Monthly Archives: November 2013

Two wonderful, zeitgeisty articles on the evolution of language under the pressure of the internet which caught my eye today:

“The Period Is Pissed”, at The New Republic, about how putting a period at the end of your texts makes you seem angry.

Do you want to grab a sandwich?

Not really.

Writes Ben Crair, who wrote the piece:

“In the world of texting and IMing … the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.


The second article was this hilarious piece in The Atlantic about how “because” has become a preposition to indicate causality.  He traces the development back to the early naughts. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.


I read the report on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School today. It was horrific reading. I don’t know why I did it, and I can’t really recommend it. I don’t really have the stomach to say much about it, but I think Amy Davidson says everything that needs saying in her powerful blog post today.

I guess the thing which most struck me, and which Davidson also goes deeply into, is the basic unknowable nature of the gunman. Why he did what he did remains completely opaque, though of the new information brought to light today, a fleeting mention of him having possession of material justifying pedophilia may hold some small measure of explanation for some. For my part, I guess I’m just left with not knowing. His mental health issues and lack of real connection is obviously a central part of the pattern here, but we’re just not getting any closer to what he was. What we’re left with is the failure to stand to account as a country which followed. And Davidson’s cold fury on that count is almost too much to bear. 

A hundred and twelve pounds, 30.47 pounds, four feet seven inches by three feet six inches (the dimensions of the restrooms where children hid), three fragments that “together weigh less than one bullet and are presumed to have been parts of the same one bullet”—we know what these amount to in sum, in the count of the twenty-seven bodies, some of them very small. But measuring what each contributed is harder. The report doesn’t have an answer for why this happened, but it does pose a situation: a man with “significant mental-health issues” and “familiarity with and access to firearms and ammunition.” The many numbers in the report do not include 54-46, the vote by which modest gun-control measures were defeated in the Senate, this April. The great mystery, not addressed in its pages, is why, in the year since Sandy Hook, we have not done anything about our relationship with guns—either our familiarity or our access. What is the motive for that?

Frans Peeters (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Magnus Carlsen, reigning world champion.

Sorry, been away for a while, doing real-life-things.

One of the things I’ve been doing while doing real-life-things is, to my great surprise, maniacally following the World Championships in chess. I’ve been an enthusiastic hobby player since childhood, but I haven’t played seriously or paid much attention to the championships for many years. But this year, with Magnus Carlsen challenging Vishwanathan Anand, suddenly my interest resurfaced.

I think one reason for this was simply that social media allowed some really fun and deep commentary to be realised in real time. But another was simply the nature of the match. Carlsen is a different kind of player. He’s my kind of player. The kind I like to watch. And Anand is everything that got me bored of chess.

I know that opinions differ on this, but I’ve always thought of Anand as a safe player. Someone who takes no risks, who plays with too little creativity, too little chutzpah, too little … I dunno, duende

There’s something a little bit boring and uncreative about his style. The kind of player who would rather know the deepest variations of the bog-standard Spanish opening than play something exotic and dangerous. He seemed to me always quick to simplify positions. To exchange pieces and defuse tensions. To move his opponent into the simpler positions which his superior analytical abilities could win easily. If you line up Anand’s moves with the best chess engines, like Houdini, he almost always chooses the machine moves. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anand is obviously a really strong player, he was world champion, for heaven’s sake. But I could never quite get the thrill of the game from his playing.

Wikimedia Commons

A Staunton set, my favourite chess set.

Carlsen is the opposite of that. There’s something a little bit beginner’s mind about Carlsen. He consistently chooses different moves from the computers. He’s a creative, positional player working through combinations, surprising strategy and what even Carlsen admits is a level of “feel” rather than close-positional tactics. And this is why Carlsen is such a strong player. The chess board feels a little more like a storm-tossed sea when he’s playing. Players like Anand can’t work against such players. The unpredictable nature of the game means that their deep analytics and simplifying strategies fail.

This is the quality that some analysts have called Carlsen’s “nettlesomeness“. Others have called it a throw-back to the romantic era of chess or a new, postmodern blend of the old and the new styles. I’m not entirely sure this is right. I think Carlsen is what happens when someone who by heart is a romantic style player grows up in the era of computer chess. A combination of deep and difficult positional games learned through the simulations and a longing for the fun, ballsy game of chess that we all played with friends growing up.

In a recent issue of Time, former world champion Garry Kasparov very accurately describes Carlsen’s style:

Carlsen’s greatest chess strength is his remarkable intuitive grasp of simplified positions and his tremendous accuracy in them. I coached Carlsen for a year, in 2009, and I was amazed at how quickly he could correctly evaluate a position “cold,” seemingly without any calculation at all. My own style required tremendous energy and labor at the board, working through deep variations looking for the truth in each position. Carlsen comes from a different world champion lineage, that of Jose Capablanca and Anatoly Karpov, players who sense harmony on the board like virtuoso musicians with perfect pitch.

I think this is exactly right. (And Capablanca and Karpov, incidentally, are my two favourite grand masters). And there’s a sense in which it was time for a player like Carlsen to ascend. In an age where chess computers can analyse deeper positions through brute-force algorithms, human players need to start seeing new paths through chess. Carlsen is the kind of player this historical moment needs. Kasparov, who (in)famously lost to Deep Blue in the late 90s, one of our great HAL moments, agrees:

The Knight’s Tour, a famous mathematical problem about how the knight can visit every square on the board most efficiently. Magnus Carlsen is set to embark on his own “knight’s tour”.

Carlsen’s domination renders unnecessary any extensive punditry on the match itself. He has been the world’s top-ranked player for two years already while Anand’s results have tailed off, as those of players on the wrong side of forty tend to do. It is true that Anand made quite a few unforced errors in his losses, but as I said before the match, Anand was fighting not only a stronger player but also the tidal forces of time and history. Carlsen is a force of nature whose time has come and there was little Anand could do to slow the inevitable in Chennai.

So what happens now to chess? I suspect we’ll be entering a new age of more fun chess, new styles of play and a more multipolar chess world. I, for my part, have regained my enthusiasm for the game. Your move, chess.

I finally got to see Olympus Has Fallen yesterday, and wow, did it suck. I was coming into the movie planning to, as I do for all blockbuster action movies, totally suspend disbelief, my politics and my critical thinking. To just for a few hours let men be men and ignore my crippling and unmanly awareness of the neo-imperialist and phallogocentric discourses underpinning the patriarchy, causing the gendered and racial stereotypes which blah blah blah.

But I just couldn’t. I tried, and failed. I sat through Die Hard, I sat through Predator. Hell, I even sat through Commando with a mostly straight face. But although Olympus Has Fallen (“Die Hard in the White House” as it has already been called about 272.000 times) delivers solid action scenes and some great setpieces …

Well, look.  I just couldn’t make it through two hours of Olympus Has Fallen’s blaringly obvious nostalgia for the 80s blockbuster macho action movie without saying things like “that scene brazenly embraces post-colonial longings for empire while both playing on orientalist tropes in the representation of The Other as collective, sensual, inscrutable and ignorant, and displaying reactionary fears of the emasculation of the Western, heterosexual male in the face of a depolarizing world and the falling fortunes of the neoliberal capitalist orthodoxy.” Out loud. To myself, alone in a room.

So this movie is about, in no particular order, these things:

1. Asian people are coming to destroy the American way.

Behind the inscrutable and implacable mask of his face, burns a heart of eeeeevil. Also, glasses means he’s smart and smart Asians are eeeevil.

The villains are Asian. Very Asian. And inscrutable. And eeeevil. Did we mention they’re Asian?

2. Did we mention that they are coming to destroy America?

The flag falls to the ground in slow motion, tossed by evil, yellow people. Slow, mournful music plays.

The movie completely fetishises the destruction of symbols of American power. The flag, in particular, is perforated, shot through, tossed to the ground, burned and ripped. In slow motion. Over mournful music. Like, my Netflix on CC subtitles literally says “SOMBER MUSIC PLAYS”.

3. When we say “Olympus Has Fallen”, we’re referring to the United States.

A huge part of the movie is just blatantly expressing fears about the falling trajectory of the United States. One tag line is “We are never stronger than when we are tested.” Which is a euphemism for “we kind of suck right now and we don’t know what to do about it.”

4. Manliness is under threat from Asian girly men and metrosexual traitor men.

The Asians literally destroy America’s cock in this one scene. It tumbles to the ground in slow motion. Sombre, mournful music plays.

The subtitle of the film could be “masculinity under siege”. One tag line of the movie: “when our flag falls, our nation will rise.” If you know what I mean.There’s all this percolating anxiety about not being manly enough, not rising to the task, of the old kind of masculinity not fitting in to the modern world. It ends up in these unintentionally hilarious moments of phallic symbolism and impotence metaphors. “Olympus” has “Fallen”, indeed. Things come to a … head in a scene that had Freud spinning in his grave like a propeller. Here, terrorists destroy the Washington Monument, which crumbles into dust. At the end, scaffolding is, ehm, erected around the monument. So we can restore America’s hardness, or something.

Also, although this might be harder to pin down, the traitory villain seems a classic metrosexual and the Asian villains all have feminine characteristics including an evil, robot-like woman who does evil things on her computer. The main villain has a perfect coif the whole movie through. And the best-looking suit in the movie. The old idea of the Oriental as being feminine comes to the foreground.

5. Only manly, manful men with muscles and guns are real men.

The men outside the White House do literally everything wrong. Morgan Freeman and them.

6. All these topics come to a head in this shockingly awful speech at the end: 

We’ve lost good friends. Family. All good people. Heroes, every one of them. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families. And they will be remembered. Nor will we forget those who serve out of the spotlight, to whom we owe our highest gratitude. Our foe did not come only to destroy our things or our people. They came to desecrate our way of life. To foul our beliefs. Trample our freedom. And in this, not only did they fail, they granted us the greatest gift – a chance at our rebirth. We will rise renewed, stronger, and united. This is our time. Our chance to get back to the best of who we are. To lead by example with the dignity, integrity, and honor that built this country. And which will build it once again. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Rebirth, rise, renewed, stronger, united, this is our time, get back to the best of who we are, dignity, integrity and honor. Build it once again. God. It’s just so bad. Such an inarticulate expression of the popular subconsciousness, catering to the fantasies of the viewer.

A hilarious piece in the Washington Post covers the Rob Ford scandal (the mayor of Toronto has finally admitted what everyone knew, that he was an abuser of crack cocaine). It is covered in the style of foreign affairs pieces on distant, you know, third world countries. A fantastic way of showing everyday journalism in a new light.

TORONTO – A powerful Canadian official has become entrenched in scandal after admitting to using crack cocaine, a taboo in this socially conservative society. In a country where dissent is limited by traditional mores, the transgression has sparked rare public outrage and raised concerns about the stability of the Canadian regime.

The official, Rob Ford, reigns over the restive border town of Toronto, a multi-ethnic hotbed known for its bustling markets and history of violent conflict.

It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

Today I stumbled on a lovely little essay by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (whom the astute reader may or may not have noticed that I have developed a bit of an obsession with). It’s called “Thank Goodness!” It details the train of thought that followed after he nearly died from a ruptured aorta, the huge pipeline carrying blood out of the heart.

Dennett questions the phrase “thank goodness!” which appears in his mind, and investigates how his (famously, infamously) atheist worldview differs in such moments of crisis from the religious people.

There’s a fascinating tension in the essay in the essay. The sincereness of his gratitude and acceptance of the compassion of his friends and his appreciation the skill and the intelligence of his medical personnel — these are all on one side of this tension. On the other is the rational and formal disapproval he feels for the religious worldview which led his friends to say they prayed for him. His feeling that his religious friends are suckers.

One would certainly do well to remember the litany of things which keep us alive, the processes and the creativity which people devote their lives to all over the world in order that we can live. It is rare that we actually meet the people who invented the medicines we take, who peer-reviewed the science and the procedures which save us when we have appendicitis, a broken shoulder or an aggressive pneumonia. Dennett thanks them, and he was even lucky enough to be friends with the man who invented the machine that saved his life.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians …

I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning  out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

At the same time, being a philosopher, he can never stop being committed to keeping his worldview.

I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

Is it a kind of ingratitude? A way of not saying thank you for the (useless) actions taken on his behalf? It’s such an interesting tension in the piece (and, I guess, in him). There’s something searingly honest about it. And in the end, I think this is what I appreciate most about the piece. The tension is, I suspect, a good one.

Though our social lives thrive on the little moments of social smoothing-over of just saying thank you and going on your way, philosophy certainly does not. And friendship or other matters of the heart do not either. Surely, the respect of our loved ones requires honesty. If nothing else, then at least when we’re out at the edges of life. Coming in, or going back out.

“So frankly, mister Boehner, go fuck yourself.” Photo: Pete Souza, the White House.

So I was doing household chores today (resetting the entropy values in my closets here, reducing the amount of disorder in the kitchen there) while listening to a great podcast from the London School of Economics (LSE).

There is obviously a bottomless pit of free and open educational courses online, which I recommend for everyone in their spare time (the spaced-out zen of cooking is particularly conducive to listening to lectures via podcast, I find). But the LSE podcast is one of the best I’ve found. Open, interesting events several days a week. Great speakers, interesting topics, highly politicised, searching and open-minded.

This one was particularly good, on “The Metropolitan Revolution,” a new book in which the author posits a change in the organisation of the US which is taking place now. The primary mover in the US, he claims, is no longer the federal government, which has, “like Elvis, left the building, literally.” Instead, networks of cities are not forming hubs and clusters, fueling innovation, regrowth and so on. It’s an interesting spiel, particularly for just hearing the sheer resignation over the role of government of a US left-leaning academic.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about — although do go hear the podcast, it’s fascinating. Instead, I wanted to talk about an issue which the podcast richly illustrates and which, frankly, I think it’s time we should talk about. I am referring to the obsessive-compulsive overuse of the word “frankly” which at this point, frankly, threatens all of Western civilization.

As far as I can tell, this is a disease which spread, frankly, from the President of the United States of America himself, Barack Obama. He has more verbal tics than a word forest full of lyme disease. When he’s stalling until he can make the next phrase in his head he goes “aaaaand” or trails another vowel in another word, like “thaaaat” or “uuuuh“. He unnecessarily refers to people as “folks” to sound folksy. Aaaand, when he’s trying to sound reasonable or wants extra attention, especially at the beginning of an argument, he goes “look“. And he also does “let me be clear“, which I can’t be arsed to find right now except for that impersonator which is in the link … and then there’s “frankly”.1

1. Which, frankly, I was unable to find in a quick search on the youtubes of his statements and such. But he’s been saying it a lot. Trust me.

Well, look, let me be clear: Obama’s frankly a very even-tempered guy, aaaand when he holds speeches, whenever he has to say something, uuuuh, which is, quite frankly, a little angry. Or when he’s putting blame on some other folks like the Republicans. Uuuuh, he’s often putting that “frankly” in there because, frankly, it lets the viewer know that a) I actually, quite frankly, have feelings, aaaaand b) I’m being as reasonable and forthright and as subtle as I could possibly be about these fucking complete uuuuuh assholes, frankly, which I’m talking about. But, quite frankly, they’re just being such immense and utter douchebags thaaaat, I’m just going to have to say this thing that I don’t even want to, but you, the person I’m speaking to, sort of lured it out of me.

And from the president, frankly, it spread to everyone in the political class and then to all the rest of the folks. Aaaand, let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong, but it’s, frankly, quite annoying.

So look, I’m asking now that everyone out there, uuuuh, please stop saying the word frankly. Because frankly, it’s the most irritating of Obama’s verbal tics, aaaand, it’s the one that seems to have gotten the most spread along with “folks” (which, to be fair, was an innovation brought into politics by George W. Bush and, frankly, Bill Clinton). So let me be clear: you need to stop the madness now, aaaand, quite frankly, I think the best way for you to do that iiiiiis, to hear this song in your head every time you say the word. Whiiiich, frankly mister Shankly, this position I’ve held, well look, let me be clear: