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Chaos followed, with earsplitting clown music playing.

For your consideration...

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The Sense of Achievement

Dear Log,

«The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in a moment of reasoned lucidity which is almost unique among its current tally of 5,975,509 pages, says of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation products that
[I]t is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all.

In other words— and this is the rock solid principle on which the whole of the Corporation's Galaxy-wide success is founded— their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

»
—Douglas Adams: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
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William Gibson: the jackpot

Dear Log,

Quoting from William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014), chapter 79, called "the jackpot":

[The central character here is a ~18-year-old in small-town Tennessee? circa 2030. She is talking to Wilf, who is communicating backward in time from ~2095, via (at the moment) a "Wheelie Boy"-- a toy that's like an iPad mounted on a little Segway]

      She sat with him [the tablet-screen] on her lap, in the old wooden chair under the oak in the front yard.

      [...] Wilf Netherton was explaining the end of the world, or anyway of hers, this one, which seemed to have been the beginning of his.

      Wilf’s face, on the Wheelie’s tablet, had lit her way downstairs. She’d found Ben on the porch steps, guarding the house, and he’d been all embarrassed, getting up with his rifle and trying to remember where not to point it, and she’d seen he had a cap like Reece had had, with the pixilated camo that moved around. He hadn’t known whether to say hello to Wilf or not. She told him they were going to sit out under the tree and talk. He told her he’d let the others know where she was, but please not to go anywhere else, and not to mind any drones. So she’d gone out to the chair and sat in it with Wilf in the Wheelie Boy, and he’d started to explain what he called the jackpot.

      And first of all that it was no one thing. That it was multicausal, with no particular beginning and no end. More a climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to have a big event, after which everybody ran around with guns, looking like Burton and his posse, or else were eaten alive by something caused by the big event. Not like that.

      It was androgenic, he said, and she knew from Ciencia Loca and National Geographic [two cable channels] that that meant because of people. Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’d caused it anyway. And in fact the actual climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things. How that got worse and never better, and was just expected to, ongoing. Because people in the past, clueless as to how that worked, had fucked it all up, then not been able to get it together to do anything about it, even after they knew, and now it was too late.

      So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway. She’d looked across the silver lawn, that Leon had cut with the push-mower whose cast-iron frame was held together with actual baling wire, to where moon shadows lay, past stunted boxwoods and the stump of a concrete birdbath they’d pretended was a dragon’s castle, while Wilf told her it killed 80 percent of every last person alive, over about forty years.

      And hearing that, she just wondered if it could mean anything, really, when somebody told you something like that. When it was his past and your future.

      What had they done, she’d asked him, her first question since he’d started, with all the bodies?

      The usual things, he’d said, because it was never all at once. Then, later, for a while, nothing, and then the assemblers. The assemblers, nanobots, had come later. The assemblers had also done things like excavating and cleaning the buried rivers of London, after they’d finished tidying the die-off. Had done everything she’d seen on her way to Cheapside. Had built the tower where she’d seen the woman prepare for her party and then be killed, built all the others in the grid of what he called shards, and cared for it all, constantly, in his time after the jackpot.

      It hurt him to talk about it, she felt, but she guessed he didn’t know how much, or how. She could tell he didn’t unpack this, much, or maybe ever. He said that people like Ash made their whole lives about it. Dressed in black and marked themselves, but for them it was more about other species, the other great dying, than the 80 percent.

      No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.

      The shadows on the lawn were black holes, bottomless, or like velvet had been spread, perfectly flat.

      But science, he said, had been the wild card, the twist. With everything stumbling deeper into a ditch of shit, history itself become a slaughterhouse, science had started popping. Not all at once, no one big heroic thing, but there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air, new drugs that did what antibiotics had done before, nanotechnology that was more than just car paint that healed itself or camo crawling on a ball cap. Ways to print food that required much less in the way of actual food to begin with. So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up, but then the rest of it would just go on, deeper into the ditch. A progress accompanied by constant violence, he said, by sufferings unimaginable. She felt him stretch past that, to the future where he lived, then pull himself there, quick, unwilling to describe the worst of what had happened, would happen.

      She looked at the moon. It would look the same, she guessed, through the decades he’d sketched for her.

      None of that, he said, had necessarily been as bad for very rich people. The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was. Constant crisis had provided constant opportunity. That was where his world had come from, he said. At the deepest point of everything going to shit, population radically reduced, the survivors saw less carbon being dumped into the system, with what was still being produced eaten by these towers they’d built, which was the other thing the one she’d patrolled was there for, not just housing rich folks. And seeing that, for them, the survivors, was like seeing the bullet dodged.

      “The bullet was the eighty percent, who died?”

      And he just nodded, on the Wheelie’s screen, and went on, about how London, long since the natural home of everyone who owned the world but didn’t live in China, rose first, never entirely having fallen.

      “What about China?”

      The Wheelie Boy’s tablet creaked faintly, raising the angle of its camera. “They’d had a head start,” he said.

      “At what?”

      “At how the world would work, after the jackpot. This,” and the tablet creaked again, surveying her mother’s lawn, “is still ostensibly a democracy. A majority of empowered survivors, considering the jackpot, and no doubt their own positions, wanted none of that. Blamed it, in fact.”

      “Who runs it, then?”

      “Oligarchs, corporations, neomonarchists. Hereditary monarchies provided conveniently familiar armatures. Essentially feudal, according to its critics. Such as they are.”

      “The King of England?”

      “The City of London,” he said. “The Guilds of the City. In alliance with people like Lev’s father. Enabled by people like Lowbeer.”

      [...]

     

[Later...]

      But she still didn’t get what the United States did either, in Wilf’s world. He made it sound like the nation-state equivalent of Conner, minus the sense of humor, but she supposed that might not be so far off, even today.

[Conner is a character who is a twitchy, amputee veteran, whose assistive technology is modded to have some mean capabilities. It is considered a local unruly pastime to pick barfights with him, with some amount of risk in presuming that somebody might come by and tell Conner to let the poor idiot go.]

      [Person from the future says:] "Records, during the deeper jackpot, are incomplete to nonexistent, and more so in the United States. There was a military government there, briefly, that erased huge swathes of data, seemingly at random, no one seems to know why."

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[APPLAUSE]

Dear Log,

Now, after my final read-through of the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage [ "Obergefell v. Hodges"; PDF: 103 pages, 430KB], I can give you my final inventory of its lulz, culled from the pure piss 'n' vinegar of the dissents:

■ Use of the word «mummery».
Mmmmmmmmummery. Mmmmmmrmrmrmmrmrr. Rmrmrrmyrmy? Mrmrmmm. [pause] Aaaaaand WE'RE OFF...

■ Use of the phrase «o'erweening pride», with a gracious gracious apostrophe.

■ Quote: «Ask the nearest hippie.»

■ Quote: «California does not count.»
That's actually out of context, but it's a tease for further down. Until then, you must keep reading, while pondering the question "What possible context in these dissents could produce that sentence?".

■ Quote:

«the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?»

...Well, apparently, people who haven't seen a comparative anthropology textbook that's recent enough to keep a bookstore from putting it in a solander box and shelving it in the antiquarian section.

So, uh... Bushmen, and Carthaginians? What, no Hindoos, Thuggees, Blackamoors, or Grecians?

(And, say, what *are* the newest findings from Lemuria? We must skim the epigraphs of our finest Pith-helmeted gentlemen scholars.)

And have a look:
   Aztec
   Bushmen
   Carthaginian
   Chinese
Yes, they've considered every world culture! From A... to... C. But then we can stop there, that's quite enough.

I can picture someone fumbling with the index in the back of a leatherbound volume, "Hiſtory o∫ Man"... "Hmmmnnn,... China... what, 'Han'? Not spelt 'Hun' anymore? Well, bother! Modern times grumble grumble grumble. Now... Wait, this book completely lacks a chapter about the Antediluvians! I need verifactions for my truths about all cultures!"

■ Quote:

«If you are among the many Americans— of whatever sexual orientation— who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.»

And that is how to sound like a prick who is trying to sound like Cicero, but still just sounds like a prick.

You don't have to rev up a super-sensitive chromatograph to detect the acrid whiff of indignation, desperation, flopsweat, and untreated vascular dementia. Rob Ford Overdrive.

■ Quote: «I would hide my head in a bag.»
A picture of Scalia with the caption "I would hide my head in a bag" is an image macro whose existence would so clearly be in the public interest that its creation cannot be delayed a moment longer! So, you, my minions, go make it for me-- for *the world*.

■ Scalia tipped his hand and revealed his whole plan for living:

«It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so.»

In other words: Is it better to win and have to be concise and level-headed? No, it is better to lose, to earn the chance to thrash and to yowl.

■ A final quote... and this is a wowser...

«the Federal Judiciary is hardly a cross-section of America. Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage.»

In other words, the dissenting judges, four old Catholic American Republican men, are bitching that there's not enough ~diverse~ people around who would show up... and agree with them. It has been quite a bother, because the current diverse people (count off: two Jewesses!, a Jew!, an Irishman!, and that Spanish woman from the Boroughs!) dared to vote against them, and thus are *clearly* not working out as planned.

It is enough to make one's monocle drop into one's snifter.

SNIFTER, I SAY.


After I wrote the above, I was asked: "One hopes they had enough fainting couches in the judicial chambers, doesn't one?"
I replied: "The fainting couches were once numerous and ample-- but they are no more! It is said by some that the IRISHMAN has replaced them with OTTOMANS! (#CultureWars)"

Some months later, I noted that the five-month anniversary of the ruling is on Thanksgiving day (Nov 26th), and the six-month anniversary is the day after Christmas.

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Sartre.

Dear Log,

Existentialism is an eating disorder that consists of replacing beer with caffeine.

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Never right

Dear Log,

"[Samuel] Johnson's aesthetic judgments are almost invariably subtle, or solid, or bold; they have always some good quality to recommend them— except one: they are never right."

—Lytton Strachey, 1906, in discussing Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1781)

(quoted widely, incl. Samuel Johnson by Joseph Wood Krutch (1963), p367; Lytton Strachey by Rolfe Arnold Scott-James (1955) p12; etc)

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There is a killer.

Dear Log,

In a book about the international banking collapse of 2007, there's a section about how quantifying risk is a fool's errand.

And in that section, there's this:

«I’m willing to make a bet. This is it: that somewhere near you, wherever and whoever you are, there is a killer. A killer you’ve never noticed as a killer; a killer you’ve never thought about as a real danger to you. I’m not talking about an invisible killer, like a virus or bacteria; I’m not talking about an obvious killer, like the idiot in the 4×4 roaring down the road outside or the mugger lurking by the broken streetlight, I’m talking about a killer who is plainly visible, whom you see every day, whom you’ve known your whole life, and to whom you never give a second’s thought. This killer kills more than a thousand men and women in the United Kingdom every year, year in and year out, yet you’ve never heard a word about the dangers it represents. Bear in mind that cars and road accidents—that’s drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, everybody—come to a total of less than 3,000 deaths a year. This killer is between a third and a half as dangerous as all the road traffic in the United Kingdom.

Give up? I’m talking about stairs. That’s right, humanity’s friend the humble stair. If stairs were invented today and a full analysis of their dangers were made, along with the gory statistics—the literally gory statistics—there would be an impassioned, sustained, and I’m pretty sure eventually successful campaign to have them banned on health and safety grounds. It’s happened to much safer things than stairs. Stairs are absolutely lethal. I even myself know someone killed by his own stairs, one of the 1,000-plus deaths in a typical year. Yet we don’t perceive stairs as being risky. They’re filed away in the part of our consciousness where daily objects live, not in the part which attends to dangers and threats and risks to life. We don’t see these things entirely rationally, and familiarity breeds not contempt but a lack of attention. Why? We don’t really know. Our intuitive understanding of risks and of numbers is limited. The explanations usually reached for are of the currently fashionable cod-evolutionary-psychology sort which reaches back to ancestral humanity on the African savanna. We are bad with risk because our hunter-gatherer ancestors blah blah blah. The long and the short of it is that we aren’t all that good with risk.»

I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, John Lanchester, 2009
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Canada's banks as counterfactuals.

Dear Log,

John Lanchester's excellent book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay very intelligibly explains the details of how US + UK banks imploded in that nameless Global Economic Crisis Of 2008 And Since. There is this paragraph, lonesomely tacked onto the end of one chapter:

«All of this—all the funny smells, the missed warning signals, the misaligned incentives, the distorted attitudes to risk, the arrogance of the masters of the universe, the complicity of regulators, the doziness of legislators—symptomized a culture, and also constituted one. It was the culture of the financial industry. It didn’t have to turn out like this. There are occasional frustrating glimpses of how things could have been different in both Britain and the United States. The common good and the interests of the financial industry are not identical—a fact that for the previous three decades has conveniently been forgotten. The financial culture could have been similar but the outcome different if it had not been for those failures of regulation and legislation; they were critical to allowing the culture to go too far and produce the credit crunch. We know that for sure because of the counterfactual example of a country which had a broadly similar Anglo-Saxon attitude to business yet did not go down the path of doctrinaire liberalization and laissez-faire when it came to legislating the financial industry: Canada. The OECD rates Canada’s banks as the safest in the world—the United States comes fortieth, two places behind Botswana, and the United Kingdom comes forty-fourth. Canada is the only one of the G8 countries not to have bailed out its banks. The reason is that Canada didn’t join the party. Its banks had higher capital requirements than elsewhere, the legacy in part of a scare about bank liquidity in the early 1990s which left Canada nurturing a realistic sense of the systemic risks, just at the point when other economies were yelling “Woo-hoo!” and tearing their regulatory clothes off. Other features of the Canadian banking system included lower levels of securitization and the use of securitization mainly as a way of increasing liquidity rather than as a tool for spreading the risks of CDS—and CDO-type instruments; very low levels of involvement in mortgage-backed securities; a law insisting that if anyone was borrowing more than 80 percent of the value of the home, he or she had to take out insurance on the debt; and no tax relief on mortgage interest. Most of all, it was a reluctance to join in the fiesta of laissez-faire, which no doubt owed a good deal to the Canadian national appetite for distinguishing itself from its hypercapitalist neighbor to the south. This, incidentally, did not come at the cost of falling behind in other areas: since 2004, Canadians’ average incomes have grown at 11 percent a year, compared with 5 percent in the United States. A country doesn’t have to have a frenetically overactive financial sector in order to have a thriving economy.»
— John Lanchester, in I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay [very much worth the read]