frax

This baby has been a long time in ges­tat­ing.  Hats off to Ben, Kai and Tom for cre­at­ing, over I won’t say how many years, the great­est app ever to ren­der a reti­na dis­play pix­el.  Frax is not only the metic­u­lous cul­mi­na­tion of a life­long pas­sion for frac­tal geom­e­try, and a Borges-like infi­nite cab­i­net of won­ders, but also a stun­ning algo­rith­mic achieve­ment.

small_region

Those of us who have spent long and lazy evenings at Ben’s place know about his obses­sions.  The beau­ti­ful espres­so machine with its many Illy cups in every design, the Bösendor­fer that goes down to 11, the sea kayak­ing, and in recent years, a string of Face­book posts in which he and Jen­na are appar­ent­ly break­ing free div­ing records (!?).  Also, the puz­zles.  Dodec­a­he­dral Rubik’s cubes and inter­lock­ing notchy bars and origa­mi impos­si­bil­i­ties.  There are puz­zles every­where at Ben’s, and solv­ing them is his great obses­sion.  Most of them are dis­em­bod­ied: there is no rich­er, more per­fect lan­guage for pos­ing and solv­ing a puz­zle than the instruc­tion set of a com­put­er.  And Frax is the mas­ter­piece.  Nes­tled in the NEON-opti­mized inner loops of the Frax code are tricks so inge­nious that, if there real­ly is a Book, they must be in there.

Go buy it.

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notebook

I began keep­ing note­books at age 7 or 8.  My par­ents must have sent this one in a box a while ago.

00 - notebook

The entries in it date from late 1985 to ear­ly 1986, so I would have been 10 at the time: a lit­tle pudgy, with an over­bite, a bowl cut, and a very seri­ous expres­sion.  It’s fun­ny how clear­ly I remem­ber this object.

02 - notebook open cropped

04 - notebook edge

03 - hecho en mexico croppedI asked my par­ents if we could buy it because I liked its pseu­do-Edwar­dian design— and I liked the idea of a ref­er­ence note­book of this size, with one side a direc­to­ry of con­tacts and the oth­er a pad of blank paper where I could keep track of the things that real­ly mat­tered to me.  Like resis­tor codes, col­ormaps, note fre­quen­cies, pro­gram­ming key­words and ASCII tables:

05 - computer cropped

In truth this was a the­o­ret­i­cal exer­cise, because I knew all of this stuff like the back of my hand.  It was such a sig­nif­i­cant part of my lit­tle pri­vate uni­verse, as famil­iar as the lay­out of our apart­ment and the graf­fi­ti scratched into my school desk.

06 - electromagnet cropped 2So in the next pages, ref­er­ence tables quick­ly give way to notes and inven­tions, real­ized to dif­fer­ent degrees.  I was obsessed with elec­tro­mag­net­ism, which is unsur­pris­ing in ret­ro­spect.  Many of my obses­sions were about the trans­duc­tion of things unseen— usu­al­ly cur­rent in wires— into the tan­gi­ble, and vice ver­sa.  Any­thing that might medi­ate or inter­con­vert between elec­tric­i­ty and some­thing that could be seen, felt or heard was inter­est­ing.

07 - magnetometer cropped

level meter squareThis was an appli­ca­tion to some­thing like an elec­trom­e­ter or mag­ne­tome­ter— I imag­ined that the com­pass would swing toward north if mag­ne­tized, or the charged nee­dle align with an ambi­ent elec­tric field, and the induc­tors would gen­er­ate cur­rents that would allow the vec­tor to be read out.  It was inspired by the coils in speak­ers, and a volt­meter I took apart.

08 - quad nand croppedI had a 200-in‑1 elec­tron­ics kit, and was espe­cial­ly enchant­ed with the cou­ple of prim­i­tive chips on there— includ­ing such won­ders as a quad NAND gate.  The kit had a book full of cir­cuit designs, which I dis­dained to build as writ­ten (though in frus­tra­tion, when my own designs didn’t work, I would some­times try to appro­pri­ate them by redraw­ing the cir­cuits with­out look­ing at the orig­i­nal).

09 - mystery circuit cropped09a - crystal set radio cropped square

The crys­tal set radio was a main­stay, though the only way I ever got this to work was by string­ing up a giant anten­na, and could only ever pick up one sta­tion.

09b - initial design for alarm cropped

This was a sim­ple but impor­tant cir­cuit: an alarm designed to go off if my par­ents were in the hall.  I taped the pho­to­tran­sis­tor just above cat height.  For many years I insist­ed on total pri­va­cy while “work­ing”, and hat­ed to be inter­fered with.  Part of the rea­son was that there was gen­er­al­ly some­thing tak­en apart in the room that should not have been, per­haps even some­thing not strict­ly mine.  But I also just real­ly liked to be left alone.

10a - rubber tubing and doped silicon cropped

Mex­i­co City’s water was undrink­able.  I want­ed to puri­fy it with a still, or maybe by elec­trolyz­ing it and recom­bin­ing the hydro­gen and oxy­gen.

10b - snorkel water distillation cropped

As some of these designs were solar, this led to think­ing about solar pow­er gen­er­a­tion.  I imag­ined beau­ti­ful glass balls on top of build­ings with spin­ning rotors inside, elim­i­nat­ing the need for a pow­er grid.

11 - pgab solar generator using beta rays cropped

11a - pgab explanation cropped

But in my heart I wor­ried about the effi­cien­cy of gen­er­at­ing pow­er by knock­ing elec­trons off of the doped sele­ni­um.

13 - solar generator with piston cropped

This was a more direct approach, based on some­thing like a Stir­ling engine.  Slow­ly rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing pis­tons would dri­ve a gen­er­a­tor.

14 - perpetual motion with earth magnetic field cropped

14z - perpetual motion reductio ad absurdum croppedAt this point I won­dered why the same couldn’t be done with the Earth’s mag­net­ic field.  I was very excit­ed by some of these ideas and began talk­ing about them with adults.  At this point the term “per­pet­u­al motion machine” entered my vocab­u­lary.  I strug­gled with the dif­fer­ence between force and ener­gy, and remem­ber final­ly get­ting it— or think­ing I had— with a con­cep­tu­al dia­gram involv­ing some­thing like a pis­ton in the han­dle of some­thing like a gal­lon milk jug.  Though admit­ted­ly I’m find­ing the log­ic a lit­tle unclear now.

15 - shipstone croppedI was frus­trat­ed with bat­ter­ies.  There were no recharge­ables around at the time.  After a few acci­dents, I was leery of draw­ing pow­er from wall sock­ets, and there were always draw­er­fuls of spent bat­ter­ies lying around.  It was waste­ful; and worse, bat­ter­ies seemed to me so clear­ly just toys, not a real part of the ener­gy infra­struc­ture.  I was read­ing a lot of Hein­lein at the time, and the idea of a super-effi­cient bat­tery that could pow­er a whole house— the Ship­stone— was impos­si­bly appeal­ing.  I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to be Daniel Ship­stone and invent this thing.  Maybe with some kind of semi­con­duc­tor dop­ing?

Those kinds of flights of fan­ta­sy veered into super-pow­er­ful lasers, or anti­grav­i­ty machines.

15a - new ruby laser design cropped

16 - antigrav cropped

Wish­ful think­ing, in oth­er words.  This made me angry with myself, because it was clear­ly not “work­ing”, not com­ing up with real stuff.  Which is what I always insist­ed I was doing, locked up in my room.  Ship­stones and anti­grav­i­ty machines that couldn’t oper­ate on any prin­ci­ple I knew of were just play, and I was act­ing like a child.  The look of tol­er­ant amuse­ment in the librarian’s eyes when I explained a fan­ci­ful inven­tion drove me into a qui­et rage.  I didn’t want to think of myself as a child, and loathed child­ish­ness, and pret­ty much loathed most oth­er chil­dren.

In ret­ro­spect it seems clear that a lot of this was due to oth­er children’s dis­com­fort with me, and my inabil­i­ty to fit in social­ly.  I was so odd, so alien, so easy to make fun of— and I was des­per­ate to be the one who did the reject­ing first, rather than risk being the one who was reject­ed.  This gave me a kind of aloof­ness, hence immu­ni­ty to the hurt of iso­la­tion... but of course it was also a vicious cycle, since this atti­tude hard­ly helped endear me to my class­mates.  Maybe that’s why the whole phone direc­to­ry side of this note­book stayed pret­ty much emp­ty—

97 - not many friends cropped

Well, not total­ly emp­ty.  There was Luis, who may or may not have been a high school kid in my mom’s art class whom I got on with, and the oth­er ‘L’, a pur­vey­or of elec­tron­ic com­po­nents.

98 - larry g electronics

There are only one or two oth­er entries in the address­book.  I wrote this “human stuff” in cur­sive, because its inher­ent slop­pi­ness seemed more fit­ting; block let­ter­ing was reserved for real things.

So, bet­ter to be alone, and to be an adult-child.  With grim plea­sure, I’d get back to “work”.  On real things.

17 - conventional half adder cropped

Com­put­ers were more real.  I’d had one in my room since 1981.  Though I still thought there had to be bet­ter ways of imple­ment­ing their build­ing blocks, things like mul­ti­vi­bra­tors and coun­ters.  I imag­ined doing it with tun­nel diodes and spe­cial­ized sil­i­con instead of gates.  Real­ly this was some­thing like a design for base-10 tran­sis­tors.

17a - attempt to simplify a multivibrator cropped

18 - hundred counter cropped

Vehi­cle design was anoth­er pas­sion.  I thought that a “con­vert­ible” meant a car/boat (a James Bond inspired mis­con­cep­tion), and remem­ber being very dis­ap­point­ed by how lit­tle was real­ly meant by the word.  The “tur­bo” in this car could either recov­er ener­gy from the exhaust or be used to pro­pel it like a squid.

19a - car with turbo cropped19b - hollow airplane design cropped19c - hovercraft cropped

I thought planes might be more effi­cient and make less noise if they were shaped like hol­low tubes, with more slow­ly rotat­ing fan blades inside.  The pas­sen­gers could sit in the wings.  And what kind of engine could a hov­er­craft have?

But this was again veer­ing toward the uncon­vinc­ing.  I want­ed to solve a real prob­lem in a real way, like the unac­cept­able design of the cath­ode ray tube.

20a - oscilloscope cropped20b - flat panel crt cropped

It was essen­tial to flat­ten and minia­tur­ize it.  Why could the elec­tron gun and plates not be arranged on a steep angle?  The point being, of course, wear­able com­put­ing.

21 - face wearable computing cropped

22 - watch wearable computing cropped

Toward the end of this note­book, I’m focus­ing on pure physics, try­ing to find good ways to tab­u­late the fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cles.

70 - particle notes

71 - particle table 1 cropped

72 - particle table 2 cropped 2

One might sup­pose this was because I real­ized that a train­ing in physics would be impor­tant in order to become a real inven­tor.  But actu­al­ly, some­thing more prob­lem­at­ic was going on.  I felt that there was a hier­ar­chy of seri­ous­ness­es among my inter­ests, and that physics was the most seri­ous thing.  Physics was about the fun­da­men­tal nature of every­thing, not just some tran­sient engi­neer­ing prob­lem or— worse— some­thing mere­ly human.  I imag­ined that things like the elec­tric motor, while not real­ly physics and there­fore far from fun­da­men­tal, were like­ly to at least be fair­ly uni­ver­sal devel­op­ments among the uncount­ably many advanced civ­i­liza­tions in the uni­verse.  There­fore not so bad to work on, right?— because if I were an alien I just might be doing the same thing.  This kind of work was sort of species-invari­ant.  More like physics.  Not that I was able to put it to myself quite that explic­it­ly.

But through­out these years and many that fol­lowed, I was devel­op­ing a secret love of pro­gram­ming.  Many oth­er nerds grow­ing up around the same time will know exact­ly what I mean when I write that noth­ing else could keep me so relent­less­ly, con­tin­u­ous­ly and joy­ful­ly engaged in a prob­lem.  It let me expe­ri­ence flow, for hours and hours, and it was utter­ly addic­tive.  Invent­ing on paper could pro­duce a state of rever­ie and even ela­tion for a while, but mak­ing phys­i­cal things was always hard, always ran up against con­straints.  I’d run aground and need to call Lar­ry and see if he had a miss­ing part in stock.  It was stop and go, every­thing always unfin­ished, the idea always real­ized crude­ly if at all.  Maybe one day 3D print­ing, pro­gram­ma­ble biol­o­gy or nanoassem­bly will real­ly bring “mak­ing” into the same space as pro­gram­ming, but this still seems far off.

In any case, my love affair with the com­put­er, while it could hard­ly stay a secret, was some­thing I felt vague­ly embar­rassed about— because it was so far removed from the fun­da­men­tals of the uni­verse.  Because it was engi­neer­ing, and worse, engi­neer­ing with things that had them­selves been engi­neered by oth­er peo­ple.  Sec­ond- or third-order.  So not fun­da­men­tal.

80 - bugsheet cropped

That’s why the very last page of this note­book, writ­ten slop­pi­ly, is a “bugsheet”— my way of track­ing work items and bugs in the pro­grams I was work­ing on at the time.  These were of course ephemer­al for me.  I thought the inven­tions were impor­tant to pre­serve, but these work items were more often than not scrib­bled on scratch paper.  There are lots of pages torn out of this note­book, and I have a feel­ing that many of them were sim­i­lar to this one.  Look­ing at the bugs, I vague­ly remem­ber work­ing on a win­dow­ing sys­tem at the time.  (I guess this would have been around when Microsoft released Win­dows 1.0, though I didn’t encounter Win­dows until much lat­er.)

For rea­sons I’m not entire­ly sure of, I wrote at the top of this page “1986 – 1987 – 1988 – 1989 ~ ”.  This might have been a pre­dic­tion about how long it would take me to build this ridicu­lous­ly ambi­tious project, or— maybe I’m read­ing too much in now— a resigned sense that this part of my life was going to stretch out, and on and on, beyond the unimag­in­able future on the far side of puber­ty.

I’m sor­ry to say that my hier­ar­chy of val­ues was rein­forced— matched per­fect­ly, in fact— by many of the physi­cists I met lat­er on, and by the cul­ture of physics in gen­er­al.  I still love and respect the field, but with reser­va­tions.  I don’t know of any oth­er pro­fes­sion that embod­ies such casu­al, unar­tic­u­lat­ed chau­vin­ism for such a broad range of human activ­i­ty; every­thing else is too spe­cif­ic, too con­tin­gent, too easy, too man­made, too lack­ing in rig­or.  And then even with­in physics the hier­ar­chy repeats in a self-sim­i­lar man­ner, with this or that field above the oth­er.  Bio­physics?  Too squishy.  Sol­id state?  Too engineering‑y.  Astron­o­my?  Stamp col­lect­ing.

I’m glad I got out when I did, before things went real­ly wrong in my life.  I’ve recov­ered— most­ly.

I’ve been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky.  First, I was lucky because my par­ents were so deeply sup­port­ive of me when I was young.  They nev­er laughed in the face of my utter, absurd and rather brit­tle seri­ous­ness.  They encour­aged me in every way with­out ever being patron­iz­ing, they drove me to far­away elec­tron­ics sup­pli­ers in search of exot­ic com­po­nents in the ser­vice of ill-spec­i­fied projects.  They smug­gled com­put­ers across the bor­der from the US.  They pre­tend­ed not to notice when remote con­trols went miss­ing, and they gave me the space and time to devel­op in my own odd, lumpy way.  They trust­ed me.

And in time, It Got Bet­ter: part­ly because the pas­sions I’ve always had most authen­ti­cal­ly are con­struc­tive and hap­pen to be in high demand.  I can now admit that what I called “work” as a ten year old real­ly was play; and that I still spend much of my life engaged in this kind of imag­i­na­tive play; and that— in a delight­ful twist— I’m now paid to do it.  I work with many peo­ple who had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences as kids, and who have sim­i­lar­ly found them­selves wel­come and val­ued in soci­ety as adults.  We get to play togeth­er, and real­ize real­ly big projects we could nev­er do alone.

99 - egg and sperm cropped

This sketch is the only one in the note­book of any­thing even remote­ly human or bio­log­i­cal.  I remem­ber a sense of hope­less­ness at the sheer numer­i­cal impos­si­bil­i­ty of a sper­ma­to­zoon ever find­ing and fer­til­iz­ing the egg.  I want­ed there to be more than one win­ner.

The cur­dled feel­ings that used to lie in wait when I stepped away from the com­put­er or the work­bench, the intense sense of alien­ation and alone-ness I would try to pre­emp­tive­ly embrace when I was 10, are most­ly gone.  It’s tak­en quite a few years.  What a joy and relief it is to have close friends, to love and be loved, to be able to con­nect, and to feel, if not exact­ly nor­mal, at least nor­mal enough.  Human.

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anselm’s puzzle

http://styleisviolence.com/the-hard-boiled-wonderland-puzzle/

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scones

wiveliscombe recipe

The dust con­sist­ed of 2 cups of flour, 2 tea­spoons of bak­ing pow­der, and 1 tea­spoon of sug­ar pre­mixed.  The added crys­tals are ½ tea­spoon of salt.  “Very hot” con­ven­tion­al­ly means 450–500F.

This recipe was adapt­ed from the Aus­tralian Women’s Week­ly cook­ing class cook­book (1992 reprint) for Eliot’s birth­day trea­sure hunt with Ali, Flo­ra and Ruby.  But I for­got a step: brush the scones with milk before putting them in the oven.  Also, cut­ting them into much small­er discs using a cham­pagne flute works even bet­ter than the usu­al 2” size (or the dread­ed Amer­i­can scone at 4”+).  Luck­i­ly, indige­nous exper­tise was on hand to cor­rect these erra­ta and ensure a mas­ter­ful result.

The real Wivelis­combe, though cho­sen pure­ly for its name, is a rather cute look­ing town of 2,670 souls in Som­er­set:

wiveliscombe

Thanks to Barak for his cameo in step F.

wiveliscombe treasurehunt materials

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thickness

Sorel’s basic char­ac­ter flaws had all cement­ed by the age of fif­teen, a fact which fur­ther elicit­ed my sym­pa­thy.  To have all the build­ing blocks of your life in place by that age was, by any stan­dard, a tragedy.  It was as good as seal­ing your­self into a dun­geon.  Walled in, with nowhere to go but your own doom.”

—Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World.

freewillSome­where on the bram­ble-choked plan­et where philoso­phers live, Sam Har­ris wrote a lit­tle 66-page book called Free Will.  Har­ris is a fine writer and to the point; also, his min­i­mal title con­sists of the per­fect num­ber of char­ac­ters to hang from a pair of puppeteer’s oper­at­ing cross­es.  As this image sug­gests, he is a hard core deter­min­ist: (a) the brain obeys the laws of physics, and (b) there is no “mind” that isn’t a func­tion of the phys­i­cal process­es of the brain, there­fore, (c) the idea of free will doesn’t even make sense con­cep­tu­al­ly:

The illu­sion of free will is itself an illu­sion.

For those of us who are not dual­ists (that would be every­one “philo­soph­i­cal­ly respectable”, as Har­ris puts it), (a) and (b) are givens.*  Har­ris con­cedes that there is an (also respectable) spec­trum of thought called “com­pat­i­bil­ism” that attempts to rec­on­cile (a) and (b) with some mean­ing­ful def­i­n­i­tion of free will; many thinkers of this school (like Daniel Den­nett) use def­i­n­i­tions based on “free­dom of action”.

But Sam Har­ris is not a com­pat­i­bilist: this book is an extend­ed case against them.  I agree with many of his argu­ments.  To boil it down, in order to work with­in the stan­dard true/false log­i­cal con­structs of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and still leave room for free will, one is forced to define it in a more or less legal­is­tic sense, as in “of one’s own free will, not coerced at gun­point”.  This “free­dom to act in accor­dance with one’s desires” is a nice thing to have, and it might be rel­e­vant in court, but I agree with Har­ris that it’s irrel­e­vant to the ques­tions about free will that seem prob­lem­at­ic or inter­est­ing in light of deter­min­ism.  What’s inter­est­ing about free will is the idea of agency itself, of hav­ing autonomous desires and moti­va­tions in the first place— whether they’re car­ried out or thwart­ed.  But how could there be a “could”, or a “should”, or a “could have”, or a “should have”, if the future— includ­ing every choice you make— is pre­de­ter­mined?

*There are some aster­isks.  Quan­tum physics has some­times been invoked to try to res­cue the sit­u­a­tion, but this is sil­ly— not because quan­tum effects don’t mat­ter, since ulti­mate­ly, at least over long enough timescales, they must— but rather because being at the mer­cy of coin flip­ping instead of bil­liards doesn’t some­how open a white­space for free­dom of will or action.  It just intro­duces a noise source.  To place the locus of our agency on a ran­dom vari­able is about as mean­ing­ful as claim­ing that a ther­mo­stat is con­scious.  (Oh wait, that’s been done too.)  Any­way we have rea­son­able evi­dence that our moment-to-moment deci­sions and actions rely on neu­ro­phys­i­cal process­es that don’t oper­ate near the quan­tum scale.  If we were to some­how pre­pare an ensem­ble of iden­ti­cal copies of a per­son and do a moral or psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ment on the cohort under iden­ti­cal exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions, we’d be very unlike­ly to get any vari­abil­i­ty in the result.  It there­fore seems to fol­low that there is no “free­dom” in such a behav­ioral choice, any more than we can say a rock has “free­dom” with respect to whether or not to fall if dropped.

Before unpick­ing his argu­ment, let me state for the record that I think I real­ly like this Sam Har­ris per­son.  He takes a hard line about being non­re­li­gious in a way that few decent-mind­ed peo­ple will admit to in pub­lic these days— at least in the US, giv­en a dis­course that has polar­ized around, on one hand, the hard nuggets of mutu­al­ly exclu­sive reli­gious views, and on the oth­er hand, a dif­fuse well-mean­ing lib­er­al­ism with­in which we must pre­tend to be non­judg­men­tal.  Obvi­ous­ly if forced to choose camps I’ll glad­ly live in the lat­ter and wear a forced smile, but Har­ris is refresh­ing when he

[…] advo­cates a benign, non­co­er­cive, cor­rec­tive form of intol­er­ance, dis­tin­guish­ing it from his­toric reli­gious per­se­cu­tion.  He pro­motes a con­ver­sa­tion­al intol­er­ance, in which per­son­al con­vic­tions are scaled against evi­dence, and where intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty is demand­ed equal­ly in reli­gious views and non-reli­gious views.  He sug­gests that, just as a per­son declar­ing a belief that Elvis is still alive would imme­di­ate­ly make his every state­ment sus­pect in the eyes of those he was con­vers­ing with, assert­ing a sim­i­lar­ly non-evi­den­tiary point on a reli­gious doc­trine ought to be met with sim­i­lar dis­re­spect.  He also believes there is a need to counter inhi­bi­tions that pre­vent the open cri­tique of reli­gious ideas, beliefs, and prac­tices under the aus­pices of “tol­er­ance”.”

Yay!  OK, but the gospel is not all good.  The over­ar­ch­ing prob­lem with Har­ris is that in his mer­ci­less reduc­tion to the evi­den­tiary, he leaves no space for a lot of use­ful ideas.  First among these is the idea of paths not tak­en in our behav­ior— of pos­si­bil­i­ty.  In attack­ing this, he invokes clas­sic fMRI and mask­ing exper­i­ments that reveal how ten­u­ous the rela­tion­ship can be between our aware­ness and our brain process­es.  In the mask­ing exper­i­ments, stim­uli can be deliv­ered and then “can­celled out” by a sec­ond stim­u­lus, although the uncon­scious brain can be left in a “primed” state.  There are also deci­sion­mak­ing exper­i­ments, old and new, in which pop­u­la­tions of neu­rons in the brain appear to “know” what you’re going to decide before “you” do.  These exper­i­ments are cer­tain­ly intrigu­ing and vio­late our intu­itions about causal­i­ty and agency— if we think like philoso­phers or legal the­o­rists, and insist that agency can only be some­how locat­ed in the “text” of our con­scious nar­ra­tive.  If we think more like neu­ro­sci­en­tists instead, we real­ize that what­ev­er this spe­cial stuff is that we call aware­ness, atten­tion, or con­scious­ness, it’s sup­port­ed by a lot of neur­al machin­ery, and this machin­ery doesn’t oper­ate instan­ta­neous­ly or above board.  Of course we can’t be “aware” of every aspect of its oper­a­tion— that we are aware at all is the mir­a­cle.  Lots of cor­ners are cut— thank­ful­ly— in our self-aware­ness.

The mir­a­cle of self-aware­ness seems to be a prod­uct of our abil­i­ty to mod­el rel­e­vant aspects of the world around us, and peo­ple around us.  (And since the self is a per­son too, it should be unsur­pris­ing that we can expe­ri­ence the spe­cial ellip­ti­cal thrill of mod­el­ing our­selves.)  It’s not hard to see why these would be use­ful fac­ul­ties.  A good argu­ment can be made that the whole point of a brain is to pre­dict the future, and espe­cial­ly the futures of oth­ers and of our­selves, per­haps under hypo­thet­i­cal cir­cum­stances.  In a troupe of apes, the abil­i­ty to empathize— to under­stand what that oth­er ape is about to do, and why— allows one to behave in ways that fur­ther one’s own goals, or the goals of the com­mu­ni­ty.  Brains are good at pre­dict­ing the behav­iors of brains, and they do it by form­ing mod­els.  When we try to for­mal­ize such mod­els, and maybe even test them with exper­i­ment, we call the result “psy­chol­o­gy”.  It may not be par­ti­cle physics, but it sure is use­ful.

In sup­port of his belief that the mind is noth­ing but a pup­pet or help­less wit­ness to unknow­able phys­i­cal process­es, Har­ris claims, rather fatu­ous­ly, that our behav­ior is all mys­te­ri­ous:

For instance, in my teens and ear­ly twen­ties I was a devot­ed stu­dent of the mar­tial arts.  I prac­ticed inces­sant­ly and taught class­es in col­lege.  Recent­ly, I began train­ing again, after a hia­tus of more than 20 years.  Both the ces­sa­tion and the renew­al of my inter­est in mar­tial arts seem to be pure expres­sions of the free­dom that Nah­mias attrib­ut­es to me.  I have been under no “unrea­son­able exter­nal or inter­nal pres­sure.”  I have done exact­ly what I want­ed to do.  I want­ed to stop train­ing, and I stopped.  I want­ed to start again, and now I train sev­er­al times a week.  All this has been asso­ci­at­ed with con­scious thought and acts of appar­ent self-con­trol.

How­ev­er, when I look for the psy­cho­log­i­cal cause of my behav­ior, I find it utter­ly mys­te­ri­ous.  Why did I stop train­ing 20 years ago?  Well, cer­tain things just became more impor­tant to me.  But why did they become more impor­tant to me— and why pre­cise­ly then and to that degree?  And why did my inter­est in mar­tial arts sud­den­ly reemerge after decades of hiber­na­tion?”  (p. 42)

This is the strange cor­ner Har­ris finds him­self backed into by his insis­tence on an all-eclips­ing deter­min­ism.  Because if every­thing is deter­mined, then how could any­thing have a “why”— since a “why” implies a “why not”, and deter­min­ism implies that there can­not be a not.

You will do what­ev­er it is you do, and it is mean­ing­less to assert that you could have done oth­er­wise.” (p. 44)

More­over, deter­min­ism stip­u­lates exac­ti­tude, which for him, owing to a con­fla­tion between lev­els of descrip­tion, means that no approx­i­mate or prob­a­bilis­tic con­cept can enter into the dis­course.  Final­ly, by not acknowl­edg­ing the dif­fer­ence in lev­el of descrip­tion between physics and psy­chol­o­gy, Har­ris seems to inval­i­date the very idea of a sat­is­fac­to­ry “why” under any cir­cum­stance by insist­ing that it be sup­port­ed by— what?— maybe an infi­nite regress of sat­is­fac­to­ry and pre­cise “whys” under­neath it, going back to the Big Bang?

Thank­ful­ly Har­ris does not actu­al­ly suf­fer from the nar­ra­tive deficit he claims; he goes right on to answer his own unan­swer­able ques­tion, reas­sur­ing us that he’s not actu­al­ly that dense, before beat­ing a hasty retreat:

I can con­scious­ly weigh the effects of cer­tain influ­ences— for instance, I recent­ly read Rory Miller’s excel­lent book Med­i­ta­tions on Vio­lence.  But why did I read this book?  I have no idea.  And why did I find it com­pelling?  [...]  Of course, I could tell a sto­ry about why I’m doing what I’m doing— which would amount to my telling you why I think such train­ing is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.— but the actu­al expla­na­tion for my behav­ior is hid­den from me.  And it is per­fect­ly obvi­ous that I, as the con­scious wit­ness of my expe­ri­ence, am not the deep cause of it.”  (p. 43)

Ulti­mate or “deep” caus­es aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly so rel­e­vant.  Whys them­selves have a why, which is to mod­el.  And we are mod­el-mak­ers to a fault.  We can eas­i­ly be tricked into reveal­ing how often we can make false assump­tions or ratio­nal­ize our own behav­ior, mak­ing up sto­ries that can bear lit­tle rela­tion to the empir­i­cal “truth”.  But often, that sto­ry-mak­ing capa­bil­i­ty is pow­er­ful and pre­dic­tive.  We use it con­stant­ly— in every con­ver­sa­tion, every con­sid­ered deci­sion.

Let’s take an exam­ple.  A gift­ed ana­lyst and sto­ry­teller like Dan Sav­age can read a short let­ter from one of his fans, or lis­ten to a quick phone mes­sage, and by draw­ing on his “train­ing set”— that is, his empa­thy and the pat­tern match­ing afford­ed by hun­dreds of thou­sands of such inter­ac­tions over the years— he can rapid­ly form insights that have mate­ri­al­ly helped many peo­ple: he is a mas­ter of the “why” in his domain.  Con­sid­er this recent post, cho­sen more or less at ran­dom:

I’m 19 and clos­et­ed.  I’ve been chat­ting with a guy on the Inter­net for six months and now he wants to meet.  I’m con­vinced that he’s too good for me.  Aside from looks, he’s out and old­er and I don’t know why he’d want to be with some­one like me.  My oth­er online friends— they’re the only peo­ple I’m out to— think we should meet.  I’m eff­ing scared.  I’m not going to ask you to com­pare our pics, but is there a con­crete check­list to ver­i­fy if some­one is out of your league? –Inse­cure In Inter­net­land

Response:

The good news: If you meet this boy and he’s into you, III, then you’re in his league.  That’s because each and every one of us gets to decide who plays in our own per­son­al league.  If he invites you to play, you’re in.

Now the bad news: There’s lots of scum float­ing around on the Inter­net [...] and you have to be care­ful.  While this may sim­ply be a case of your own inse­cu­ri­ties pre­vent­ing you from rec­og­niz­ing what­ev­er it is about you that this oth­er guy finds attrac­tive, some­thing more sin­is­ter could be going on.  You say you don’t know why some­one bet­ter look­ing, old­er, and more expe­ri­enced would want to meet you.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly in some cas­es it’s because younger, clos­et­ed, and inse­cure guys are eas­i­er to manip­u­late.  So this guy is either hon­est­ly into you or he’s an ass­hole look­ing to take advan­tage of your youth and inex­pe­ri­ence.  If you decide to meet him, III, meet in a pub­lic place, tell some­one where you’re going, and watch out for red flags.  Does he pres­sure you?  Does he try to get you to do things, sex­u­al or oth­er­wise, that make you uncom­fort­able?  If so, run like eff­ing hell.

There’s much to take in here.  Dan rec­og­nizes salient ele­ments in the sit­u­a­tion from sparse data.  He pat­tern match­es.  He turns a set of pri­ors into a pre­dic­tive nar­ra­tive.  He explores more than one sto­ry­line.  He con­sid­ers the roles of pos­si­bly unre­li­able nar­ra­tors— both III and his Inter­net crush.  He artic­u­lates impor­tant uncer­tain­ties (while neglect­ing unim­por­tant ones) and frames behav­ioral tests designed to resolve them.  He con­sid­ers motive, mod­els best and worst out­comes for every par­ty, aligns his own inter­ests rel­a­tive to these, and sug­gests spe­cif­ic actions appro­pri­ate to opti­miz­ing for the desired out­come while con­trol­ling for risk.  Whew!  Let me know when an AI can do all of that!  When the robots put Dan out of a job, human­i­ty will have ceased to be rel­e­vant.

All of this is implic­it in what I sup­pose we call “wis­dom”.

So how does Dan do it?  We don’t quite know the details, of course, but there’s a good deal we can posit.

Dan deals in infor­ma­tion.  His mod­el is nec­es­sar­i­ly much sim­pler than every­thing it mod­els.  He’s not run­ning phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tions in his head of all of the mol­e­cules in some­one else’s brain, hop­ing to be able to run the code faster than real­i­ty on his poor slow wet­ware.  He’s clus­ter­ing, con­dens­ing, sim­pli­fy­ing, using nar­ra­tive and metaphor, rea­son­ing, telling him­self sto­ries, using his gut, asso­ci­at­ing, anneal­ing, remem­ber­ing, gen­er­al­iz­ing, mir­ror­ing, and so on.  By using these tricks he— we— can extract mean­ing from raw expe­ri­ence over mul­ti­ple timescales, and use the mean­ing to inform our behav­ior.

Because mean­ing is inher­ent­ly a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, it nec­es­sar­i­ly admits a thick­ness of pos­si­bil­i­ty.  When we say “chair” we’re not spec­i­fy­ing all of the par­ti­cles in the chair.  Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, that would be both impos­si­ble and point­less, because in that over­ly spe­cif­ic descrip­tion we’d have no con­cept of chair, and we couldn’t gen­er­al­ize or rea­son about chairs— in fact we could nev­er even rec­og­nize anoth­er one.  So do chairs have a basis in physics?  Yes and no.  There’s no chair-soul; every instance of a chair is indeed made out of noth­ing but par­ti­cles, and its behav­ior is entire­ly deter­mined by the par­ti­cles’ behav­ior.  On the oth­er hand the idea of a chair is some­thing quite abstract, and quite use­ful.  To call it “not real” would be sil­ly.  Yet its real­i­ty depends on a dif­fer­ent lev­el of descrip­tion— the lev­el of talk­ing and think­ing and rea­son­ing, not solv­ing for wave­func­tions.

Also, this kind of thick real­i­ty has inher­ent fuzzi­ness and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.  Per­spec­tive mat­ters.  A ques­tion like “is this a chair?” could be legit­i­mate­ly answered not only with a “yes” or a “no”, but also “maybe”, “it sure is a fun­ny one”, or “it’s a doll­house chair, so the answer depends on why you’re ask­ing”.

(This is why for­mal log­ic is so eas­i­ly abused at the lev­el of descrip­tion where we live most of the time.  It seems that philoso­phers tend— per­haps will­ful­ly— to pre­tend to live else­where.  Maybe on their plan­et coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I knew the posi­tions and momen­ta of all of the par­ti­cles in your brain” some­how make sense, while oth­er coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I had decid­ed to make it to the gym today” or “if I were you” don’t.  Nor­mal­ly I’d be all into space trav­el, but no need to send me the brochure for this plan­et.)

Caus­es, as we under­stand them, are like chairs.  “Per­son”, “mind”, and “motive” are like chairs.  Moral­i­ty, empa­thy and agency are like chairs.  They aren’t super­nat­ur­al, they’re very much ground­ed in the phys­i­cal world, but they are con­cepts, and as such they have their own coarse-grained real­i­ty.  Use­ful con­cepts and cat­e­gories have prob­a­bil­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty quite dis­tinct from the much more lit­er­al sta­tis­ti­cal or quan­tum uncer­tain­ties of the phys­i­cal world.  With­out the uncer­tain­ty, the blur­ring, con­cepts could not be applied, gen­er­al­ized or oper­at­ed with.  The uncer­tain­ty is inher­ent.  If one is skilled at the art of con­scious­ness like Dan Sav­age, one can both exploit and mod­el that uncer­tain­ty, weav­ing inten­tion, agency, pre­dic­tion, empa­thy and pos­si­bil­i­ty into that won­der­ful­ly dense sparse­ness that defines what it means to be a mind­ful per­son.

Is the mind beyond you?”

I don’t know,” I say.  “There are times when the under­stand­ing does not come until lat­er, when it no longer mat­ters.  Oth­er times I do what I must do, not know­ing my own mind, and I am led astray.”

How can the mind be so imper­fect?” she says with a smile.

I look at my hands.  Bathed in the moon­light, they seem like stat­ues, pro­por­tioned to no pur­pose.

It may well be imper­fect,” I say, “but it leaves traces.  And we can fol­low those traces, like foot­steps in the snow.”

Where do they lead?”

To one­self,” I answer.  “That’s what the mind is.  With­out the mind, noth­ing leads any­where.”

I look up.  The win­ter moon is bril­liant, over the Town, above the Wall.

Not one thing is your fault,” I com­fort her.

Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World

 

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glass

The real Glass—Philip Glass.  I’m lis­ten­ing to the sec­ond move­ment of his first vio­lin con­cer­to, while walk­ing to the bus through a light snow­fall on Capi­tol Hill.  It feels tran­scen­dent.  For a few min­utes there’s noth­ing else at all.

The sec­ond move­ment is a pas­sacaglia, a sim­ple and ancient dance form based on a four-note descend­ing scale, root­ed in Bach and ear­li­er.  It rhymes with my old favorite, Biber’s Archangel Sonata for solo vio­lin.  The rest­less bina­ry rep­e­ti­tion, lay­ered tem­pi, and inner dark­ness in the har­mo­ny com­bine to make this mate­r­i­al per­fect for Glass, who ren­ders it with the mod­ern emo­tion­al inten­si­ty of a Rothko.

Rothko - Untitled - Whites Blacks Grays on Maroon - 1963

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the kitchen

The on{X} team has just released a very nice new piece of func­tion­al­i­ty, the Kitchen.  This allows any­one who uses on{X} to very eas­i­ly write a new recipe, defin­ing nov­el smart­phone behav­iors sim­ply by snap­ping togeth­er Lego-like com­po­nents.

onx - the kitchen

The Kitchen is not only inter­est­ing by virtue of what it is, but also by virtue of who made it, and how.  It’s one of the first pub­licly vis­i­ble fruits of an ongo­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion between our teams in Tel Aviv and Ramal­lah.  The Ramal­lah team is rel­a­tive­ly new— we began to scale up our invest­ment there in 2012, though the team has exist­ed since 2009.  They’ve been doing real­ly good work.  For the past few months I’ve been see­ing the code checkin email fly­ing back and forth fast and thick— even dur­ing the cri­sis in Novem­ber.  This made me feel very proud of the com­bined teams.  There is noth­ing sim­ple about the Israel-Pales­tine con­flict, but it seems clear to me that shared cre­ative work and invest­ment are pos­i­tive forces.  Let’s do more of that!

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marbles

marbles coverComics aren’t my usu­al thing, but I need to give Ellen For­ney her due.  I’ve just read her auto­bi­og­ra­phy Mar­bles, about the nature of cre­ativ­i­ty, bipo­lar dis­or­der, and her strug­gle to achieve bal­ance.  It’s a love­ly thing.  The book is a beau­ti­ful piece of design, with rich use of archival mate­r­i­al, broad vari­a­tion in style, and a strong sense of rhythm on the page.  Her gen­er­ous cre­ative pow­er makes an elo­quent case that, her own fears aside, mood-sta­bi­liz­ing drugs need not dry up an artist’s well­springs.  Tri­als and suf­fer­ing may make great source mate­r­i­al, but Mar­bles proves that one doesn’t need to remain a tor­tured soul to make great art.

I don’t know what the “fair use” con­ven­tions are for comics.  Nor­mal­ly in a review I’d quote pas­sages of less than a page, but it’s very dif­fi­cult to con­vey the sense of the work with­out look­ing at whole pages at a time— and often whole spreads.

This page gives a sense of the den­si­ty and approach char­ac­ter­iz­ing the more nar­ra­tive sec­tions.  It shows an ele­gant blend of inner and out­er dia­log, present and past tense.  Leit­mo­tifs are used to good effect.

marbles - pot And this is the most poet­ic, eco­nom­i­cal descrip­tion of a major depres­sive episode:

marbles - depressionThe inci­sive fun­ny-seri­ous min­i­mal­ism of it brings to mind xkcd.  And final­ly, here is a less tra­di­tion­al non­lin­ear decom­po­si­tion of the page into a sto­ry— it could stand per­fect­ly on its own:

marbles - arboretumA well-deserved Genius Award from The Stranger.

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new piece

Rainy day

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the sense that the booker prize sucks

There are two book reviews I’d like to post, by way of com­par­ing great writ­ing with crap writ­ing.  My orig­i­nal thought was to inter­leave snip­pets from these two books, allow­ing one to make its own case and the oth­er to dig its own grave, more or less unas­sist­ed.  But when it comes down to it I’d rather not besmirch Michael Chabon’s love­ly new Tele­graph Avenue by using it to blud­geon and fla­gel­late the watery, pious and flim­sy British novel­la we will now sub­ject to its due mor­ti­fi­ca­tion— a novel­la that inex­plic­a­bly won the 2011 Book­er Prize.  This is the same prize for which Cloud Atlas, a nov­el of sur­pass­ing genius whose forth­com­ing movie adap­ta­tion I’m antic­i­pat­ing with equal shares of dread and ecsta­sy, was only short­list­ed.  At this point I’m assum­ing that the prize is either as cor­rupt as Wine Spec­ta­tor, or as lazy and chau­vin­is­tic as the Guide Miche­lin.  I’ll recon­sid­er when David Mitchell wins it.

Per­haps a dis­claimer is due.  The opin­ions below are pure­ly my own, it would seem.  No, real­ly.  Crit­ics at The New York­er, The Guardian, The SF Chron­i­cle, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The LA Times, Vogue, The Wall Street Jour­nal, The Boston Globe, The New Repub­lic and many oth­er fine pur­vey­ors of cul­ture, not to men­tion my Face­book friends (hel­lo Sara and Car­los), all seem to love the book I’m about to cas­ti­gate.  Maybe when I’m of a cer­tain age the “great but invis­i­ble skill” with which Julian Barnes has ren­dered his “crys­talline truths that have tak­en a life­time to hard­en” will sud­den­ly become less invis­i­ble?  Or maybe the emper­or has no clothes.

Let’s begin with the title: The Sense of an End­ing (appar­ent­ly “lift­ed from a work of lit­er­ary the­o­ry by the crit­ic Frank Ker­mode”).  Does it get any more half-assed than that?  Actu­al­ly, yes:

I saw it in his face.  It’s not often that’s true, is it?  At least, not for me.  We lis­ten to what peo­ple say, we read what they write— that’s our evi­dence, that’s our cor­rob­o­ra­tion.  But if the face con­tra­dicts the speaker’s words, we inter­ro­gate the face.  A shifty look in the eye, a ris­ing blush, the uncon­trol­lable twitch of a face mus­cle— and then we know.  We recog­nise the hypocrisy or the false claim, and the truth stands evi­dent before us.  (p. 150.)

Now we know!  If only this wis­dom had been writ­ten in the right decade, Carl Sagan could have had it read aloud by Peter Usti­nov and engraved on the gold record we sent into space, the bet­ter to pre­pare the aliens for dis­course with humans.

In case you’re won­der­ing, I picked this pas­sage because it’s about as writer­ly as it gets over the course of TSoaE’s 163 pages.  What, is this not “ele­gant, play­ful and remark­able”* enough for you?

(*Quoth The New York­er and the book’s front cov­er, under an inex­plic­a­ble paint­ing of an egg per­haps ele­gant­ly and play­ful­ly, if unre­mark­ably, in peace­able repose on a table.)

OK, let’s move on to the dia­log course, the bet­ter to observe Julian Barnes’s keen psy­cho­log­i­cal insight in action:

So I sent an email to Veron­i­ca.  I head­ed it “Ques­tion,” and asked her this: “Do you think I was in love with you back then?”  I signed it with my ini­tial and hit Send before I could change my mind.

The last thing I expect­ed was a reply the next morn­ing.  This time she hadn’t delet­ed my sub­ject head­ing.  Her reply read: “If you need to ask the ques­tion, then the answer is no.  V.”

[yr. hum­ble crit.: at this point it’s hard not to imag­ine bring­ing in Beav­is and Butthead as guest crit­ics.  “Try sex­ting her dude!  Heh heh heh.”  “Uh.. huh huh huh.. yeah, sext her.. like, let her know how you real­ly feel.”]

It per­haps says some­thing of my state of mind that I found this response nor­mal, indeed encour­ag­ing.

It per­haps says some­thing else that my reac­tion was to ring up Mar­garet and tell her of the exchange.  There was a silence, then my ex-wife said qui­et­ly, “Tony, you’re on your own now.”  (p. 116.)

So what did it say about his state of mind the first time, and what some­thing else did it say the sec­ond time?  I like how there are four lay­ers here of real­i­ty, right— Tony in the moment, Tony at a nar­ra­tive remove, the infi­nite­ly inscrutable & pis­sy Veron­i­ca, and the infi­nite­ly wise & suf­fer­ing Mar­garet.  Chicks always know best.

Read­ing this trea­cly tale of late mid­dle age clue­less­ness, one does get “the sense” that the Eng­lish pub­lic schools of the 50s and 60s didn’t do much for the devel­op­ment of emo­tion­al intel­li­gence in male youth— at least not for straight boys like Tony and, pre­sum­ably, Julian.  This reminds me how grate­ful I am that, although love and inti­ma­cy lost are such cen­tral themes in TSoaE, there are— praise small mer­cies— no actu­al sex scenes in this book.  Our good for­tune is under­scored by the fol­low­ing close call:

I wasn’t exact­ly a vir­gin, just in case you were won­der­ing.  Between school and uni­ver­si­ty I had a cou­ple of instruc­tive episodes, whose excite­ments were greater than the mark they left.  So what hap­pened sub­se­quent­ly made me feel all the odd­er: the more you liked a girl, and the bet­ter matched you were, the less your chance of sex, it seemed.  Unless, of course— and this is a thought I didn’t artic­u­late until lat­er— some­thing in me was attract­ed to women who said no.  But can such a per­verse instinct exist? (p. 25)

I know, I know.  The book is like ambrosia, but strained through the cheese­cloth of an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor.  It’s post­mod­ern!  The prob­lem is that for us to care about and become invest­ed in an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor, such that we can be all shocked and upset lat­er on when the bub­ble bursts, we need to be drawn in enough to inhab­it his per­spec­tive ear­ly in the book.  This is hard to do in Tony’s case, because he’s so obvi­ous­ly an ass.  One feels frankly insult­ed that Mr. Barnes would find it plau­si­ble for the read­er to find this schmuck and his philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings a good imped­ance match.

Even leav­ing this issue aside, the unre­li­able nar­ra­tor trick requires not only tech­ni­cal skill, but also excep­tion­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty on the part of the (real) author, in order to bring the “reveal” into focus at the right speed, at the right time, and with the right force.  It’s a demand­ing feat of ven­tril­o­quism, beyond even the usu­al rig­ors of free indi­rect style, and to pull it off the author needs to be work­ing at a far sub­tler lev­el than the unre­li­able nar­ra­tor.  Of course when one writes one also becomes emo­tion­al­ly close to and invest­ed in the char­ac­ters— even more so than the read­er; it’s nec­es­sary to do so in order to make the voic­es true.  How­ev­er, it’s equal­ly nec­es­sary to become close to the char­ac­ters who are not doing the nar­rat­ing, to invest the text with their voic­es— maybe oblique­ly at first, then more clear­ly in the endgame.  Oth­er­wise the “real­i­ty” under­gird­ing the sto­ry will be just as lame as the unre­li­able narrator’s real­i­ty.  And we won’t care.

And this is just what hap­pens.  My recur­ring feel­ing, when read­ing TSoaE, was that Julian Barnes and Tony Web­ster were too near­ly the same per­son.  It got pret­ty claus­tro­pho­bic up there in Tony/Julian’s head.  When the Wise Women made their appear­ances, they came off flat and gnom­ic, deployed more in the man­ner of unyield­ing bol­lards along the side­walks of the plot­line than as real voic­es that could per­haps have turned this sto­ry into some­thing more three-dimen­sion­al.  In the absence of oth­er voic­es, the shifts in per­spec­tive afford­ed by the series of big insights and real­iza­tions expe­ri­enced by Tony him­self real­ly failed to pro­vide the nec­es­sary stereo sep­a­ra­tion.

Let’s end with a “Royale with Cheese” moment toward the end of TSoaE— on page 158.  By this late stage, the sto­ry is as senes­cent as Tony him­self; all invest­ments in char­ac­ter growth etc. are made; the chips, as it were, are on the table:

One day, I said to the bar­man, “Do you think you could do me thin chips for a change?”

How do you mean?”

You know, like in France— the thin ones.”

No, we don’t do them.”

But it says on the menu your chips are hand-cut.”

Yes.”

Well, can’t you cut them thin­ner?”

The barman’s nor­mal affa­ble­ness took a pause.  He looked at me as if he wasn’t sure whether I was a pedant or an idiot, or quite pos­si­bly both.

[yr. h.c.’s: “both!  Heh heh heh.”  “Huh huh.. yeah dude.. both.”]

Hand-cut chips means fat chips.”

But if you hand cut chips, couldn’t you cut them thin­ner?”

We don’t cut them.  That’s how they arrive.”

You don’t cut them on the premis­es?”

That’s what I said.”

So what you call ‘hand-cut chips’ are actu­al­ly cut else­where, and quite prob­a­bly by a machine?”

Are you from the coun­cil or some­thing?”

Not in the least.  I’m just puz­zled.  I nev­er real­ized that ‘hand-cut’ meant ‘fat’ rather than ‘nec­es­sar­i­ly cut by hand.’”

Well, you do now.”

I’m sor­ry.  I just didn’t get it.”

I retired to my table and wait­ed for my sup­per.

And there’s the moral of the sto­ry: Tony Doesn’t Get It.  Pret­ty “adroit han­dling”, right, to use hand-cut chips as a metaphor for, you know, oth­er stuff?  Like how you can’t turn an Eng­lish lover into a French one?

What real­ly made me smile over this lit­tle pas­sage was how clear­ly it was drawn from life.  I’m will­ing to bet that it was actu­al­ly Julian Barnes who one day had this exchange with the bar­man at his local pub.  Barnes and Web­ster: just too cozy with each oth­er.  Chips cut from the same pota­to.

OK, now I feel soiled and guilty, like Alex after beat­ing up the old guy in A Clock­work Orange.  It’ time to move on.  I’m going to try not to let my new con­tempt for the Book­er pre­sump­tive­ly col­or my opin­ion of Hilary Man­tel, whose Bring up the Bod­ies was already on my to-read shelf before the recent announce­ment that she’s won the prize for 2012.

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