A New Samizdat

“What if now were the time for a new self-publishing here at home — a new samizdat? The time to create a new, parallel communications network and a fresh system for information sharing? A parallel network and a fresh system owned not by commercial interests — so Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other seemingly “self-publishing” platforms can’t factor in here — nor by the state or the government, but by the very people who create and maintain them, part of a widening nonprofit, non-commercial ecosystem. Václav Havel spoke of the battle of first and second cultures as an epic contest between “an anonymous, soulless, immobilizing (‘entropic’) power,” on the one hand, and “life, humanity, being, and its mystery,” on the other. [5] Fellow dissidents spoke of samizdat’s second culture as “the only meaningful construction” people could create if they did not want “to remain passive appendices of the political and social structures created by the ruling power.” [6] They signaled each other as they wrote, distributed, and published — from the smallest codes, of the kinds that the Encyclopédistes used, to the largest and, also like the Encyclopédie, most earth-shattering. [7] Solzhenitsyn spoke of the mystical wisdom of a process in which information that is urgent somehow rises to the top. Samizdat, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “knows what is what.” [8]

-Peter B. Kaufman, “Freethinkers Versus the Monsterverse: An Excerpt from ‘The New Enlightenment.'” Los Angeles Review of Books. February 23, 2021

This is one of the motivations behind my use of a blog and stripping out advertising. But, this points to a much fuller conception. Should I be making ‘zines, podcasts, create a video channel? It all sounds very exhausting. But, at minimum, I’m not going to spend my time helping the feudal Internet hit their revenue targets with what passes as my commentary.

Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

“The Phites who’d invented the boost had had one big advantage as they’d tinkered with each other’s brains: it had not been a purely theoretical exercise for them. They hadn’t gazed at anatomical diagrams and then reasoned their way to a better design. They had experienced the effects of thousands of small experimental changes, and the results had shaped their intuition for the process. Very little of that intuition had been spoken aloud, let alone written down and formalised. And the process of decoding those insights from a purely structural view of their brains was every bit as difficult as decoding the language itself.”

—Greg Egan, “Crystal Nights.”

Struck me as an interesting example of how lived experience cannot be reduced to language and abstraction.

Experience Japan Pictograms

Experience Japan Pictograms are a novel set of visual symbols developed by creative director Daigo Daikoku for people of all cultures and ages to enhance their tourism experience in Japan. And whether you run a restaurant, are building an app or putting together a guidebook, the pictograms are free and available to download for any use, even commercial. You can even change the color as you wish.”

Over 250 Pictograms Depicting Japanese Culture, Released to the Public for Free Use.” Spoon & Tamago. February 19, 2021.

Just to show you options beyond changing colors, it is possible to combine different elements from Experience Japan Pictograms in Illustrator or Inkscape (free). Above, I created a site header for cafebedouin.org combining the dunes of L_TOTTIORI-SATYU.svg with a camel I traced from an image in Illustrator, and then combined the camel with the coffee icon in F_KISSATKEN.svg. Fairly easy to do. Of course, I’m not a big fan of unnecessary images on my site. However, the camel coffee cup might be a good logo of sorts. Anyway, I could see quite a few possibilities for using these pictograms in headers for a site, promotional materials or what have you.

What Networks Whisper

“In the words of Paul Graham, “every city whispers something.” So when you choose to live in a city, you’re also choosing what kind of whispers you want to hear. Even if they’re subliminal, the whispers of cities are so influential that innovation has historically been clustered in small pockets. The cities we inhabit strongly influence our odds of success. As Paul Graham wrote: “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot… Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

Now, the same thing is happening on social networks: each one whispers something. Twitter tells you to be witty, Reddit tells you to be clever, Facebook tells you to share your everyday life, Instagram tells you to be glamorous, and TikTok tells you to be entertaining. 

Social networks are cities for the digital world.”

-David Perell, “What Networks Whisper.davidperell.com. February 2021

Proust Lu

“From Bali to Paris, the readers in Véronique Aubouy’s huge project, ‘Proust Lu’ (‘Proust Read’), have been captured in bedrooms, offices, supermarkets, factories and beauty spots. Farmers, schoolchildren, businessmen, even the French director’s doctor have participated. ‘It’s a slice of life,’ Ms Aubouy says; ‘a reading about time, in time.’ The cast is as diverse as the novel’s, brought together by their own web of connections and coincidences.”

—”A tag-team reading of ‘In Search of Lost Time’.The Economist. February 6, 2021.

I love this idea. I’ve picked up the first volume of Proust’s book, and I didn’t like it. I stopped maybe 50 pages in. But, I can imagine tackling the novel in this way. It’s ~4,000 pages long. If you wanted to read it in a year, you’d need to read 11 pages a day. It’s doable, but it seems like a tough slog.

But, 2 pages a day over the course of 6 years, assuming you missed a couple of hundred days and added a page or two here and there? That seems to be exactly the kind of reading this book calls for.

Also, some of the readings from Proust Lu are on YouTube, in French, bien sûr.

Chartism & Skepticism

Chartism: …Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”

-David Perell, “Friday Finds (1/29/[21 sic])” Friday Finds. January 29, 2021.

David Perell references Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism as the origin of this idea. It’s interesting, but I think it is largely a false dichotomy. Obviously, data can help explain the world and help us to make better decisions. However, equally obviously, Sturgeon’s Law applies to data, just as it does to anything else, and a lot of data is crap. Or, it is worse than crap because it gives us confidence in ideas, decisions, etc. that we should not be confident in. However, there is a solution to this problem: philosophical skepticism.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds in that Stanford article of belief, justification, and so forth about skepticism. But, the main idea is that everything you know could be wrong. On one level, none of us knows enough to be completely wrong about anything. On another, you could say that we aren’t even wrong because we don’t even know what the basic framework of being right should be. It’s a bit confusing, but skepticism is easier to understand if you tackle it using a specific problem: the problem of induction, which was originally formulated by David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature in 1739 .

At base, the problem of induction is that our past experiences aren’t really predictive and don’t constitute knowledge. Take an easy example: will the sun rise tomorrow? It has risen all the previous days for billions of years, so it seems we could say that we know it will rise tomorrow too. However, we just know history. Something could change tomorrow. There could be some detail about stars that would make tomorrow’s reality different from our expectation.

In terms of Chartism, we have a lot of data points about the sun’s daily rising. We’ve been able to predict, successfully, the sun’s rise in the past. We may even have some ideas about star formation and other details that would inform our expectations. But do we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow? No, we don’t.

And once you are willing to question the sun’s rise, you’re on your way. Everything is up for grabs. You can still go about your day thinking certain things will happen. But, you also know that there’s uncertainty there that you were not aware of before. It is one of the principle problems of humanity that we believe that we know things that we don’t. With skepticism, we introduce a little intellectual humility, a quality that never hurt anyone.

Black Vegans

“Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression…Today, there are estimated to be more than a million Black vegetarians and vegans in the United States, with Black people representing the fastest-growing vegan demographic in the country.”

—Amirah Mercer, “A Homecoming.” Eater.com. January 14, 2021.

What I like about this article is that something, in this case veganism, can be a complete paradox in context. For this woman, veganism ties into a history of fighting black oppression. But, I have to admit when I think of veganism, my experience is mostly privileged whites rejecting mainstream culture either on moral, health or other grounds. Eating itself is a kind of oppression, and in some ways, veganism feels like a style of oppression. For example, the kind of vegan that won’t take public transit because axle grease has an animal component has a lifestyle that cannot be emulated by most people. Is that liberating? If so, for whom?

I found this to provide a lot of food for thought.

Waiting for the Last Dance

“…it is highly probable that we are in a major bubble event in the U.S. market, of the type we typically have every several decades and last had in the late 1990s. It will very probably end badly, although nothing is certain. I will also tell you my definition of success for a bear market call. It is simply that sooner or later there will come a time when an investor is pleased to have been out of the market. That is to say, he will have saved money by being out, and also have reduced risk or volatility on the round trip. This definition of success absolutely does not include precise timing. (Predicting when a bubble breaks is not about valuation. All prior bubble markets have been extremely overvalued, as is this one. Overvaluation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for their bursting.) Calling the week, month, or quarter of the top is all but impossible….

…Nothing in investing perfectly repeats. Certainly not investment bubbles. Each form of irrational exuberance is different; we are just looking for what you might call spiritual similarities. Even now, I know that this market can soar upwards for a few more weeks or even months – it feels like we could be anywhere between July 1999 and February 2000. Which is to say it is entitled to break any day, having checked all the boxes, but could keep roaring upwards for a few months longer. My best guess as to the longest this bubble might survive is the late spring or early summer, coinciding with the broad rollout of the COVID vaccine. At that moment, the most pressing issue facing the world economy will have been solved. Market participants will breathe a sigh of relief, look around, and immediately realize that the economy is still in poor shape, stimulus will shortly be cut back with the end of the COVID crisis, and valuations are absurd. “Buy the rumor, sell the news.” But remember that timing the bursting of bubbles has a long history of disappointment.”

-Jeremy Grantham, “Waiting for the Last Dance.” GMO.com. January 2021

I thought in March 2020 that COVID-19 was going to clobber markets, and I was dead wrong. Too early. But, at some point, markets have to reflect the economic reality, which should happen Real Soon Now.