Words: Inclusion, Exclusion & Questioning

“Dictionaries project an image of disinterested expertise. This is because they are produced with stunning care by a professional team whose job it is to monitor a culture’s temperature. Consequently, they project authority. Yet what makes culture, particularly in a country like the United States, move is often an anti-authoritarian drive: rebellion, protests, marches. We like to think of ourselves as having a voice, and that voice, in linguistic terms, is in a constant state of unsettlement. We not only like to oppose power; we also like opposing the languages of power…

…Maybe every dictionary has its own double: the book features all the words its makers included, and the double features the words that were excluded. Inclusion is power, but so is exclusion. I say this because dictionaries exert a strange allure: an urge to completion. And the exclusions are a statement about life itself: the words that were left out haven’t been co-opted; by not yet being cataloged, they still belong to us.

It is a source of constant amazement to me that English doesn’t have the equivalent of an Académie Française. No institution forces us to use our words in a particular way. Yet we do have, of course, mechanisms of authority — for instance, peer pressure: we use the words we hear. So, usage is a mechanism of cohesion. And dictionaries, too, are tools of consent. I say this with absolute reverence. No language, especially no standardized language, is able to exist without a drive toward cohesiveness; otherwise, it would disintegrate rapidly. At the same time, those mechanisms of authority, including dictionaries, need to be questioned. Who is behind them? Are we satisfied with the dictionaries we have?”

Ilan Stavans and Margaret Boyle, “How Dictionaries Define Us: Margaret Boyle and Ilan Stavans in Conversation.” Los Angeles Review of Books. March 30, 2022

True of words. True of our lives.

No Special Magic

“I had an aged Volvo once (this is not irrelevant), and I was on holiday in Ireland in the summer, as I usually am, and the boot — which you call the trunk — jammed. I went in to the local garage man in my Kerry village and said, “I suppose I should take it to a Volvo dealer.” He lifted up a monkey wrench and hit the back of the car where the boot was jammed with a great belt. As he hit it (and it did spring open), he said, “In matters like this, Volvo dealers wield no special magic.”

-Tyler Cowen interviewing Roy Foster, “Roy Foster on Ireland’s Many Unmade Futures.” Conversations With Tyler. April 6, 2022.

Enjoyed the whole discussion, but since I collect little stories, I was particularly charmed by this bit.

Becoming a Better Smeller

“How could I become a better smeller? I like how you shifted away from questions of connoisseurship. You didn’t want to cultivate better aesthetic taste than other people. You just wanted to take in more of the world. Fredric Jameson once said, paraphrasing Adorno, that when you’re doing aesthetics as a Marxist, you can’t get away from the fact that art is a luxury item. It shouldn’t be, but that’s the guilt of the art object for certain critics. There’s an anecdote I’ve heard about Herbert Marcuse being interviewed at his home in La Jolla, California. The interviewer says something challenging, like, “Herbert Marcuse, you’re a Marxist thinker, but I’m looking at all this luxury. We’re lounging around your swimming pool. What do you say to that?” And Marcuse supposedly replies, “Nothing is too good for the people.” That’s a great response to the guilt thing…I want to be bold enough to wear a perfume like CB Beast. Not to please to other people, but to smell like, Fuck you.”

-Jude Stewart, “How to Choose Your Perfume: A Conversation with Sianne Ngai and Anna Kornbluh.” The Paris Review. March 23, 2022

I, too, want to smell like, “Fuck you!” If that smells like roast beef, all the better. But, the hard truth is I smell like Tide, the laundry detergent. Loved this conversation.

Defining the West

“The biggest surprise for Putin, of course, was the West. All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China, et cetera: all of that turned out to be bunk…

…The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is.

—David Remnick interview with Stephen Kotkin. “The Weakness of the Despot.” New Yorker. March 11, 2022.

Uncertainty & Future Planning Are Inversely Proportional

“There’s a paradox that strikes me whenever I visit Ely Cathedral, an amazing building just a few miles away from where we are sitting. It was built by masons as a structure that wasn’t to be finished in their lifetime, but which still inspires us 800 years later. We can’t think long term like they did. I think the reason is that those masons thought their grandchildren would live similar lives to them. Now, however, the pace of technological change means we don’t know enough about the preferences of people half a century in the future to be able to make confident plans. Although our horizons in space and time have hugely expanded, our capacity to do reliable long-term planning is less than it was in medieval times…

…One reason why I wish them luck is that human enhancement is going to be strongly regulated on Earth. But if there are these guys in a hostile environment on Mars, they would have every incentive to adapt themselves to that environment and they’d be away from the regulators. So if there is to be a post-human species, then it could evolve fastest from the progeny of these bold pioneers.

-Richard Webb interviews Martin Rees, “Martin Rees interview: Elon Musk could spawn the first post-humans.” New Scientist. March 9, 2022.

I found these two paragraphs interesting as a piece. We are so unsure about technical change that we cannot even sure that our progeny will be anything like us, much less living similar lives. This uncertainty makes it a challenge to think long term. This should be some kind of law: as uncertainty increases, our view of our time horizon decreases.

Alex Karp: Palantir & Privacy

“Palantir Technologies is considered as one of the most secretive companies in the world. The customer list of the data specialist from Palo Alto, California, by all accounts includes nearly all governments and secret services of the Western world. As well as an increasing number of companies who want to deliver better products thanks to the structured data analysis from Palantir. In the first of the two-part podcast interview with Alex Karp, who has also been on the supervisory board of Axel Springer since April 2018, Mathias Döpfner asks him how he counters critics of Palantir, whether Palantir was involved in locating Osama bin Laden and what it is that makes him most proud of Palantir. 

During the first part of the interview, which lasts a good 20 minutes, Alex Karp, who is usually as reserved in public as Palantir itself, also provides insights into the early days of the company, when hardly anyone believed in the potential of data, and explains why he sees protecting data as a competitive advantage. Karp, addressing Europe, also warns against softening data protection regulations. According to Karp, it’s all about striving for the best combination of “maximum effective Artificial Intelligence and maximum effective data protection”. “Because nobody, or nobody at least in Europe, wants to live in a world where they have no private sphere.” 

-“Mathias Döpfner interviews Alex Karp in the Axel Springer: ‘No one wants to live in a world where they have no private sphere’.” inside.pod. January 23, 2022.

I haven’t listened to it yet. So, this is more bookmark than recommendation. However, I understand this tries to address some of the philosophical objections to Palantir, which are many.

N.S.A. Research Director Interview

“In his first interview as leader of the NSA’s Research Directorate, Gil Herrera lays out challenges in quantum computing, cybersecurity, and the technology American intelligence needs to master to secure and spy into the future.”

Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Meet the NSA spies shaping the future.” Technology Review. February 1, 2022.

The leader of the National Security Agency’s Research Directorate is giving interviews? I guess times have changed since people used to refer to it as No Such Agency.

John Donahue on Food & Drink for the Soul

“One way, and I think this is a really lovely way, and I think it’s an interesting question to ask oneself too, and the question is, when is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture? But when had you last a great conversation in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you onto a different plane, and then, fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards? And I’ve had some of them recently, and it’s just absolutely amazing. They’re like, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul.

Second thing, I think, a question to always ask oneself — who are you reading? Who are you reading? And where are you stretching your own boundaries? Are you repetitive in that? And one of the first books I read as a child — we had no books at home, but a neighbor of ours had all these books, and he brought loads of books. That’s how I ruined my eyes, like, and I have to wear glasses. [laughs] But one of the first books I read was a book by Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who was doing 30 years for robbing banks. And in the book somebody asked Willie, and they said, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” And Willie said, “Because that’s where the money is.” And why do we read books? Because that’s where the wisdom is.

So like my professors in colleges always used to say, if you were doing an essay or doing a thesis, the first thing you have to do is read the primary sources and trust your own encounter with them before you go to the secondary literature. And I’d say to anybody who is listening to us, who is interested in spirituality and who is maybe being coaxed a little away from believing it’s all a naïve, doomed, illusion-ridden thing — pick up something like Meister Eckhart or some one of the mystics and just have a look at it, and you could be surprised what an exciting adventure and homecoming it could become.”

-John Donahue, “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.” On Being with Krista Tippett. February 28, 2008.

Pathways of Success

You’re obviously a very capable, smart person: would the Aella story would have landed in the same spot if you had a different start in life? If you hadn’t worked in a factory say, or if your family had been different? Would you be a Y Combinator founder right now instead? Nothing against the current line of work, but I often ask myself the counterfactual of where I’d be if matters were otherwise.

It’s unlikely. Part of the reason I’ve been so successful is that I accidentally ended up in something smart, young women don’t end up in, which is sex work. Most people with some level of competence end up in college, and I didn’t for various reasons. That put me already into a minority….you mentioned earlier that you yourself stand at the desolate intersection of a Venn diagram of two different worlds. That has propelled me at a greater level of success than would have otherwise happened.

I really tried to go to college. Because I was very much stuck in the standard this is what success looks like. I had very, very small world view of what was possible for me. And when I didn’t get to go to college, I cried. I was really sad: “well I guess minimum wage jobs are forever.” That’s what my world was.

I think sex work really helped broaden that; it taught me kind of by accident that you can have success in life through very different ways. If you take risks, if you do the thing that other people don’t typically do, but you do it very seriously and you do it very well, then that in itself earns some sort of respect or validation or the skills translate to other things. And I would never have been able to predict that beforehand.”

-Antonio Garcia Martinez, “Wherein I pay Aella for sex, and we just chat instead*ThePullRequest.com. January 18, 2022

That last paragraph is on point. It’s one thing to be the best. It’s another thing to be the only. And the path to both can be helpfully thought of as a manifestation of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

Dan Savage Revolutionized Sex…

“Over the years, Savage honed his philosophy on boundaries—we should all be good, giving, and game for our partners, but we should also accept their hard limits as “the price of admission.” He built up an encyclopedic knowledge of kink and the mechanics of sex: the long-term effects of nipple clamps, how to stage an exciting bondage scene, what kind of butt plug to get when you’re first experimenting with anal penetration. (Not—and he cannot stress this enough—the small kind that looks like a finger, which will pop out of your butt at the least opportune moment.)

This staggering oeuvre, full of best practices and universal frameworks and detailed instructions, made Savage Love a beloved institution. It has also vexed Savage at times over the past decade, as the world he’s schooling changed with the #MeToo movement and the cultural evolution of the gay and trans communities. In recent years, it sometimes seemed like Savage was on the defensive as much as he was setting the rules. When I talked to him in Seattle, it was clear he felt that, too.”

-L.V. Anderson, “Dan Savage Revolutionized Sex. Then the Revolution Came for Him.” Slate. September 23, 2021.

If Dan Savage is on the defensive, who isn’t?