This Has Always Been the Year

At a quarter past eight on the first Monday of the new year, the yellow line on the way to the city has just passed Orinda. A young man is standing in the bicycle priority area near the doors, reading a paper magazine. Write Your Novel in 2016! is the cover story, followed by more teasers below: "2 Tools That Can Fix Any Story Problem," "What's Really at Stake? The Secret to More Compelling Characters," and "5 Great Caribbean Literary Festivals: Get Away, Get Inspired!"

It catches the eye of a young woman who got on at Lafayette and has spent the last six minutes scribbling in a Moleskine notebook. "Oh!" she says, approaching. "Are you a writer, too?"

The man looks up, seeming slightly surprised and confused, which slightly surprises and confuses her in turn. "Of course not," he says, indicating the magazine. "If I were, would I be reading this?"


Dear reader, imagine you have an idea for a work of prose that you want to have finished by Election Day for reasons which will become clear later, and you're not sure how long it should end up being, but you think maybe around twelve thousand words. When considering what you can do to ensure that this feat will actually be accomplished, it occurs to you that you could start writing now. Or

Continue reading


The blog has been silent for two weeks plus and, dear reader—that is, if there are any of you still remaining—dear reader, the thought occurs to me that maybe I should keep my drafts in a Git repository with a remote on GitHub, not because I need the full power of version control (I do not), but because then I would be rewarded for writing with those contemptible green contribution squares.

My Squares

It's an anthropomorphism to think that humans have goals, that we do things because we've computed that they'll increase expected beauty or rightness in the world. We do things for the immediate reinforcement. You eat the candy because it tastes good and you show up to work on time because if you didn't, then your colleagues would notice. Serious long-term risks of diabetes or unemployment are too distant and too abstract to enter in the equation; far more effective is something immediately noticeable, even something as trivial as an integer being incremented or a square turning a darker shade of green. I tell myself that I code because it's fun and useful and lucrative (though I'm never explicit about whether that's descending or ascending order of importance), but would I be quite so diligent without the implicit gamification of my virtue? Would it be enough to have done good work, without wasting a few minutes here and there to gaze admiringly at commit diffs and contribution squares which manifest my moral worth in red and green and green?

Dear reader, I want you to picture yourself reclining at the end of a long day near the end of long career filled with great or terrible deeds. A young minion at the start of their own career will look at you and ask in awe, "O Master, what motivated you, all that time? What drove you on in your hour of deepest exhaustion? Was the it money, the fame, the men or women? Was it your ideological fervor or spirit of generosity?"

"No," you'll reply. "I did it for the green squares. And given the same circumstanstances ... I'd do it all again."

"You mean, you made the right choices? You have no regrets?"

"No, you fool!" you'll shout. "Don't you understand? I said, I'd do it again."

Engineering Selection

This whole business of being alive used to seem so much simpler and less morally ambiguous before I realized that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, that it has always been thus and could not have been otherwise. The other day I was reading Luke Muehlhauser's interview with Steve Hsu, and Hsu says:

Let me add that, in my opinion, each society has to decide for itself (e.g. through democratic process) whether it wants to legalize or forbid activities that amount to genetic engineering. Intelligent people can reasonably disagree as to whether such activity is wise.

There was once a time in my youth when I would have objected with principled transhumanist/libertarian fervor against the suggestion that the glorious potential of designer babies might be suppressed by the tyranny of the majority.

I don't have (those kinds of) principles anymore. Nor faith that freedom to enhance will inevitably turn out to be for the best. These days, my thoughts are more attuned to practical concerns. Oh, I'm sure he's just saying that because it sounds nice and deferential to contemporary political sensibilities and he doesn't want to catch any more flak than he does already. Obviously, the societies than forbid it are just going to get crushed under the boot of history.

Think about it. The arrival of Europeans in North America didn't go very well for the people who were already here—and that was just a matter of mere guns, germs, and steel (in Jared Diamond's immortal phrase). What happens to our precious concept of democratic process when someone has the option to mass-produce von Neumann-level intellects to design the next generation of superguns, ultragerms, and adamantium-unobtanium alloy?

Forgetting an Idea

Occasionally I have a good idea, but neglect to write it down immediately, and end up forgetting it very soon thereafter; often I can ressociate my way back to it, but not always. I'm given to understand that this is not uncommon for other people, either. Only I have to wonder if it's at all telling that we remember the emotional experience of "I just had a good idea! Clearly I am a Smart and Creative Person!" but forget the idea that was ostensibly its referent. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Why, it's almost as if the deception and posturing that defines our social worlds extends even into the sacred domain of the self!


Friend of the blog Alicorn tweets:

Why is the word "dreams" used to describe both pseudorandom nocturnal hallucinations and also heartfelt aspirations for real life?

A cynic might reply: because both the nocturnal hallucinations and the heartfelt aspirations are, for the most part, composed of lies. How many people, what proportion of the time, will actually lift a finger (or open a book, or make a telephone call) to work towards actually achieving what they believe to be heartfelt aspirations?

The Sliding False Dichotomy of Idealism and Cynicism

The Television Tropes & Idioms wiki has a page on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Of course I understand why such a page exists, but part of me can't help but protest that it's not really a sliding scale. One of the most charming things about my native subculture is that we have heaps of both: cynicism in the style of "Humans are selfish, weak-willed hypocrites; the reasons people say they do things aren't always or even usually the real reasons, and even introspection itself is untrustworthy," and idealism in the style of "But knowing what we do now, we shall use the power of Reason to remake the world in accordance with our Values!"