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Hiatus, episode a jillion

You know how, every so often, I go quiet on here for a while, then come back with talk about all the writing I’m planning to do but have been too busy for, or haven’t been in the right headspace while I’m in the middle of moving house, or how I’m feeling bad that I’ve been kinda lazy but I’m itching to get back to it any day now?

This is, like, half one of those, because I haven’t posted in ages and I guess I’m sort of apologising. But it’s half not that at all, because I’m not actually remotely sorry, I’ve just not even been trying to write anything for a while and it’s really nice.

I mean, I’m not totally giving up. I still want to engage with the world, including discussing politics and ideas and stuff, and sometimes that’ll involve lengthy rants and rambles on here. And there’s a good chance I’ll have another sincere go at churning a book out at some stage.

But lately I’ve had the longest stretch I’ve allowed myself in quite some time of not giving a shit about any of that. I’ve been tidying the house, and learning to cook a bit more, and playing the piano, and reading, and binge-watching kick-ass female-oriented Netflix superhero shows with my wife in our cosy basement, and basically having a nice time.

I do seem mostly to be better at having a nice time when I’m not trying to be a writer.

It’ll be a shame if I can never find a way to reconcile those two at least a little more than I am right now. But… I’m starting to think maybe not that much of a shame.

So I’m not gone, but I’m not back either. I’m more active on Twitter and Tumblr right now if for some reason you don’t want to keep missing out.

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It’s been a while since I’ve settled on any particular label for my beliefs and ideas about politics and economics for very long.

I mean, “liberal” probably has the longevity title to date but I’m a way out of that one now.

“Libertarian socialist” still feels like a pretty comfy fit. “Anarchist” often works but isn’t that specific and often doesn’t convey a whole lot of useful information to someone hoping to get an idea what I think about stuff.

As far as economics goes, more and more these days I identify as a “You know neo-liberalism? Like, whatever the opposite of that is”.

Except if you were going etymologically you might then conclude I’m a “retro-conservative”, which is one of the few things that sounds like it might be even worse.

The search continues.

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I get told every so often that I should have been a teacher.

The people telling me this are disregarding the massively antisocial aspects of my personality to reach this conclusion, but I do kinda see where they’re coming from. Aside from the whole human interaction element, I quite like teaching.

I guess the way I tend to think of it is that I enjoy explaining stuff I understand. In front of a chalkboard staring at a couple of dozen pre-adolescents is absolutely not somewhere I’m ever going to feel at home, but some one-on-one maths tutoring is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I’m good enough that it could provide a nice little side-income.

And, like, a good chunk of what I’m trying to do on my blog is explain stuff that interests me to other people. I think I can be a bit teacher-y, so long as it’s well outside the standard classroom environment.

And I sometimes remember that I have definite Opinions about teaching, and how it can be done well and badly. I’ve been convinced for a while that many people’s profound aversion to anything involving numbers can be largely explained by a crappy standard of teaching with regard to all the fundamentals. If you think you hate maths, there’s a good chance you could understand a lot of its bewildering ideas much better if they were introduced in a better-structured manner.

In fact, I started a series of posts back in my LiveJournal days called Happy Funtime Maths Hour, attempting to do exactly that. It was inspired by the polite curiosity of my humanities-oriented university housemates, starting a longer time ago than I’m comfortable thinking about. So when I said I get told I should’ve been a teacher “every so often”, I guess I meant “fairly regularly for over a decade now”.

And I might actually have to start listening, in some form or another. There’s a couple of things that have made me think about this again lately. The first was listening to the audiobook of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef. There’s a lot going on in there: it’s partly a cookbook, with recipes and so on, but it’s also a treatise on the process of learning itself. It examines the path taken by the author to becoming a skilled cook, and picks out the crucial parts of how that learning actually happened. It builds a system of teaching skills based on the way they’re likely to be most efficiently acquired.

Not everything in the book entirely hit home with me, but it definitely had an effect how I think about the process of learning. I’m learning to cook myself, not in quite as organised a fashion as Tim, but in some way inspired by his methods.

One thing I was inspired to do was actually crack open one of the hardcopy cookbooks we have on our shelves. We recently picked up three volumes of Delia Smith’s How To Cook in a charity shop, thinking it might be a good starting point for me to pick up some more basic kitchen skills. These books are somewhat well known for starting from the absolute fundamentals, explaining in simple detail the basics of how to boil an egg, and I vaguely remember them attracting some negative commentary from people who found something risible about this perfectly fine idea.

After some introduction and opening preamble, page 16 of the first volume kicks things off with the header: “How do you boil eggs?”

Just overleaf, on page 19, is this picture:

Now, I’ve never actually taught anything, and I didn’t read the intervening pages in full, so technically I don’t even know how to boil an egg either. But if you’re talking to someone who you’re assuming knows nothing about cooking at all, and they turn a single page to find themselves expected to produce that, something really seems to have gone awry somewhere in the pedagogical process. Maybe other people really have learn loads about cooking from scratch by this exact process, but to me it feels badly disconnected from anything someone clueless and hoping to learn things could actually engage with.

Educating people in ways they won’t get distracted or put off by may be becoming one of my Things. Watch this space.

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This is your sporadic reminder that allllllllll the intellectual property and copyright can get tae fuck.

Snakebite victims in the US can be charged tens of thousands of dollars for a single vial of snakebite venom.

And no, it’s not that the stuff requires rare and exotic ingredients, or takes an especially skilful and labourious process to create, or even that there had to be a huge up-front investment of years of research and development to come up with it. The system is just so utterly fucked, and seemingly geared toward everything but providing people with healthcare with any kind of efficiency.

The cost of making the antivenom, including research, development, animal care and plasma harvesting… A mere 0.1 percent [of the ultimate expense]. 70.1 percent… was due to hospital markups used in negotiations with insurance companies. [emphasis mine]

Jesus fuck. It’s not actually fair to blame this all on IP, that’s just my hobby-horse. This goes deeper in terrifying and unfathomable ways.

Although on that note, the insane Warner/Chappell copyright claim on Happy Birthday To You is finally no more after a ruling this week. While this does not mean the song is now in the public domain, this is a step 90% of the way toward sanity in this one isolated case.

So on balance, between those two news stories and that other shithead gouging prices on AIDS medication, September can still pretty much suck it.

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Attitude

To the extent that I’ve ever succeeded at anything, one thing that’s been of invaluable assistance has been my attitude that I can change things for the better if I really try.

Now, that’s a more Ayn Rand-y sentence than I’ve started a blog with in a while (note to self: “Ayn Randy” = erotic fanfiction character, terrifying Hallowe’en costume), but it’s honestly not meant to be smug and self-aggrandising. I’m not claiming any innate virtue which makes me an inherently superior being. It’s not that I’m doing something better than anyone else. It’s actually just another way I got lucky.

Certain things about my life recently have been irritating, and many are deeply sub-optimal. But I’ve been working to improve them, and making a lot of progress in establishing a life I’m pretty happy with. Not universally, but often enough, these kinds of problems feel like they’re within my power to fix, and I feel empowered to do something about them. Or when I don’t, I know myself well enough to recognise what kind of self-care I need to indulge in, before having another shot at tackling my problems later.

The reason I call myself lucky isn’t to do with the fixable nature of my problems (although I’ve had my share and then some of good fortune from that direction too) – it’s because of the way I’m wired to see these problems as fixable, and to be stirred to action by them, rather than beaten down into depression and apathy. The lessons that have been drilled into my brain over the past few decades, and shaped the way I see the world, have led me to this point, where challenges are things that can generally be overcome if I knuckle down and apply myself to them.

It’s not been a flawless and uninterrupted lesson; I can’t claim I never do the depression and apathy thing sometimes too. But I’ve had a pretty good deal, in terms of what my life experience has taught some unconscious part of my brain about how the world works. It’s been more empowering for me than not.

And being aware of this makes it all the more noticeable that some people haven’t been taught the same lessons. Life hasn’t told them that their circumstances can be improved, or that hard work pays off. For a lot of them, it’s taught them that you’ll just get shit on whatever you do so why fucking bother.

I’ve gone kinda from one extreme to the other there – obviously most people are somewhere in the middle, and I’m definitely not the unambiguously go-getting powerhouse of productivity and proactivity I’ve kinda painted myself as. I just noticed that my worldview in many regards is more positive and empowering than that of other people. And then I realised what a crapshoot that is and how I’ve really been lucky in this point, as well as in so many others.

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So high-frequency trading is pretty clearly insane and has fuck all to do with useful economic activity. There are billions of dollars to be “made” out there, but they only reward whoever has the shiniest computers, fastest microwave connections to the stock exchange, and smartest algorithms; and they all come at the expense of those who think they can keep up but fall behind due to inferior ability to play the market.

Huge amounts of human endeavour are being poured into this system by those who hope to get personally rich from it. Not to blame them exclusively for that; they exist in a culture which tells them every day that making money is the most patriotic and noble thing you can do and so long as you stop somewhere short of literally drowning puppies in the process you should feel great about it.

And yet nobody’s producing anything useful while all this is going on. Nothing’s being built or designed; the creative or communal aspect of the human spirit is not being enriched. Just billions of dollars being thrown around, won and lost, inflicting massive rewards or punishments on the participants so chaotically that I’m not sure we’d notice the difference if it were truly random.

Obviously this is all crazy. But the mistake people make is in thinking it’s crazy like, say, quantum mechanics is crazy. Quantum mechanics is crazy, in the sense that it’s a bizarre and inexplicable and counter-intuitive system, which nobody would have designed anything like that, but it also has an unavoidable connection to the real world. It models our best current understanding of how the world just is, at a fundamental level. Whether you believe it or not, whether you want to rearrange things in a way that strikes you as more sensible or not, quantum mechanics is going to carry on, because that’s just how things are.

Whereas high-frequency trading is crazy like stoning gay people to death is crazy. It’s something our species invented, and which we’re quite capable of subsequently identifying as complete bollocks and rejecting as unworthy.

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It goes like this: In 1893, a couple of lines of music were published in a book. The piece of music is eight bars long, and consists of a single-note melody which can be hummed in its entirety in about six seconds.

In 1927, this song was published in a separate compilation of similar musical pieces, with different lyrics which are known to have been informally attached to it for some time.

And now, as a result, if you want to reproduce the song Happy Birthday in any kind of media, you need to pay the Warner/Chappell Music Group for the right to do so, or risk being sued.

They collect millions of dollars every year this way. By claiming some bizarre kind of “ownership” of a universally familiar melody composed well over a century ago by some person or persons entirely unconnected with the people now profiting from it.

I’m trying to imagine a basically worse person than someone who’d demand money from someone else for the right to sing Happy Birthday. If you can think of anything more viscerally contemptible, let me know.

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Chess is a solvable game, right?

I mean, once you’ve defined the rules and the starting conditions, then everything else which can ever be said about it all follows inevitably from there. There’s no randomisation brought in from any outside elements, like rolling dice or shuffling cards. Every game of chess proceeds from an identical situation, under the same regulations as every other.

None of which has stopped its vast cultural significance. The more it’s studied, the more poetry and beauty folk seem to find inside it. Chess fanatics talk about it in terms of metaphors for human nature, among other things. The early games and midsections and endgames can be packed with apparent philosophical insights. There are styles of play which can reveal things about you, strategies you can adopt in a given position, and so on. We’ve been playing for centuries, and even those who’ve racked up tens of thousands of games don’t feel like its possibilities have been exhausted. Even starting from exactly the same board, against exactly the same opponent, doesn’t feel samey or unoriginal after decades.

And yet everyone who’s ever sat down to play a game of chess has either: been potentially able to force a win no matter what their opponent does; been able to force a draw; or been doomed to a loss however well they play, if their opponent plays perfectly. That is, depending on the colour you play, you’re always in the same one of those situations – we just don’t know which it is. With enough computing power we could. An answer exists, it’s just too mathematically unwieldy for us to have found it yet.

Would the game be less fascinating, if it were solved? If it was known and understood that, say, white could always force a win, that a sequence of moves exists which you could simply look up in response to whatever your opponent did (in an implausibly large book), which would lead step-by-step to a provable, guaranteed victory? Would the whole venture seem dull and pointless, if the sole deciding factor of the outcome of a game was no longer player skill, and could just be a matter of blindly following an algorithm? Would we stop playing, the idea of self-improvement and learning anything for ourselves suddenly seeming inconsequential and foolish?

If I were a proper writer I’d tie in some deep and impressive parable about free will to close this off.

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Self-reinforcing words

I can’t find the original post now, but a while ago Greta Christina (I’m almost positive it was her) posted about words which are in some way self-reinforcing when said aloud. (It may have been a series of tweets rather than a blog post and that’s why I can’t track it down, I’ve no idea.)

Her suggestions, if memory serves, included “rum” – because when you’re slightly tipsy on rum, saying the word “rum” and really drawing out every phoneme makes you sound/feel even more drunk – and “grump/grumpy” – in that, calling you a grump or asking why you’re grumpy is a great way of making you even grumpier.

Anyway, something made me think of this the other day and I realised I had a couple to add to the list:

Perhaps because the word so successfully sounds like what it describes, I can’t remember ever seeing someone successfully describe someone else as “sneering” without sounding sneery themselves;

and, accusing someone else of being the “Twitter police” invariably makes you sound like the Twitter police.

Any more?

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So over on Tumblr (yes, that’s still a thing that’s happening), ozymandias271 explained what “condoms are 98% effective” actually means in a recent post and it’s kinda made my brain explode.

I’ve been hearing that statistic (or other similar ones) for ages, and never concerned myself with it too closely. Given how little casual (or any kind of) sex I’ve generally been having, it wasn’t of much personal importance, and while I advocate strongly for comprehensive sex and relationships education, it should definitely be someone better-informed than me doing it. But I knew enough to know that condoms are good, and knowing how they work is also good, and if I needed more detailed data than that I’d surely be able to do the research.

But 98% always seemed oddly low. I wasn’t sure how much it was affected by issues like compliance or user error – is that remaining 2% at least partly explained by people just applying them wrong? – but taken on its face that’s actually quite a high-sounding failure rate. Do you really only have to have fifty sexual encounters involving a condom before you’ve statistically had one for which it might as well not have been there and you’re facing all the risks of unprotected sex? Given how much sex straight people on TV seem to be having, this makes it sound like unplanned pregnancies due to contraceptive ineffectiveness would be cropping up pretty regularly, and just something to be accepted as par for the course.

Anyway it turns out that’s totally not what “98% effective” means. Taking the outcome of unplanned pregnancy specifically, here’s how one website describes the effectiveness of condoms:

In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy—two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate.

98% effective doesn’t mean a condom is only doing its job in 98% of sexual encounters. It means that 98% of people using condoms for a year will avoid unplanned pregnancies in that year.

Or, assuming you’re using them correctly and having sex about as often as these statisticians imagine, the length of time the average person would have to keep having regular safe sex before encountering a condom failure isn’t fifty sexual encounters, but fifty years.

I have been massively misunderstanding this for YEARS because of what seems like REALLY UNCLEAR COMMUNICATION AND UNHELPFULLY OBSCURE PHRASING, GUYS. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who finds that a totally counter-intuitive interpretation of the “98% effective” line. Did everybody but me already have this figured out? I mean, it’s less important that I understand this than almost anyone else, but still.

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