have in a sense … they have come together as three people may come together at a funeral. The funeral is that of Dead Certainty.

— Stephen Leacock

Homelessness

The rootless fluidity of globalisation so recently celebrated by many young, educated urbanites feeds a new division between those who want the cosmopolitan city and those who prefer the settled provincial life; between those who think airports are part of daily life and those who go there only for their holidays; those that like the provisional, digital, networked economy and those who want the certainty of living in the same place, with the same people and following the same routines.

Heidegger maintained that modernity makes us feel homeless much of the time. Indeed, one reason large companies are so distrusted is that they seem to relish exactly what we recoil from: being homeless, a ‘citizen of nowhere’, as Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, recently put it in a speech to the Conservative Party. Corporations manage to get away with paying minimal tax because they can threaten to relocate at the drop of a hat. The jobs on which our homes depend appear to be hostage to people who regard rootlessness as an optimal state. Heidegger’s point is that such tensions can only intensify as modernity accelerates.

— From Nobody is Home by Charles Leadbetter

This article is a good, brief cataloguing of the complaints which have arisen with respect to the changed qualities of ‘home’ in the 21st century.

Recently I was at a talk, and overheard the speaker having a conversation with the host before the lecture. Neither could understand why society was not moving more quickly toward the ‘citizen of nowhere’ future, where robots and software do most of the work, and almost every activity of domestic life is provided as a subscription service. They were regarding this inevitability as nearly utopian — it would have some quirks, but for the most part it amounted to a more efficient (and thus preferable) way to live.