Phenomenological question for the day

Will robots ever be able to lose — misplace — things?

I suspect that the answer is “no.”

But then: will robots ever really be able to find things?

Isn’t it precisely the lost thing that we find?

Isn’t it the case that losing is a capability, rather than a program dysfunction?

And that on this capability, the countervailing capability of finding is predicated?

(Alternative post title: After making and eating a mediocre sandwich I am unable for some time to find the mayonnaise lid until suddenly seeing it where I had placed it, upside down, in dim light on an inverted bowl of the same colour.)

When we were Kings

Teaching report. As usual when my learning-the-Bible course gets to 1st and 2nd Kings, with the building of the Temple and everything after, I shared with my students the website of the Temple Institute, an association of ultra-ultra-right Israelis who are committed to building a Third Temple on the ancient site, Al-Aqsa mosque be damned, and to reinstating Old Testament Judaism, complete with High Priest, animal sacrifices, etc. They even think they know where to find the Ark of the Covenant (in a secret chamber dug by Solomon). So we were amazed and amused by all that, as usual. But THIS time, I also had video of Netanyahu shouting about the Temple Mount, on the occasion of the US moving its Embassy to Jerusalem. And his words rolling out over CGI of the rebuilt Temple. And Ivanka and Jared beaming in the audience. And rich powerful morons in MAGA hats, applauding to the echo.

And it was like: holy



A sort-of scripture for Labour Day

From the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus — and it’s a shame this one got “taken away” from the canonical Bible, cause it’s damn good.

“The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: & he that hath little busines shall become wise.

How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad; that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?

He giveth his mind to make furrows: and is diligent to give the kine fodder.

So every carpenter, and workmaster, that laboureth night and day: and they that cut and grave seals, and are diligent to make great variety, and give themselves to counterfeit imagery, and watch to finish a work.

The smith also sitting by the anvil, & considering the iron work; the vapour of the fire wasteth his flesh, and he fighteth with the heat of the furnace: the noise of the hammer & the anvil is ever in his ears, and his eyes look still upon the pattern of the thing that he maketh, he setteth his mind to finish his work, & watcheth to polish it perfectly.

So doth the potter sitting at his work, and turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set at his work: and maketh all his work by number.

He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet: he applieth himself to lead it over; and he is diligent to make clean the furnace.

All these trust to their hands: and every one is wise in his work.

Without these cannot a city be inhabited: and they shall not dwell where they will, nor go up and down.

They shall not be sought for in public council; nor sit high in the congregation: they shall not sit on the Judges seat, nor understand the sentence of judgement: they cannot declare justice, and judgement, and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.

But they will maintain the state of the world, and all their desire is in the work of their craft.”

—Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34

Design thought for the day

A paradox of modernism (in architecture): The very emphasis on function as dogmatically determining form — functionality being what every formal element of the building is supposed to express — places a tremendous burden on the details: exact proportions, materials, finishes, etc. The resulting register is maximally aesthetic. This is how 2 buildings in, say, the International Style can be almost identical, in terms of the big stuff (size shape technique blah blah blah), yet fall on either side of the divide between brilliant and crap. It’s the small stuff that decides. Modernism is decorative.

(Alternative blog post title: On walking up to SFU in mild rain I am struck by the difference between the Madge Hogarth residence, which is really quite a satisfying example of austere 60s Brutalism, and the adjacent West Mall Centre, which is a witless 80s imitation of the earlier building, adding curves and nautical windows and a jaunty railing.)

Seven kinds of silencing

As somebody interested in language, dialogue, rhetoric, and so on, I’ve always been fascinated, as well as appalled, by strategies of silencing. That’s when one party to a conversation tries to get a decisive advantage over another by claiming to occupy a position outside the conversation itself, but framing and controlling it. The silencer tries to assert his or her alignment with some dominant “rule,” and to claim that the silencee has broken it and should therefore shut up. Of course, there are no rules for conversation, which is why silencing is always a dishonest, bad-faith, and cowardly attempt to avoid the challenge of seeking agreement about a subject-matter — that is, trying to understand it. Unfortunately, we appear to be entering a Golden Age of silencing, so I thought it might it be helpful to review some of its typical strategies. We can’t prevent people from trying these, but we can prevent them from succeeding, by recognizing their BS and calling them on it.

When you are putting your point of view to a silencer, he or she will try to shut you down by saying things like these (the list is not exhaustive, or in any particular order):

(1) “Your view is against the rules.” This is classic, as it were generic, silencing.

(2) “This isn’t the right time for your view.” A variation on the classic. 

(3) “Your view is not against the rules, but the way you’re putting it is.” This one I’ve noticed recently. It’s just another variation on (1). Many sub-variations, from specification of that “way.”

(4) “All of this has already been decided.” In-with-the-in-crowd silencing.

(5) “Everybody already knows about this.” Ditto.

(6) “Chill out!” Less chill than it sounds.

(7) “Your view is too dangerous!” This is a new one too, I think. It’s when the silencer tries to project a moral panic around the whole conversation, like a kid pulling the fire alarm to get out of an exam. Sadly, s/he probably does that because s/he experiences this panic internally every time s/he comes to the table of dialogue. And perhaps that holds for silencers in general. Although some of them, I suspect, are just authoritarian. 

How should we respond to silencers? Sadly, I think it depends on the strategy they’re using, the context, and many other factors. In other words, it ain’t easy. Silencing is a crime against conversation. If crime didn’t pay, at least in the short term, there wouldn’t be criminals.

But the first step, I’m pretty sure, is to see what’s happening and say: stop it.

The AV experience

There’s a roboticist at Columbia called Hod Lipson who has literally written the book on autonomous vehicles (AVs). Recently I came across an interview with him from a couple of years ago.

“No human driver,” Lipson states, “can have more than one lifetime of driving experience. A car that is part of an AI network can, within a year, have a thousand lifetimes of experience … these cars will drive better than any human has ever driven. They will have experienced every possible situation.”

Question: can a car experience?

Clearly not. Experience is the form of our encounter with the world. Cars don’t have a world to encounter. They do not have experiences.

By the same token: cars can’t become experienced. The situations they traverse don’t make them better cars. They just make them old.

Lipson might respond: “ok, sure, but it’s not just the car. It’s the computer-in-the-car.”

Can a computer experience?

Again, clearly not, and for exactly the same reasons.

Supposing that a combination of non-experiencing beings will lead to an experiencing being is like supposing that a top hat on a snowman will make him dance and sing.

It seems to me that what’s at stake here is the fundamental question of how, or whether, an AI system can replicate, or mimic, our encounter with the world.

Lipson suggests that cars can have experiences because he hasn’t even thought about it.

I think that’s pretty dumb.


Poetry, mite

I see in the news today that Manchester University (UK) students have painted over a mural featuring a poem by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), replacing it with one by Maya Angelou (1928-2014). The Kipling poem, not named in the linked BBC article, but evident from the accompanying photograph, is his famous “If” — a hymn to Victorian stoicism. The Angelou, obvs, is her equally famous “Still I Rise,” a defiant statement of black empowerment. The students’ argument for replacing the former with the latter is that Kipling was racist, Angelou wasn’t.

They have a point. Angelou, born into the America of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” expressed the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights movement. Kipling, a child of the British Empire at its height, was a reactionary imperialist, even by contemporary standards. He certainly made some statements, notably in his notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden,” that we today would consider racist.

But not in “If.” Actually, this is a poem that could well have brought comfort to Angelou, or Steve Biko, or Martin Luther King, or Nina Simone, or Mohandas Gandhi, or any of the innumerable fighters on behalf of black and brown people in the century following Kipling. It’s a bit like “Invictus,” by Kipling’s friend William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela took as his mantra (which is why it provided the title for the Morgan Freeman biopic). Both are buck-up, be-strong, mind-over-matter poems, in a Stoic tradition that reaches back to Roman times and beyond. But “Invictus” is a bit simplistic: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” “If,” much more interestingly, is a painful look at how complex, how twisted, how unfair it can be to try to improve a society that actively resists the treatment:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The poem could almost be called, hat-tip Angelou, “Still You’ll Rise.” So I think the Manchester students acted a bit hastily.

Here’s another poem by Kipling, one that has always fascinated me. This one isn’t racist either, but it is certainly Orientalist — that is, participating in a white Western exoticization of the non-white East and South. All those places, from Guyana to Delhi to Timbuktu, that Englishmen (with Ladies in tow) were sent out to conquer, administer, and exploit. Places that filled the resulting imaginations of globalized Anglo-Indians — people like Kipling himself, like Malcolm Lowry, even like Joe Strummer. The poem is called “Jobson’s Amen.”

“BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works.
Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, ” but where I used to lie
Was neither Candle, Bell nor Book to curse my brethren by.

“But a palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down,To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town
Conches in a temple, oil-lamps in a dome
And a low moon out of Africa said: ‘This way home!’

“Blessèd be the English and all that they profess.
Cursèd be the Savages that prance in nakedness!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither shirt nor pantaloons to catch my brethren by:

“But a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round,
By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground –
Parrots very busy in the trellised pepper-vine –
And a high sun over Asia shouting: ‘Rise and shine !'”

“Blessèd be the English and everything they own.
Cursèd be the Infidels that bow to wood and stone!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I used to lie
Was neither pew nor Gospelleer to save my brethren by:

“But a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right,
Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light —
A skull beneath a sand-hill and a viper coiled inside –
And a red wind out of Libya roaring: ‘Run and hide!'”

“Blessèd be the English and all they make or do.
Cursèd be the Hereticks who doubt that this is true!”
“Amen,” quo’ Jobson, “but where I mean to die
Is neither rule nor calliper to judge the matter by:

But Himalaya heavenward-heading, sheer and vast, sheer and vast,
In a million summits bedding on the last world’s past –
A certain sacred mountain where the scented cedars climb,
And – the feet of my Beloved hurrying back through Time!”

Kipling is mocking the racism of his laced-up contemporaries, expressed in the blessings and curses that punctuate the verse. His Jobson, an old soldier or colonial administrator perhaps, settled back in a damp English village after a career in the Empire, dutifully responds “Amen.” But then he slips, eagerly and repeatedly, into daydreams about what that career was like — its colours, its sounds, its synaesthetic richness. Orientalist! Yes. But just hear these lines: “… A palm-tree in full bearing, bowing down, bowing down, / To a surf that drove unsparing at the brown, walled town … / … a well-wheel slowly creaking, going round, going round, / By a water-channel leaking over drowned, warm ground … / … a desert stretched and stricken, left and right, left and right, / Where the piled mirages thicken under white-hot light … .”

They are astonishingly beautiful. Even metrically — that is, in terms of how Kipling deploys and manipulates the rhythms of his words. He starts with busy, angry, unlovely lines, of six or seven beats each with a caesura (a little break or hop in the middle, which you’ll hear if you read the lines aloud): “BLESSED be the English and all their ways and works. / Cursèd be the Infidels, Hereticks, and Turks!” Among other interesting things, this is an exceedingly English metre: it echoes the kind of poetry, mostly rather ugly, that was written in English before Shakespeare and co. went in for all that iambic pentametre stuff that you may have been forced to learn about in high school. But then, as Jobson slips into his dream, Kipling’s hopping and fussy metre gets intensely, mind-blowingly mellow: “bowing down, bowing down … drowned, warm ground … white-hot light.” Pass that spliff over here.

To be sure, Kipling’s Jobson objectifies and exoticizes his remembered corner of the Global South.

But he sure loves it.

Herbert: [ ? ] you, Lord

I am thinking about George Herbert (1593-1633).

Like many people in the 17th century, Herbert was sick a lot, before his terribly young death. He wrote no fewer than five poems entitled “Affliction.” This, number five, is the best one.

MY God, I read this day,
That planted Paradise was not so firm,
As was and is thy floting Ark; whose stay
And anchor thou art onely, to confirm
And strengthen it in ev’ry age,
When waves do rise, and tempests rage.

At first we liv’d in pleasure;
Thine own delights thou didst to us impart;
When we grew wanton, thou didst use displeasure
To make us thine: yet that we might not part,
As we at first did board with thee,
Now thou wouldst taste our miserie.

There is but joy and grief;
If either will convert us, we are thine:
Some Angels us’d the first; if our relief
Take up the second, then thy double line
And sev’rall baits in either kinde
Furnish thy table to thy minde.

Affliction then is ours;
We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
While blustring winds destroy the wanton bowres,
And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.

A couple of clarifications (if needed): The “Ark” of the first stanza is a standard symbol for the church. Herbert, an Anglican priest, is saying that it’s more stable than Paradise — which, after all, got lost. “Wanton,” in the second stanza, is now archaic, but was very commonly used in the seventeenth century. It means “naughty” or “hedonistic.” “But,” in stanza 3, is used in the sense of “only.”

Herbert develops a prim little joke. In Paradise, before the snake and the apple and all that business, people lived “in pleasure.” But when we went too far, God graciously swapped that for “displeasure,” so that we wouldn’t feel rejected. And then, through the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Christ (Him), God came to share our “misery.”

So far, so Sunday School. But then Herbert rolls out that incredible statement about “joy and grief.” That’s all there is, he says, like some old biker who has them tattooed across his knuckles. “If either can convert us, we are thine” — God’s.

What the heck does that mean? I used to think it had to do with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has decided from before the beginning of time who will be saved and who damned. But that doesn’t really work, because in Calvinism damnation is certainly not a way to come to God.  More recently, I have thought about the line as a reflection on emotional disorders such as psychopathy. If you can feel joy or grief, you’re ok. You’re salvageable. They are vibrations of the same force, maybe. But if you can’t feel em — either of em —  you’re fucked.

But there’s more to this incredible poem, as it takes its hard-swallowing turn. Herbert returns to his Sunday School joke. All there is is joy or grief, he says — got it, class? YES, MR. HERBERT! Now, “some angels” — that’s Lucifer and company — “used the first.” It’s all gone, you see. So what’s left, class? GRIEF, MR. HERBERT! Very good, class. And that’s great, you see, because it means (1) we’re not left with nothing — no, we have grief for our stuffie, and (2) it means God has access to both species of His emotional prey. He is able, in that gruesome image with which Herbert concludes the stanza, calling back to the ancient, ancient idea of Christ as a fisher of souls, to “furnish” his dinner table just the way he likes it. Tucking into us: a swarming plate of grief.

It is stone-cold, this joke. Even as Herbert means it seriously. He is trying to articulate, like a good Christian sufferer, the word of patience: Thank You. But it comes out through gritted teeth, and blood from his tongue.

“We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more.” That’s his last try. It is a very good one. One of the greatest lines in seventeenth-century poetry. You almost glimpse, through that image, that idea, the possibility of understanding suffering. It makes us belong here. It’s what we belong to.


While the “wanton” bowers just get all “ruffled”? What kind of Sunday School is this?

The kind where the conclusion contradicts the text. Herbert doesn’t end with ‘Thank you.” He ends with “please.” Directed at a God who is represented, not as a fisherman, but — a yet more ancient image — as a hunter. Not with a line, but with a bow. Which, through the bright beams that follow rain, may be tamed. Or at least, we can wish. And that’s what’s really left.

“My God, so temper joy and wo,
That thy bright beams may tame thy bow.”



I continue to be fascinated by the story of the Nazi-era Gurlitt art-hoard, discovered in Munich several years ago. Among other things, this episode serves as a reminder (more-or-less Gadamerian) that a “collection” is precisely an embodiment of an historical taste and eye–that is, in conjunction with the political and other conditions under which it was collected. As opposed, I mean, to the fake universalism of the places we call museums. The pieces this guy Gurlitt, a crypto-Jewish modernist, kept for himself and his family while dealing for Hitler–how precious he must have considered them! And judging from the examples we’ve seen, he was right. Ask me, the collection should be put on permanent display, *without* being broken up. I think that would be an unparalleled resource for understanding modernism, Nazism, and much more. You see: everything this guy, through collecting, was himself trying to understand! (Yes, that’s a real word in the title. It means this post.)

Proposal for a first-year lit course: Small Data

Big data, as we all know, is what it’s all about. As the CEO of the AI company ImageNet has put it: “Data drives learning.”

Except it really, truly does not.

Consider a rock on the beach. It’s surrounded by data: from the local ecosystems, to the weather patterns on the horizon, to the stars that come out at night.

But that rock will never learn a thing. 

Data doesn’t drive learning. Learning drives data. The capacity to learn—interpret, and understand—determines what even counts as data. 

That’s where literature comes in. It’s just some marks on a page. But literature is what happens when some of the those marks, strangely, start to matter. 

Since very ancient times, writers have been attracted to exactly this kind of moment: when we suddenly see where the data are headed. Even—the singular—a datum. 

So, in this course, we will read and comment on some classic (and, mostly, very old) works of small data. Texts that do a lot with a little. Poems, lines, even single words that demand our attention. Plays and stories about the necessity of noticing, the challenge of interpreting, and the detail that changes everything.