2017 in Review: Quotes Part 1

Here’s the first part of the quotes for this year.

“Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the nuts and having fractures set without a general would be” —David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

“It was hard not to think of slavery, and not only because of the reminders on every side of big house and slave quarters. So many things in these West Indian territories, I now began to see, speak of slavery. There is slavery in the vegetation. In the sugarcane, brought by Columbus on that second voyage when, to Queen Isabella’s fury, he proposed the enslavement of the Amerindians. In the breadfruit, cheap slave food, three hundred trees of which were taken to St. Vincent by Captain Bligh […] There is slavery in the food, in the saltfish still beloved by the islanders. Slavery in the absence of family life, in the laughter in the cinema at films of German concentration camps, in the fondness for terms of racial abuse, in the physical brutality of strong to weak: nowhere in the world are children beaten as savagely as in the West Indies.” —V.S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage

“On the right, peace is conflated with order; on the left, it is conflated with justice. But peace is a thing in its own right, and the only reason we don’t remember that is that we’ve experienced so little of it.” —Noah Millman

“In this manner, the atmosphere of crisis makes it impossible to hold a regime accountable, because disaster is assumed to be inevitable and therefore cannot be blamed on the regime. Instead, the regime may take credit for the fact that it was prescient enough to see the disaster coming, and for having thought through its implications in advance. Indeed, it may even wind up taking credit for the disaster itself, as being a necessary precursor to something better.” —Noah Millman

“I’ve invented nothing; I’ve simply been the secretary of my sensations” —Emil Cioran

“Vladimir Vilsaint, a witness who said he was on his way to work when he caught the “unbelievable” sight of a bull running loose in the street, also spoke of the animal’s otherwise lawful ways, stating, “But I want to acknowledge that it followed traffic laws by adhering to the one way sign.” “—Bill Chappell in NPR

“I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.”
—Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

“At a hackathon held alongside the Congress, one team created a robotic sex device called Ride the Market, Fuck the System — a fist that vibrates according to fluctuations of the stock market. Its makers say it allows people to “physically experience” economic data.” —a blurb in the New Scientist

“specific phrases suggest a broad world. they provoke the melancholy of knowing that specificity exists everywhere. world-building for the world that exists.” —tumblr user @thesublemon

“I’m always trying to figure out what to say about this god damn song. Part of me wants to say look, it’s about revenge, but as soon as I say that… no, that’s not quite it. Part of me wants to say it’s about the satisfaction of not needing revenge… and i say no, that’s some new age stuff. I think it’s a song about the moment in your quest for revenge when you learn to embrace the futility of it. The moment where you know the thing you want is ridiculous and pompous and a terrible thing to want anyway. The direction in which you’re headed is not the direction you want to go, yet you’re going to head that way a while longer cause that’s just the kind of person you are.” — John Darnielle on Up The Wolves

“Вернулся и говорит: «Там какой-то идиот „АукцЫон” через „ы” написал». Я ответил: «Олег, во-первых, не надо говорить, что это идиот, а во-вторых, это написал я» “—Борис Шавейников о том, откуда произошло имя группы

“The sensayer frowned. “You’re saying you discuss theology while having sex.”

“For beginners it’s before and after mostly, managing it during sex takes skill and concentration. …” “—Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning

“After all, even on clichéd phrases, you could hoist true emotion. “—Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

“There’s only ever been one gift horse
we should’ve looked in the mouth, Troy
said. …”
—Jeremy Dodds, From sun down to the horse under us

“Every time a person without a mask walks by a masked person, they look at each other in mistrust. They mutually judge. They evaluate the other’s condition. The masked one says, “You won’t infect me, you sick animal.” The one without a mask thinks at the same time, “That’s not going to do you any good, you stupid alarmist.” Each, in his or her own way, infects the other with the most common and dangerous virus: human nature.” —Andrés Neuman How to Travel Without Seeing

“I thought to pick
the flower of forgetting
for myself,
but I found it
already growing in his heart.”
—Ono no komachi

“Tu muerte te afectaría profundamente
Jamás podrías recuperarte de tu muerte”
—Óscar Hahn, La muerte es una buena maestra

“It’s hard to tell gifts of the spirit
From clever counterfeits”
—The Mountain Goats, Prowl Great Cain

“It is a great thing to do what is necessary before it becomes unavoidable” —Flann O’Brien

“This is amazing weed,” my father said.
“It’s artisanal,” I said.
“Meaning what?”
“Meaning it’s grown by people who care,” I said.
—Victor Lodato P.E.

“Читая и сличая с жизнью, покажется, что дух общежития и коммунальной квартиры зародился в литературе раньше, чем воплотился наяву, как раз в подобном авторском отношении к сцене: автор в ней коммунальный жилец, сосед, подселенный.” —Андрей Битов, Пушкинский Дом

Исследователь чаще, чем драматург, впадает в заблуждение, что «каждое ружье стреляет». Узнав что-нибудь «новенькое» их ушедшей от нас эпохи, перекувырнувшись от радости, он совершает и некое логическое сальто: начинает, не задумываясь, считать, что то, что он установил с такой убедительностью, с тою же неумолимостью становится фактом, знанием, переживанием участников изучаемого им отрезка процесса. И как бы ни хотел ученый быть объективным, одним последовательным перечислением известных фактов—он уже рисует, даже помимо воли, определенную жизненную картину и расстановку сил в нашем сознании. Но поскольку в этой картине неизбежно отсутствует какая бы то ни было полнота, и, более того, нет никаких оснований утверждать, что факты дошли до нас и исчезли от нас, сохранив подобие и пропорцию действительной когда-то жизни, — то такая «научная» картина так же неизбежно неверна, как, возможно его, Левина, с той разницей, что, не содержа не одной фактической ошибки, «научная» работа узаконивает и впоследствие предписывает всем свою скудость и нищету понимания. —Андрей Битов, Пушкинский Дом

…когда одного нашего видного футбольного тренера спросили, по какой системе намерена играть его команда в некоем ответственном матче, он не без блеска ответил интервьюеру: «по системе Станиславского» —Андрей Битов, Пушкинский Дом

“What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of things.” —Brian Phillips

“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.” —G.K. Chesterton, A Defence of Patriotism

“Толковым не оттого назван словарь, что мог получиться и бестолковым, а оттого, что он слова растолковывает “—В.И. Даль

“The municipal mayor said Wrousis had left a confused impression on the local population: “He told my dog that he had a great haircut,” Ruedi Karre told news portal 24 Minuten.” —the guardian report on the Schaffhausen chainsaw attack

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2017 in Review: Articles, etc.

Here are interesting things I read on the internet this year, in an annual version of No Value Added


  • “I thought I was smarter than almost everybody” Shaun Walker in the guardian tells the story of the broken life of a KGB spy in America.
  • The Very Drugged Nazis Antony Beevor in the New York Review of Books reviews a book about how much Nazis loved drugs. The highlight is definitely the cabaret song about how rising prices cause Berliners to switch from booze to cocaine
  • Citizen Khan Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker digs up the incredible history of Hot Tamale Louie, who, obviously, was an Afghan who started the largest Muslim community in Wyoming
  • The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century Charles Homans in Pacific Standard relates a story that’s one part Moby Dick, one part 1984 (and is really interesting to read about despite that)
  • Immortal Gatito true crime reporting from 1970’s France by Canada’s forgotten daughter Mavis Gallant. It’s a cliché to say this, but it’s striking to see the ways in which the world has and hasn’t changed since 1971 in reading this article.
  • Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker with true crime report from a more recent era. And one where the true crime seems to be the behaviour of the prosecution

News and Politics

Art, Culture and Technology

  • The Little Gray Wolf Will Come Brian Phillips (who is one of my favourite essayists, and whose book “Impossible Owls” I am looking forward to immensely) at MTV News writes about Yuri Norstein, the animator who made Hedgehog in the Fog
  • Lost Highway Brian Phillips is back at it again in MTV News, travelling Route 66 and going to Roswell and to Area 51.
  • The Internet with a Human Face is a keynote talk by Maciej Cieglowski, whom everyone in tech hates for some reason, but since I’m not in tech, I don’t know the reason, so I liked this talk.
  • Yakuza 3 Jake Adelstein and Lisa Katayama at BoingBoing have a burning question: how realistic is Yakuza 3? Who better to ask than the Yakuza? How better to ask than by getting some Yakuza bosses together to play the game?


Fiction and Personal Essay

  • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling is one of many great Ted Chiang stories I read this year. This one, in Subterranean Press Magazine, is about a near-future technology of ubiquitous recording of everyone’s day-to-day life.
  • My Family’s Slave Alex Tizon‘s much-discussed posthumous essay in the Atlantic about keeping a slave
  • A Small Flame Yiyun Li writes a short story set in modern China from a Chinese-American perspective. It’s once again in the New Yorker. I should probably just subscribe to the New Yorker or something.
  • Here Comes Everybody I’m not sure if Freddie de Boer‘s personal reminiscence of teenagerhood and essay on mental illness is up online anywhere anymore, but it was very good, and this link is here hoping that it comes back up at some point.
  • Ghostweight is Yoon Ha Lee‘s take on space opera in Clarkesworld Magazine


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Songbook of Cities: Vancouver, BC

I’m looking forward to going back to Vancouver for the holidays / an as-yet undetermined amount of time, so I thought I’d make a playlist. There are many different kinds of Vancouver, of course, and this playlist is going to be very bad at reflecting Vancouver as I actually think it is. But it does speak to a certain type of Vancouver experience. The anglo-indie or “Vancouver trying on Portland” one. I think it actually feels different in Vancouver than it does in Seattle or Portland or Victoria. More generally, this culture has been saddled with the label of white-in-the-pejorative-sense. That to me ignores some nuance: both the many real positives of this culture, and the many non-white people who lead it and are part of it. It’s also somewhat true, though. In any case, it’s a culture that I was not a part of for most of my time in Vancouver, then was part of briefly, and then wasn’t part of once again. But it is the source of most of the music about Vancouver that I like.

The Smugglers sing about the tail end of a totally different Vancouver than I know. The Vancouver of Earle Birney and W.P. Kinsella’s “The Alligator Report”, DOA’s Joey Shithead and The Pointed Sticks. A kind of… rough and tumble Victoria? You can sometimes see glimpses of that town if you’re looking, but it’s long gone.

One of the places you can come close to seeing it is the WISE Hall. Here’s Mark Berube and the Patriotic Few singing The Saint of Vancouver there, where I’ve actually heard two of the other songs on this list.

Here’s Portland, Oregon’s own Orca Team. I saw them in Seattle, and cheered for “We can stop up in Seattle but it’s not that great/so let’s head right out of Washington State” even though that wasn’t a popular (or correct) opinion.

Mngwa, featuring a bunch of people I know! Also featuring the coffee shop where the vietnamese kids play pool and the old Portuguese construction workers watch Benfica on the big screen

The Be Good Tanyas covering Geoff Berner. The thing is, where exactly can you get drunk on Robson Street? Berner clearly means Granville but just doesn’t say it for some weird reason. Still a great song, though.

Gord Downie, Canadian Legend to finish off.

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Defending the Indefensible: Against the lesser evil

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development, against government action on climate change, for campus censorship, everything is bad and getting worse

Anyway, here’s the best case against supporting the “lesser evil” that I can write:

I used to have a lot of trouble understanding this viewpoint. After all, if you have several choices, and you think one of them leads to a better outcome than the others, what reason other than pique is there not to make the choice you think is better?

The recent political turmoil in Venezuela (and to a lesser extent, Brazil) and the North American reactions I’ve read to the turmoil have made me reconsider. Both Brazil and Venezuela have a hopelessly corrupt and unpopular government taking steps to reduce its own democratic accountability. The situation in Venezuela especially seems very dire. So who should we support in the conflict? Here is an interpretation that I’ve read, aimed at a communist audience.

But leftists need to understand that we don’t pick sides based on good guys and bad guys […] but based on the class character of the actors involved. That, and that alone, is the basis of solidarity. The “opposition” is first and foremost a euphemism and a misnomer because it includes a number of elements from social democrats to the most extreme elements of the far right, but its hodgepodge of demands includes austerity, increased privatization, etc. […] Solidarity is not about good feelings and liking who we work with and so on, but about defense against right wing antisocialist and anti proletarian policy, and advancement of the goals of socialism.

I disagree with this person’s assessment of the situation in Venezuela. I’m sure this is in part because I’m not a Communist (I think for good reason) and even have trouble imagining being a Communist, given the evil history of Communism. So the calculations I’d make if I were choosing who to support would be different. But the logic of “you don’t pick good guys and bad guys, you go with whatever you think is the lesser evil” is very much a realist viewpoint that makes sense to me. Except very viscerally, I feel that showing that “this is not OK” in the situation is more important and more valuable than the difference that one can make in the outcome. And this doesn’t mean the difference between the choices has to be small. The difference between Maduro’s government and what Ledezma’s government would look like is gigantic. If you find both visions unacceptable in different ways, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a real difference between them. And yet you can absolutely believe that the difference you can make in choosing between two very different visions is less important than the difference you can make by stating that neither vision is acceptable. Otherwise, you get into a world where every choice is “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

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Moscow Metro Song

In the most Russian intelligentsia cliché act of my life, I translated an Okudzhava song.

In my metro I never feel too crowded
‘Cause there’s always something like a song about it
Where for the chorus we would write
Pass on the left, stand still on the right

It is a sacred and stern command
The ones on the right must stand, must stand
And the ones who pass by, as they stride
Must mind to keep on the left side
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Defending the indefensible: Everything is bad and likely to be getting worse

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development, against government action on climate change, for campus censorship

Anyway, here’s the best case that everything is bad an getting worse that I can write:

This is actually two claims, and we’re going to treat them separately. In terms of everything getting worse, let’s try a thought experiment: suppose you were to ask 100 people, how many do you think would agree with “right now is the best time in world history” or even “right now is the best time in world history you’ve ever experienced”? My guess is about zero. This suggests to me that at least on some timescale, at least in the developed world, things are getting worse. There’s very little, statistically, that you can bring up that can change this assessment. You can’t tell people who are suffering “actually, you’re not suffering!” and expect them to thank or forgive you. Part of it is that nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Like, say, hunger in the US. Very few people in the US die of hunger. But a lot and a lot of people have fear of hunger – they don’t know where their next meals are coming from, and they struggle to put food on the table. People are living very precarious lives, and looking at just those who have fallen off the edge can miss that. Precariousness is probably a difficult thing to measure, but I think this is something that is increasing with time (in part due to globalisation), and it’s making everyone scared.

The counterargument is that maybe no one wants to acknowledge this precise moment as all that great, but over a longer term, things are getting better. The amount of dire poverty in the world is declining, as are the amount of hunger, war, hatred, and disease. This whiggish interpretation of history (“The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”, etc.) ought to be resisted, for one because it leads to complacency. This would not be a big problem if it were actually axiomatically true, but it’s not. This is like the promised future of Communism which was used to quiet complaints in the USSR. Everything may not be that great now, but just trust us, and over the long term, we’ll lead you to the glorious promised land of everything being good. What evidence do we have that would inspire this trust?

The problem with the claim is not just that in the long run we are all dead. It’s that it’s not at all clear that things actually are getting better. To be able to tell sweeping longterm trends, we need to be looking back over a long sweep of history. Imagine visiting someone in 1938 Europe and trying to convince them “aren’t things getting better? Everyone was just getting butchered in a world war a couple of decades ago, and now they’re not! Why are you complaining?” We may be in the same situation here. We don’t know that any gains are sustainable, even over the short term. And, in fact, everything is leading us to suspect they are not. See the point about precariousness above. Not just job insecurity due to globalisation. Geopolitical instability. Rapid use of resources and the potential for environmental disaster in a system that relies on eternal growth to maintain and improve standards of living. It looks precarious because it is precarious, and people are right to be extremely worried about the future.

So if things aren’t necessarily getting better in the short or long term. The next question is how bad are things right now? For this, take a look at Scott Alexander’s evaluation. The point is: things are a lot worse for people in the US than you (educated upper-middle-class blog reader) may think they are. And that’s in a relatively affluent community in a rich country. The conditions that people live in right now are not good enough for people to have a chance at a good life.

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Defending the indefensible: Censoring campus speakers is a good idea

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous posts in the series: against development, against government action on climate change

Anyway, here’s the best case in favour of “no-platforming” — trying to ensure speakers with opposing viewpoints do not get to make their case in public, that I can write:

It seems that every week, we get another “free speech on campus”-style controversy when a speaker is “no-platformed”. The people who write thinkpieces against no-platforming typically phrase their stance in terms of a defence of free speech. I think free speech is a very important value, and too harsh a set of limitations on what speech is allowed is definitely harmful. I definitely don’t agree with the (really bad) “it’s only a free speech issue if the government punishes you” xkcd viewpoint. However, I think almost everyone on the pro-free speech side would actually agree that some speech has no place in the public sphere, say, at a public lecture on the Berkeley campus.

Free speech for hateful ideas is often defended on the idea that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” or “the best defence against bad speech is more speech” but these seem to me to not be true. They are just cliches, and the reverse cliche of “a lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its coat” seems to me much more true. I’m sorry for bringing up the phrase “fake news” but way back before it became a Trumpean punchline, it was a story about how some untrustworthy websites made up news stories out of whole cloth to misinform the public. We’ve seen the “false tweet gets 10,000 likes while retraction and apology gets 2” movie enough times to know that even in today’s information-rich age, true information doesn’t undo the damage of false information.

Let’s think about how that works in the context of public lectures. Consider as a hypothetical someone who is just gonna read from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not historical commentary, not interpretation, just a reading. They’re not calling for violence. They shouldn’t be prosecuted for doing this. But I think it actually wouldn’t be legitimate to invite someone to Berkeley to do this reading. It’s because there is absolutely nothing worthwhile that can come of this, and a lot of harm. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” isn’t a point of view that you need to think about and contend with. It’s actively misinforming people in a way that is likely to lead to evil. Maybe some pro-free-speech people disagree about the Protocols specifically. But I’m pretty confident that almost any free speech advocate can think of an opinion worthless and materially harmful enough that it’s not worth sanctioning with a public university lecture (Larouchism? DPRK propaganda? Phrenology? Pizzagate-exegesis? Alex Jones?).

So I don’t buy that for those who protest “no-platforming” it’s a case of Voltaireian largesse.  They don’t disagree with everything said but “defend to the death the right to say it”. Instead, those who defend speech to some extent agree with the content. That is, they think it would be useful to hear this information, since it has a chance of teaching something useful. Once you realise that these are the contours of the debate, it becomes a lot less categorical, and a lot more case by case. In some cases, no-platforming is a good idea. In other cases (in my opinion, most cases), it’s not. Drawing the boundary around what speech is within the acceptable realm of public discussion is hard work that we have to do as a society, but it seems to me there’s no shortcuts here. “Allow any kind of political speech anywhere” is not a useful deontological rule except insofar as government persecution goes. We need gatekeepers, and we have to discuss what the criteria for that gatekeeping is. There’s no getting around it. Should the campus make space for Milo Yiannopoulos and exclude, say, Jonathan Higgins? Maybe! But I don’t really think it’s outrageous or surprising that some people see it the other way.
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