Image generated by ChatGPT, Essay generated by Me.

Leer in with an initial skepticism: the jump from trad RNNs to attention-only was not — could not be — that dramatic, right? A tired argument, I know, but I'm setting the stage.

Continue on with a more formal (but still limited) criticism: induction does not produce knowledge. The pig that gets fed every day thinks nothing of the axe replacing the pail. Ninety-eight, 99, 100 (°C) and yet the temperature in the kettle does not continue.

You can't always follow the trend to the next bit, and so Mr. C. Shannon turned to juggling, never mind his namesake.

It's the persistence and rigidity of a guess that's the measure of knowledge. No matter how sophisticated the fit of the function, it's the data outside of the sample that matters, right?

Old news. We're looking for induction, but who knows what else is in that inscrutable bucket of matrices. Especially when loss scales, for now.

But but...!

There's a lot of low hanging fruit embedded in the domain of all the data there is (±). Doesn't it become harder to withhold verification and test when you're training on everything? What's left after you've eaten the full fridge? Four parameters gets you an elephant and a ~trillion gets you the world's greatest chatbot, but can either cure Alzheimer's or tell me who lives on Mt. Athos?

And so, if that (and e.g. addition with arbitrary precision) is still out of reach, then I doubt Gwern is strictly right, for now. But the longer I follow the rabbit, the more I wonder: what is going to be possible, sooner than later? What is at stake? If this isn't the thing, surely it's part of the thing. It isn't one road to Oz, the rest to the lemming cliff. It's Atlantis at every turn, doomed or otherwise.

Then I read Wolfram's hunch, nodding along: that there are laws of knowledge being stumbled upon, a meta-structure of language itself, parroted outside of its typical framing. Hofstader's Aunt Hillary. Symbol vs signal. And so if this moment isn't "it", it could be the microscope that reveals "it" and its components.

Surely that is vital and awesome and dangerous. Surely one must work on it. Adventure, duty, etc. But mostly primal curiosity, tempered by discipline, justified by said higher virtues. Easy does it, ace...

So, that's it. Continue on. Progress has just begun. The more I read and listen, the more I realize I'm way behind the cavalry, but I'm also not chasing the last bus out of town.

If you're still interested, you can follow my precise progress here: Rudimentary, but I've built out the basics. Worked through the loss functions and their derivatives. Got my MNIST and Shakespeare merit badges. Onwards.

And, in the meantime, I'm still already an engineer with a lot of stubborn grit and a decent amount of experience — scaling services, building interfaces, designing APIs...

I can be useful. Best of luck to all.

Silicon Founder

In the land of circuits, solder and screens,
A man of ambition, with dreams and machines.
He sailed the great valley, of silicon and gleams,
But lost sight of the shore, his soul's fragile seams.

His heart once ablaze, with visions of grandeur,
Now tethered to digits, that lifeless candor.
In microchips and code, he sought to find solace,
But the fire of humanity, no algorithm could harness.

He sculpted a world, with ones and with zeros,
A digital Eden, with no room for heroes.
The valley folk danced, to the hum of devices,
Their laughter replaced, with a touch screen's entices.

His empire was vast, and it shimmered like gold,
A monument to progress, with no stories to be told.
Yet deep in his heart, something gnawed at his core,
A question that haunted, and settled like spores.

Have I traded my soul, for the weight of the bytes?
Lost the essence of living, in the glow of screens' light?
He pondered, and wondered, his spirit defeated,
As he bore the cold truth, that his heart had been cheated.

Where once was a love, for the sun and the rain,
Now only the sterile, cold embrace of the mainframe.
The wind in the trees, and the song of the lark,
Replaced with the hum, of his life's darkest arc.

Oh Silicon Founder, where hast thou gone?
The laughter of children, the melody of the dawn?
They vanished like mist, in the wake of your lust,
For a world unburdened, by life's tender rust.

Your towers of glass, and your temples of wire,
In pursuit of ideal, you kindled the pyre.
But the ashes of dreams, they lay cold and gray,
As the whispers of nature, slipped further away.

In the rhythm of rivers, you once found reprieve,
But the pulse of the mother, left you to grieve.
And the taste of sweet berries, on your lips 'fore the dawn,
Now a distant memory, all but withdrawn.

You sought out the stars, with your digital wings,
But the cost of your reach, was the death of your strings.
The chords that connect, to the marrow of life,
Severed and broken, by your binary strife.

Oh Silicon Founder, can you feel the wind's breath?
As it rustles the leaves, on the branches of death.
To remember the warmth, of a lover's embrace,
And the tears on your cheek, as you run life's sweet race.

The time has come now, to turn back the tide,
To retrieve the lost pieces, of your cast-aside life.
It's not too late, to rekindle the flame,
To abandon your empire, and reclaim your true name.

For in the end, when we all turn to dust,
The stories we leave, are of love, life, and trust.
And the kingdom of ones, that you strove to create,
Will crumble and fade, 'fore the hands of warm fate.

—Written by GPT4, via

HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method

This book scatters some good points around a thesis that contradicts itself.

HypnoBirthing claims that the problem with modern births is intervention: doctors getting in the way of an instinctual process that nature has honed over millions of years. Dogs and cats can give birth without lessons or help, so why do humans need an entire team and toolshed? That's a pretty good question. But then the book immediately follows with several chapters of Things You Must Do instead of listening to The Doctors — in other words, the book insists on its own interventions. e.g. meditations, planning, perineal massage, exercises, foods, etc.

If intervention is the problem then why, HypnoBirthing, are your interventions good and the status quo's bad?

(I'm not dismissing HypnoBirthings suggestions. A lot of them sound like good ideas to me. But I'm also not dismissing the status quo just because the book says I should.)

For ex., at one point in the book the author is railing against pushing during delivery, and goes on to warn that, during labor, you may feel an overwhelming urge to push, an urge you should resist! This urge, goes HypnoBirthing, is the result of modern conditioning. But wait a minute, now: isn't the foundation of the argument that one should listen to their instincts? Well, according to the author this particular urge is conditioned by society and not instinct.

Ok, so who decides what is conditioned and what is instinctual? Apparently, only the sanctified priests of HypnoBirthing.

The book also makes the all-too-typical rhetorical mistake of presenting its points as being independent of a completely corrupt community of dastardly doctors — as if all that accumulated knowledge that we call Medicine is a comprehensive conspiratorial scheme only meant to trick poor patients into providing the establishment with its deceitfully earned profits. And who can save us from such evil villains? Nature. And who is nature's proxy? HypnoBirthing, of course.

Well, a bite from a rattlesnake is pretty natural, but I wouldn't want one. And a shot of insulin derived in a Pfizer factory is as man made as it gets. Best of luck turning it down, as a diabetic. Claiming something is good because it's natural or bad because it's man-made is nonsense. One must explain cause and effect, precisely and on a case by case basis.

Further, why shouldn't I be suspicious of you, as well, author? You're just as much part of an establishment from my point of view. Stop pointing fingers and snickering, and start making observation-backed claims and arguments.

It's fine if HypnoBirthing addresses specific issues with specific solutions, but instead it finger-points its way through the prose until the only position left for itself is that of the hero.

Moving on.

The author also suggests that birth need not be mediated by medical professionals, unless there are exceptional emergency circumstances. But how am I to know if my situation is exceptional, if my instincts don't tell me? It would seem I might want to ummm... call, hmmm... a doctor? But you told me not to trust these trigger happy maniacs! When the author does get around to describing when you might want to consult The Man and intervene, she lists a series of staccato one liner conditions that read like the end of a pharmaceutical commercial.

"Warning: you may want to consult a medical professional if amniotic fluid has too much meconium in it and smells off." Smells off?? Is a first time birthing mother supposed to pre-divine what the normal smell of amniotic fluid should be?

Side effects of HypnoBirthing during emergency may include vomiting, upset stomach, constipation, amnesia, loss of offspring, insomnia, hyper-lulus, the beep bops, or death.

All of that said, the idea that doctors and patients have different goals and often misaligned incentives makes total sense. A doctor who delivers a 10 babies a week is likely to want to get home to dinner on time, regardless of it being your special day. A surgeon probably likes to do surgery like a pilot likes to fly planes. And so, yes, a bit of independence and prioritization, on the part of the one doing the birthing, can go a long way.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

The author claims that proximity to a job — ranging from those that do the jobs being close and those that the assign jobs as far — is a good proxy for knowing whether a job is pointless. If the person doing a job thinks it shouldn't have to be done, then it probably shouldn't.

And when those people are asked, a lot of them do think their jobs are pointless, and that if they were to stop performing them, nothing would measurably change in the world.

I disagree.

Do the pistons in an engine need to know about the tires on the pavement in order to justify their work? Does the entire car need to know anything about the intentions of the driver for it to be useful? No. And yet, according to Graeber, if a corporate lawyer thinks that it's pointless for them to review a sub-department's accounts for tax implications, then it must be so. It doesn't matter if this isolated contribution helps, indirectly and incrementally, to push the company further.

Regardless of whether a company is producing insulin for third world countries or fattened geese livers for ostentatious wannabe aristocrats, there will be components of that company whose contributions are limited in piece, but vital in the whole.

Also, most progress is made through creative experimentation and failure. We try 100 things, 99 fail, and then one turns out to be penicillin. Do the 99 failures then count as bullshit? Should we have stopped trying things because people working on one of the failures were, at some point, demoralized and disillusioned? Fine, fair enough, if you can predict the one success before slashing the doomed projects, but to do so you'd need a functioning oracle — a crystal ball. Short of that, you have to try everything...

And what about redundancy? Another example: five people are hired to work an assembly line. These five people ensure the voltages are sufficiently within expected boundaries on, what seems to them to be, a random circuit. The voltages are checked in sequence; the first worker finds bad voltages all the time, but the fifth worker — last in line — has never seen an incorrect voltage, and that's after working at the assembly line for a whole entire year. This fifth person thinks their job is pointless. But the random circuit turns out to be a critical component in the number one selling brand of pacemakers. Removing this fifth person has been shown to increase failures in one out of 100,000 pacemakers, per year. 3,000,000 people have pacemakers. So, if we were to follow Graeber's theory, and follow the worker's intuition, 30 people's pacemakers would fail a year.

Or what about general risk management? The actuary whose work prevents bad things from happening never has anything active to show for their work. At best they can say, "look at all these horrors that did not happen!" Well the list of horrors that haven't happened is infinite. Did you prevent the moon from cracking in half as well, some cynical critic might ask? And so perhaps this actuary also thinks their job is bullshit, too; that their pouring over spreadsheets at the paid demand of some brokerage house whose automotive insurance subsidiary provides a cashflow for future investments is for not. And yet, take this person out of the picture, and it's suddenly discovered their supposed bullshitting was a linchpin brick in a dam holding back a reservoir of hurt.

The Poverty of Historicism by Karl Popper

I was introduced to Popper by David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity, and also somewhat through parenthetical references made by Nassim Taleb in his books. Both present Popper's ideas clearer than the man himself, in The Poverty of Historicism.

Deutsch quotes Popper incessantly, and the ideas he (Deutsch) talks about are awesome. Two that struck me:

  1. Most progress is incremental, and more about error correction than consistent correctness.
  2. Explanations of sociological facts (like why a war happened) are best described with other sociological facts, and not with physics or mysticism.

An example from Deutsch, on the latter: the best explanation for the presence of a copper atom in the nose of a statue of Winston Churchill will not be a physics equation describing the motion of that atom or a chemistry equation describing the form of the statue, but instead it'll be a reading of the history of actions taken by Churchill and of how those actions were perceived by those with the means to make and place statues.

When I heard that these ideas were elaborations and refinements of Popper's, I was excited to read the original. Instead, I'm now all the more grateful that word processors exist. This book reads as if the author wrote it in a single top to bottom rant, with no means for edits or revisions. And perhaps he did.

Concrete criticisms:

  1. Everything is discussed in abstractions and schools of thought: of wholes, holistic processes, Utopias, non-naturalism, Marxism, Gestalt psychology, eras, States of Society. The only time the author resolves his abstractions into concrete examples is parenthetically. And so the reader is left to try and imagine to what, in the actual physical world, Popper's ideas correspond. This is made harder now that it's ~65 years after the book's original publication.
  2. So many of Popper's sentences distract from their main expression. They have these nested parentheticals and digressions and enumerations of near identical nouns and adjectives.

    As in, rather than saying something like, "History is hard to describe in causal detail, but it's not impossible. " the author might say something like "History, in the sense of  the ledger of events that we've recorded to have had happen, is difficult, some say impossible others say a job left to the prophets, to describe with any generality, whereby describe I mean elaborate on the abstract effecting means and by generally I mean with any amount of reproducibility of terms."
  3. The author assumes his audience is a computer compiler. At one point in the book he defines the word "whole" with two competing definitions, and then labels those two definitions (a) and (b). He then goes on to make a multi-page argument about these two definitions without ever reiterating or clarifying which definition he's talking about, instead inserting back-references to those single letter labels: (a) and (b). It's then up to the reader/compiler to accurately replace each label with the correct definition.  

    For instance, he says, "Nobody doubts, of course, that wholes in sense (b) can be moulded or controlled or even created as opposed to wholes in sense (a)."
    (Note also that unnecessary and distracting enumeration of verbs, again.)

    This would be a fine statement if it were made in close proximity to the original definition, but if one makes increasingly abstract and disparate arguments about these points, and elaborates on each point for paragraphs, then several pages later the reader is left saying, "Wait, which definition was (a)?" or "Was that (a) or (b) he was talking about there?"

    Given the quote above, I just wish it were written like this instead, "Nobody doubts that the the special properties of a whole, those which make it more than the sum of its parts, can be controlled. For instance, an engine can be throttled without much understanding of its pistons. Further, nobody doubts that wholes which are merely a heap of constitutes are harder to control since they have no special properties to control. Tell me where the 50th rock might land, after 49 previous rocks have been thrown into a pile."

    Even trying to clarify that sentence myself, I'm left wondering about ambiguities in the original form that allow the sentence to be read in contradictory ways.

None of his says anything of his arguments, which I'm still trying to excavate.

Good Morning, California


Will: A Memoir by Will Self

Not for me. Might be for you.

After having binged a number of Will Self's lectures/debates/interviews online, and having read Tough, Tough Toys..., I wanted to know more. I love his quickness and breadth. I love his disregard for formality and propriety, and complete focus on The Empirically Lived Interesting Stuff of life.

e.g., The benefits of nicotine, the state of Brexit, the map to and of creativity, the absurdity of domesticity. Politics, drugs, walking around. it's all on the table, and it's all interestingly woven together by Will Self.

Knowing he came from addiction made me think there'd be an interesting trajectory from then to now. How does one occupy that repetitive, uni-dimensional, consuming act of the hard-drug taking, and then become — or at least maintain — so versed in so much else? How do the skills and wit persist? Shouldn't this guy be either dead or at least burnt out? And yet he's still motivated, productive, and prolific. That's amazing, and I want to know more.

But about a third of the way through the book — where I stopped — I got the feeling this memoir would be more of a Hunter S Thompson/William Boroughs style, front to back recounting of the that nether land of drug induced reality, as well as what drove Self there and what kept him there. Looking forward at the chapter names, you realize (for me, disappointingly after the fact) that this only covers ~7 years of Self's life — from 18 to 25 years old. I guess that still counts as a memoir, but I mistakenly thought this would be The Memoir of his life (so far).

While the content enclosed is well written and interesting, I've graduated passed the point where this kind of stuff is interesting to me (see the formerly mentioned similar authors, but also I've had enough Bukowski and Lou Reed and whatever else, too.) I'm interested in those who have also graduated past it and how they did it.

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys by Will Self

Spoilers Incoming

The opening scenes of drug dealers and rip offs sets up an expectation that Tough, Tough... will be some dime-store thriller, Cowboys & Indians, 007 and Goldfinger. But that expectation is wonderfully, satirically subverted with the literal crack mine — a pit of crack cocaine one could harvest with a pick axe — and the drop off ending. The remaining stories are similar subversive and satirical. I kept expecting the straight-to-DVD type cliches — "And I would've gotten away with it, too..." — but Self takes the stories in these incisive character-driven directions, and the characters are unexpected and smart.

This theme continues, delightfully, and in total, I loved the absurdity and the lack of predictability. The book is both without dribbling into nonsense, which is difficult to do.

But the thing that had me rolling my eyes, and that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere: the self referencing and subtle threads of connection between the stories. In one story a German business man and baby seem to be switching consciousness, and a german doctor diagnoses the kid. Then, in another story, you hear a reference to another German name. In one story a man is obsessed with everyone being named Dave, then in another we're briefly introduced to a minor character named Dave. These small instances go on, to be concluded in the ultimate self-reference: the final story in this book of short stories is about a character writing a book of short stories in an attempt to find safe passage and redemption. Is this similar to the book itself? Is my — the reader — lingering on these subtle connections the desired effect of an author writing a book about a bunch of self-obsessed, neurotic characters? Now I'm neurotic, too! Wow! How did that rabbit get in that hat?

I felt like I could see Will Self pulling the levers here, a little too obviously. Too many authors of meta fiction treat recursion and self reference as toys, valuable and curious and impressive for their own sake, without realize these tools can produce many and varied effects. Like, I see it as Look, I can break the fourth wall and make this little feedback loop of thought! Except on the other side, in the more abstract worlds of math and computing, there's: Fibonacci, memoization, the different types of infinities, blowing out stack heaps, the halting problem. Where is the literary equivalent to these products? Where are their concrete story-driven demonstrations? It's this lingering question, left unanswered or at least invisible to me, that has me thinking these meta-fictionists don't yet know what they're playing with.

Still a fun read.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley


The idea that collective intelligence is its own independent entity, that we can contribute to, from the bottom up. You more commonly hear about how collective centralized planning fails, and less about how trade and specialization succeed. Liked that.

There's a lot of talk about how the infrastructure for sharing ideas has improved dramatically over the years — i.e. the internet — and how that allows for a new scale of prosperity, since prosperity is based on the sharing of good ideas. However, Ridley doesn't really touch on how that same scale might make us vulnerable. Where a bad idea of a previous generation might've ruined a place, caused a localized issue; now we have the potential for global ruin.

That prosperity now is worth something that can be discounted against prosperity in the future. That's vital for weighing big future risks. That oil now prevents suffering and improves people's lives. These things do need to be accounted for, and they often aren't. And the inefficiencies of the proposed alternatives, being glossed over for fashionable reasons, that also needs to be addressed. But at the same time, you don't hear Ridley really attack or dismantle the terms of the claimed risks (e.g. Climate Change) so much as rail on the currently offered solutions. He simply holds climate change, as an ambiguous boogieman, up against things like acid rain, which are less worried about today. But this doesn't address the more concrete claims of, say, rising sea levels.

Not a compressive summary or review. Neither an endorsement or criticism. Just some lingering thoughts.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age by James Dale Davidson

Probably prescient, but a few things lose this book a star or two for me:

  1. There's a skewed moral undertone: the author seems to imply that the predicted thriving of sovereign individuals is not only inevitable, but right. Which very well might be the case, but at the same time the book has no problem writing off all the "left behinds" as a calculated externality, neither right nor wrong, just part of the physics of the thing, no more good or bad than inertia.

    To me, a better book would either (a) make the prediction with more academic precision, and describe the results, critically and dispassionately (which would be a much shorter book); or (b) go ahead and make the moral case, as they've done for the terror of taxes and the suffering of those afflicted, but also have empathy for the other human players, no matter their role — the winners and the losers. The lack of consideration for those folks makes me suspicious of a further lack of consideration or thought in the rest of the books arguments, which one goes on to find:
  2. The book assumes a pigeon holed type of humanity that's robotic and totally concerned with nothing but profits. I have no problem with libertarian ideals and I have no problem with an interest in profits. But one's argument can't rely on a hypothetical person that has no ties to family or home. "The Sovereign Individual" apparently will be willing and able to pick up and leave all national jurisdictions with zero marginal cost, so apparently none of these people have had an infirm parent or  children that prefer to keep their friends? At a more glacial scale, slow and large, the argument makes more sense. Digital nomads might migrate once or even twice in their lives, and that's more than enough of a trend to cause a long-term effect. I'd move to Bermuda for 50 million, but what if then Bermuda then became corrupt? Would you move to Bermuda, then Cyprus, then New Zealand, then an oil rig in the middle of the pacific for 50 million? If the sovereign individuals are the only ones capitalized, smart getting smarter, what stops them from permeating the world as the rent seekers the Author's make current governments out to be?
  3. They argue that nationalism and patriotism are anachronistic, but also claim that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket because no one is religious or morally cohesive anymore. And somehow, the digital nomads are going to simultaneously continue on the path of amoral agnosticism (i.e. no attachment) that allows them to transcend boarders, but also they're going to rebuild religious and interpersonal ties that bind them together. Cosmopolitan dogmatists? The author seems to see no issue with the oxymoron.
  4. "Everything will go digital" and the information economy will be the only relevant economy. What about farming? Live concerts? Skiing? Golf? Waste management? Energy production? 25 years after publication it's clear that a lot of information is now digital, but what about the products that were never information? And so if at least some of his "stuff" has to stay productive in the physical world, doesn't that at least dilute the thesis a bit?  The book seems to hyper-focus on everything going digital, with no consideration for the things that won't or can't.

Anyway, a few thoughts.

Arthur, My Cousin and Me

I don’t know how to detangle myself from Arthur. What follows is something like half him, half me. It’s more journal entry than elegy, but it’s what I’ve got.

Remember this if and when you get to the end.

To start with, what I'm thinking and feeling:

I felt like I knew Arthur, up until now.

Then I heard what others had to say and saw what others had to feel, and I realized I wasn't in as much of his inner circle as I thought. His death exposed the truth of my more recent position in his life.

It’s a practical observation, not a dramatic one. I’m not saying he had a dominating and hidden alter ego or that he pitied me with his company. It’s simpler: his death revealed our bond as something innocuously leftover from being kids together, from when we spent serious time together.

I want him back now like I’ve continuously wanted back what we lost long ago, the thing I remember so strongly that's been polished and faded by time. Now, though, that want is double-permanent and legible. Before it was remediable and blissfully low priority — embarrassing in hindsight, like most nostalgia.

One thing that makes me feel better is I know that Arthur held on to that nostalgia too. I wasn't totally alone in my pitiful state. That thread to our shared past was strong for both of us. It gave us a lot to lean on. But without that crutch our adult lives were mostly opaque to one another.

But we were also we were getting close again, involving each other again. Building anew. It's the left hook following the right: (A) It’s a shame we weren’t closer than we were, when he died. (B) It’s a shame our getting closer was cut short.

I guess it makes sense: as adults, we’re all doing niche things, and niches are small and excluding, so everything else trends towards small talk. (And that’s fine and right, because focus is part of growth, and who's not trying to grow? Just try and stay loyal, which Arthur did and my cousins do.)

Maybe it wasn’t so much that I was uniquely outside of Arthur’s confidence, but more that we had both (or all) grown a bit into our own isolation. In any case, I mourn the loss and its new finality.

That’s him and I as adults, apart.

Who was he, though? What can I tell you?

Briefly, some personal context. Who I am is still him, the result of his influence, for sure. Of growing with, then adjacent to him. Then apart, then converging again.

If you distilled me down and got rid of all the litter and trivia, the unique and potent stuff remaining would be similar to what I knew of Arthur. We had some of the same essence, as I saw it.

I can show you a reflection of that essence, and you can tell me if it’s accurate (See: first paragraph’s disclaimer.) (Also, note my calling out our similarity is carefully placed right before I go on to flatter him best I can — tactics, baby — but don’t read my ego into this. What follows is my cousin.)

Arthur and his confidence. An old saying: the pro fails more than the amateur tries.

The subtleties of his personality were sophisticated and complicated. He could spar at an exceptional level from an early age. But he started out wide eyed and lazy, overthrowing a lot of his punches, gassing out quickly.

As a kid, he was autistically independent, preoccupied and hyper focused, but without any of the social hangups. He could talk to anyone and impressed everyone. He was adored, and rightfully so, but he also marched exclusively to the beat of his own nunchucks. You couldn’t bullshit him and you couldn’t placate him. He only gave his attention if he was genuinely fascinated with what you were saying or doing. And isn't this how kids should be: ideal, insatiably curious, and wild. It was my favorite era of his, and where we spent the most time together. I was such an asshole to him, and he still always hung out with me. And we followed each other into a lot of similar interests.

Then he got his first hit of testosterone, and followed a phase where he literally held a fist up in every photo taken of him. Puberty’s rough. That didn’t last long. Reality checked and he stabilized. The important thing is that, from there and then: he knew he wasn’t going to watch, he was going to play. I loved him then, jealously and from a further distance. I couldn’t hang.

Then, maturity. The firm handshake, the direct eye contact, the bright teeth, the smiling cheeks. Approachable, but not daffy. If anything his charisma was a prank and shrewd tactic. A car salesman during the first act. A playful subversion before the intellect and wit made their debut; or, worse for you, they didn’t. You’d start talking to Arthur and think you were walking in on a frat-house breakfast table, then he’d go on to tell you why your problem was really because of what Robert Moses did back in ‘56, or he’d ask what you thought of the Napoleonic victory counterfactual.

To him, your reasons were more important than your choices, which is an axiom of all good conversation, one that most people are afraid to admit because doing so requires the ability to tread water. It’s easier to talk about the weather or watch sports. But Arthur wasn’t afraid of going deeper, and he had the tact to know when it was the right thing to do.

He was a man of appetite. A true traveling gourmand. He could scoff at you from within a seersucker, but he never compared oysters. If a menu offered Seattle’s or Rhode Island’s, he’d reply, “keep ‘em coming” and demand littlenecks or (and) crawfish to follow. He was less interested in varieties of wine, more in varieties of tomato and whether you had a good coarse salt.

He was spoiled rotten — as we all were, and mostly by the same sources — but he lacked pretension, except for that deliberately wielded for ironic effect. Underneath all his developed and developing taste was a lot of comical stoicism — laughing at gross injustice and absurdity, but also doing something about it, literally. His principles were conjured up from experience with the trappings of pleasure, with readings of history, with a variety of surprisingly worldly stories. I always wondered where and how he got it all. The guy had seen things, but not that many things. How was he always so versed? I don’t know, but if you’ve ever watched him eat an entire box of clementines straight up, unblinkingly wide-eyed, in a wrinkled rugby shirt, then you would also know he was more pensive than pleasure seeking.

Entertainment was a defense, one he was growing out of as he realized it interfered with his goals and their requirements. A defense against what? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the typical. On one hand, a lack of patience and a petulant refusal to be bored. On the other, the existential and solipsistic. A defense against the subconscious shame and pain of cynicism. Was love real? Was wealth worth anything? Was the world bogus? Was anyone authentic? Ethical? Himself? Others?

Look, I’m not saying he was overwhelmed with this gooey crap. He was a thinker, not a navel gazer. I don’t know if he even said any of this stuff out loud, but anyone with a brain is going to ask some questions about the life they’re living and the society they’re in, and most of us don’t like the first obvious answers we come up with. Then we do something about not liking those answers. We put fingers in our ears some of the time, we do what’s easy some of the time, and we do what’s difficult some of the time.

And also, anyone with any talent is going to find themselves stuck in between being bored among the average and falling short of their own high standards.

These were Arthur’s struggles, I think. Or maybe we're both just pompous assholes, spurious aristocrats from the suburbs. Or maybe that was just me.

To some, it might seem appropriate to haunt him here in this postscript, as if to justify his death as the terminal approach of a depression into cessation. Let me be clear: this was totally not the case. Instead, the above attitudes are more like the required cost-of-entry to a great show. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it does not mean the examined one is easy to live. The alternative is Judge Judy and a monogrammed armchair. Not for Arthur. Caulfield eventually quits his bitching, but he has to eat a lot of dirt first. Siddhartha finally leaves the brothel, but he had to walk in that door in order to walk out of it later. Hard times are the prerequisite to epiphany. Painful and confusing; but hopeful, not despairing.

And you could tell Arthur was in the company of these characters because the personas he employed became increasingly useful, attractive, and comfortable. From the brawling, pack-leading, indulgent, jokester/show-off into the relaxed, independent, luxurious, conversationalist who wasn’t as afraid to let his guard down, who was increasingly responsible. He was cultivated. He had a tamed self-consciousness (as we all aspire). It was impressive to watch him pull his own strings, to compare that with your own attempts and be humbled.

And thus, as I see it, the irony is that Arthur was finding answers to life’s hard questions in fistfuls. Love was possible. Work was worth it. Meaning was meaningful.

And he was learning patience and conviction, already better at their practice than most (e.g. me). As Dan put it, he was just taking off. He jumped and then a hand reached up from the almost escaped gravity and cut him by the heel.

A complete, but simple tragedy.

Complete, because the good guy lost.

Simple, because Arthur’s life was not some melodramatic airport novel. His death was a lightning strike, a deus ex machina in reverse. A two sentence accident, not an assassination. Not much more to be read from it. Mortality is hard, right? (See, say,... Genesis?).

And for all my elaboration, I don’t even think Arthur was all that noxiously introspective or exceptionally self destructive either. The guy knew how to love and be loved. How to let his hair down, appropriately. How to shift gears and drive forward. How to resist temptation. How to find and be good company. How to stare at a fish tank. How to sit down and read. How to eat fruit in the sun.

He was typically bright, with a lot of flair and personality. I know he was grateful.

Or I’m wrong. Maybe I’m inventing a story to make sense of something more concealed or of pure chaos. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

In any case, it’s a tragedy. And regardless of what is true, I’m still glad I got to hear his story and be part of some of it. He was and remains a good influence to me. He’ll live on for a long, long time. And I keep talking to him.

That’s some of what I knew of him. And given this is my catharsis, forgive me further, but more about me:

Sadness, gratitude, and disappointment.

I’m sad. Still? Yes. Always? Probably not. The inevitability of death hits a certain emotional bedrock after enough love is lost. I’m probably not there yet, still more distance to fall, but things are tapering off, in the aggregate. Maybe I’m just cold.

Sadness is the least interesting. I am separated from someone I love, and that sucks. We all have people we’ve loved, and we are all damned to lose them. But yes, I get those black bile clutches to the chest as I’m reminded that Arthur is gone. And I wanna hold your hand, if you’re feeling it too.

It’s a curse that requires gratitude. Time keeps on slipping, and the portion of time that one spends with good people is shorter still. I’m thankful for Arthur’s good company. From childhood to peerdom. This is what I’ll try and focus on. It’s the mantra I’ll repeat. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Then there’s the sulking disappointment. My head slowly shaking, my eyes unfocused contemplating the loss of the unpredictable conversations, the refreshingly interesting trivia, the uniqueness, the independence, the honed never impersonated taste, the great breadth of knowledge, the artful ball busting, the avoidance of cliches, the shared recommendations, the belly laughs. Obnoxious mutual indulgence — food and talk — during Thanksgiving at Stacy’s table, the shared past at Everit Ave, the just started planning. The feeling of a just missed answer to the question of how to get it back, continuously nagging.

More on that: I’m dealing with a huge mess of unanswerable questions and impotence. There’s so much broken by his leaving, least of all in me, and I can’t fix any of it. No way to organize it. I can’t even help others fix it. Acknowledging the impossibility of the situation seems better than ignoring it, so I will (…acknowledge that death breaks the world and makes inconsistent a lot taken as granted). Arthur’s death is an oily surreal void in the middle of the road. A portal to nowhere. And sure, life will go on. We will preserve. Time heals all wounds. That’s all true. But any schmuck can offer a platitude. I want to be responsible for what he’s left behind, in precise detail. I want to pick up the slack, fill in the blank. But what was his remains his, locked up behind whatever door his soul is now shut. It’s maddening.

I went so far as to tell Olivia that I was her brother, too, and that I would be there for her. Idiot. I love her, she knows I love her, I know she loves me. Yada, yada. I need no pity for my vomiting on the rug. My point is: I can’t be Arthur. I can’t even be close to Arthur. I apologized for being so naive and sloppy, but the moment taught me what I was trying to say above: that I am ignorant of so much of Arthur’s life, and in ways that can’t be remedied by interviewing his friends or reading his book or wearing his shoes, sort of speak. A lot of it isn’t just unknown, it’s unknowable.

This requires more thought. Surely something can be done. Entropy can’t be rewound, but duct tape can keep a plane in the air. So here’s something I’m going to try: I’m going to be more vulnerable. I’m going to expose myself the way a brother or a son might, and see what happens. It won’t transform me into a replacement, and I’ll probably make a clown of myself. But it’s worth a shot. To build different connections, instead of replicas. I can already see that the cousins have been hammered stronger by this. Now it’s time to be deliberate, and keep that train going, if possible. And yea, I’ll do the practical stuff. You can’t call Barb, enough. And I’ll call Liv, too, but with finesse, without overdoing it. And the rest of our family, as well, because we all lost something. For some a spleen; for others, more vital organs.

Moving on.

It’s nauseating to have Arthur’s death aligned and intertwined with so much of my pleasure. I’m a week into marriage. I’m ecstatic and overwhelmed by the potential of my future. I’m also newly terrified of losing a child not yet even conceived. That’s a fun one. Probably a lot more neurosis to come. But, yea… it’s a violent set of waves to endure and ride. It’s crushing and exhilarating, and guiltily I’ll admit, more of the latter. I’m pronoid.

The guilt compounds as I realize that I’m only comparing the conflict between my pleasure and pain, when the actual accounting includes my pleasure, my pain, and all the pain of all the others he left behind, those we both loved. What about Alexandra? Barb? Liv? Dan? A dominating, trailing factor; ego-hidden and selfishly deprioritized. What would Jesus do? Not have a wedding during shiva, although I appreciate all the encouragement and insistence from the also-mourning invitees.

Back to Arthur and I having grown apart and then, more recently, back together:

There exists a line separating most relationships. On one side of the line you have people who have a reasonably complete model of you in their head. (See: Theory of Mind.) On the other side of the line are people who have a functional model; they know what they need to know to get the job done, but they don’t know, perhaps have never seen, the whole thing. For ex., a spouse vs a colleague (most of the time).

The line is called intimacy, and relationships on both sides of the line can be valuable, but the intimate ones have more potential in both directions, fat tails; the intimate ones can yield fortunes and bankruptcies. Acquaintances are tepid.

I described it above, how Arthur’s and my relationship moved from the intimate to the distant. I’ll skip further detailing that transition, and just get to the thing that hurts now: we were getting markedly closer, again. I could see the trajectory of our friendship and would bet on our returning to intimacy and confidence.

If the isolation of vocation and growth drives most bourgeois adults apart and into impersonal silos, then eventual mastery and plateau allows room for a focus on humanity, again. And humanity is universal and objective. People can stand on it, together, and get to know each other (again). That’s where I felt Arthur and I were.

I felt like Arthur and I had taken two separate tracks at a fork 15 years ago, and just recently those two roads started to merge back into the same path. We had stories to tell each other, of our time in the wild. It was the basis for a new bond, perhaps stronger than the old one.

Unsolicited phone calls. Talks of marriage, health, wealth. Suggestions of books and podcasts that were actually followed through with, instead of disappearing into the void like most cocktail party prescriptions. We’d follow back. Not rushing each other past awkward silence. Being patiently invested in one another. Showing up. Talking about vulnerable topics, like fears and aspirations for careers, and relationships, and family. And then, right during the peak of this jubilee, he died. And I doubt that I was the only one whose newfound growth and compatibility were cut short. You’re not alone.

So I hurt for the spent love, yes, like that of most grief. But I hurt more for the lost potential. I had so many fresh dreams that included him. It’s disappointing and sad.

To be clear, I’m disappointed in what’s lost, not disappointment in him. I blame him for nothing, even if maybe I should or others do. But any of his mistakes could have easily been mine, and so I sympathize. I’m not angry. Ambition implies risk. Vice is vice is inevitable. Growth means growth from something. Different contexts, need not apply.

Anyway, what else? The thing I linger on now is a weird faith.

I have little faith or rather I have difficulty finding faith. I scrutinize faith until it’s demoralized. And yet, the discontinuity introduced by Arthur’s absence gives me faith, illogically but compellingly. I don’t strive for it, it’s simply there, point blank. I can’t explain it, but I can describe it:

Arthur is gone forever, and Arthur is part of my future. Both irrevocably true, yet incompatible. What to do about it? Apparently, not much. My mind absolutely and happily refuses to budge. The feeling that Arthur is part of my future supersedes the knowledge that he’s not. Knowing he’s gone does nothing to my belief that my future includes him. So it continues to. Sue me, I can’t help it.

See you in the funnies, Arthur. (More trivia: I never called him Artie or Art or Archo. He was always Arthur to me.)

Lastly, some good, more recent memories:

The last thing I spoke to Arthur about was extensive advice, over the phone, on how to structure a prenup. “Don’t put anything about kids in there, because the courts won’t accept that you understood what you were agreeing to, prior to actually having the kids.” Smart. “Everyone should get one! The courts encourage it! Helps ungunk the works.” Ha. Kelly and I never got a prenup, but the candid advice on such a touchy subject makes me laugh.

Eating a whole pig at a communal table, biergarten style, at Saxon and Parole, in New York. Arthur talking the whole table’s ear off about everything, and then after discussing eating brains, we asked the chef to bring the pig’s over, and he did. Afterwards, walking to our trains, jolly, drunk.

Visiting Arthur in Scotland. Going out to some Uni warehouse party, and me getting lost with some bird. I didn’t have a working European phone, and so when I got home at dawn, seeing him and his big bravado looking like a worried mother goose made me laugh and proud, like a big brother again. Him cooking the two of us mussels and linguine with three whole heads of garlic. Delicious. Steak in Edinburgh, and him showing me the castles like he was himself a duke, personal friends of Hume and Smith.

I wished we went on more walks together.

Us planning on going to Joe Beef, in Montreal, with Alexandra and Kelly.

Him calling me to tell me Anthony Bourdain had died, and subsequently talking about it. “If he can’t make it, who can?” There’s that cynicism again. But it was a candid moment. And we ended that talk, more or less, believing we could make it, even if Bourdain couldn’t.

Discussing whether we were fated to end up like our parents.

Him shooting the .38 up in Gilboa.

Legos, spanky, ice box bedroom, V8-turbo toilet, the pool, the trampoline, the screen porch and its green furniture, endless chicken rolls followed by cold pizza, karate in the basement (no shoes on the mats), rolling on the carpet (i.e. roll mosh), forts, the Barbie game on the gateway computer in Izzy’s room, Snood, army men in the mud ripping up sod by the square foot unit, jealousy listening to Timberlake camp stories, the suburban with 100 blankets in the third row and Don McLean on the radio, toxic farts, the Pokemon store, the Pokemon cards I’d steal from him after going to the Pokemon store, a million cups of Lipton at Barb’s table, Rage Against the Machine in Dan’s car, lanyards, fishing in the Hewlett Bay, Harry Potter, him never sleeping over my house and getting rides home at 2am after attempting to (me pissed), hiding in that lone pine tree in the front yard, making window art out glitter glue, salamanders, watching him attempt to ride a bike in the driveway.

A menial history, but ours. Anyway…

Arthur, you were great. It’s not for me to say that you’re now resting in peace, because I think you were pretty zen while you were alive, in your own pastel-colored kimono kind of way. So instead, I hope you’re as satisfied there as you were interested here. I’ll see you soon, and until then, I’ll try and hold the line for you.

Love ya’.

Nothing Good Can Come from This by Kristi Coulter

This is revealing in ways the author didn't mean. It's juvenile, not heroic or enlightening.

Stories about high heels, trips to Paris and Germany, being absurdly overpaid, deserving to explore love interests outside of her marriage, first class tickets, three star meals, therapeutic purchases of overpriced handbags, sex in the back seats of cars, the I'm chic for still liking grunge bands in her 40s, the burden of guilting parents who still managed to provide for all the middle class expectations of a girl whose friends unfairly got to buy Prada and to go on yacht trips and to drive BMWs, as compared to her shabby Mazda, shitty college boyfriends, etc.

By my reading, across all the essays: the author adds all of this up to a justified account of why a bottle+ of wine a night was a good idea, until it wasn't.

I don't doubt those circumstances or their intensity, but pressure is common to all kinds of indulgences. They don't last, and chasing the dragon sucks.

Rather than forsaking the fleeting for meaning, like the millions of hermetics and bodhisattvas before her; the author doubles down on how muted sex, food, and material were with booze, how much she must've missed out on because of booze, and how she is now all the more open to all of it without booze. And here's the kicker: all of this is said as if booze obviously isn't in the same category as sex, food, and material. The book's opening lines — the poem/dialog about filling a hole — communicate this. But the rest of the book goes on to contradict. Which isn't to say the only correct answer would be for the author to wind up a nun on some deserted hill, but one might expect a level of humility and suspicion towards other potential vices, perhaps some assertion to find more significant meaning to life. Instead, you get a swan dive right into restaurants, (consensual) extramarital relationships, pocketbooks, and running. Given the amount of introspection — she wrote a book, after all — this naivety and lack of epiphany had me rolling my eyes, constantly.

I don't see the author's variety of alcoholism as self-medication from some unbearable personal burden, but rather another abused outlet for pleasure in a world where pleasure and entertainment are increasingly, frictionlessly available. My disappointment isn't because only the truly injured are worthy of pity or help or interest, but rather because the infinitely indulgent is a new and relatable thing, and it went unexplored. Instead the whole book seemed like a desperate, petulant attempt to conflate the two — self-medication and runaway pleasure — so as to justify the continued, lazy pursuit of pleasure in all of its other forms (albeit sober). But the untold story of how to cope with a world that's constantly bombarding you with imperatives to consume, both implicit and explicit and at an exponentially accelerating rate: that's what's at stake, what the author is dealing with; but it's not what the author talks about (primarily).

Some of these essays scratched that itch. But ultimately, no. And fair enough, perhaps that's not the author's experience, and thus not her story to tell. But the one she does tell is not one that's particularly interesting or sympathetic.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I couldn't get through it.

I thought The Magic Mountain would either be (a) an explicit exposition of pre-war and war time, mixed with some kind of class analysis; or maybe (b) an investigation of exceptional personal sickness and being surrounded by those also sick, while all together trying to come to terms with mortality and material expectations; or maybe (c) it'd be some arty analogy, painting Europe at the time in the form of a sanatarium.

Perhaps I just don't have the background of the era or maybe my expectations were flatly wrong, but none of the above landed for me. Instead, I found myself reading about this dopey protagonist, so out of touch with common sense, doting around in a hospital, making banal observations about his neighboring patients and their intercourse.

A random observation: that a person could absent-mindedly extend a planned three week stay into seven years, with little consequence to themselves or their relations, is absurd. But ok, maybe it's a hyperbole, and the exaggeration is a criticism of something analogous in the real world. But what? Maybe Europe at the time was a little too comfortable and gay during a fatal diagnosis? (I'm probably ignorant here and lack the context the author took for granted, but hey I can still read Tolstoy and Twain and Dickens and they make sense to me, so why doesn't this?)

Ok, perhaps I'll read on and find other devices and together they'll combine into sense. Didn't seem the case to me. Just endless descriptions of this cast of characters, all trying to hold on to their civility and bourgeois lifestyles in the face of sickness and death, none revealing how they're affected by their diseases, to either the protagonist or the narrator; none obviously representative of any subtle interesting theme. And little melodramas of dorm-room drama: slammed doors being frustrating and eyes in the cafeteria being enticing. Again, through all of it, I'm stretching to find the analogy, the profundity of the underlying theme, and I've come up short.

So maybe the book was the extremely sensitive and precise articulation of a lot of the time's idiosyncratic feelings, inevitably bound to go out of scope and sense and style once that time had progressed past the point when its constants could be relied on.

And so if you're the exact reader who is trying to backwards engineer those constants to learn more about them and when they were relevant, then this book might still be for you. But if you're the generalist, looking for something human and indelible, and expecting The Magic Mountain's classification as a classic to pay its way, then you might be disappointed like I was.

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård

You don't remember people's faces or what they say, but you remember all the inconsequential details of that one time you were embarrassed by work 20 years ago?

You don't have the courage to do something about your grandmother sitting in her own piss for several days, as you clean the house you let her fester in for years?

Your brother hasn't introduced all his children to their own blood?

Your father is a worthless alcoholic, he dies, and you dedicate a whole book to describing your reaction to the death, but the actual description and characterization of that father isn't worth more than the 10 pages that's dedicated to it? He looked at you funny once running into the garden? He was crying on the couch that one time? He spent his time in the barn? He got a divorce and a too-cool new girlfriend? What about alcoholism itself, any thoughts on that? "I liked getting drunk in high school, and we'd hide our beers in the woods."


Perhaps I wouldn't be any better, but I didn't need a whole book of ad-hoc, thin descriptions to remind me. We all live the observations. Where's the depth behind them? Or is your point that there isn't any depth. Well then I disagree.

I don't blame Karl Ove Knausgard for my not liking the book. It feels like a polished journal entry he wrote for his own catharsis, and that's fine for him; I hope it helped him. But it's a repulsive and overall uninteresting account. He describes the simple set of selfish, numb, disinterested emotions peppered with observations of the banal background, all the while dismissing the base, irresponsible behavior all around him. The implication: that there's either something profound about remembering counts of cigarettes smoked while cutting the lawn, as you grieve your dying father (there's not); or that grieving your father is on the same level of profundity as feeding seagulls (it's not.)

Or maybe it's just less obvious to some, the fans of this book and the author, that profundity has to struggle to emerge from these trivialities, and so relieving the trivialities against the obvious seriousness of death provides some insight for them. Perhaps, but not for me.

In general, Karl describes the foundational, egotistical, disconnected human state from which redemption can happen, and in Book 1 of My Struggle, that redemption doesn't happen. He doesn't bother to speculate on why, which is the interesting question to explore. Instead, he enumerates. He describes the setting without bothering with the plot, and then he peppers in hipster koans and brief references to high art for spice.

"For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off the clothes hanger and falls to floor."

Wrong. Monkey's don't make music. Mountains don't create governments. Sand castles don't write books about grieving their fathers. Humans do. We're different. The description of how we're different is all of literature. So you've turned art on its head and people clap for it? I thought you only get credit for building beauty, not for tearing it back down to atoms.

Also, what's with all the high contrast low saturation photos with him peering through his bangs smoking cigarettes? Put your copy of Nevermind back in the closet, and grow up.

Maybe I'm missing something...

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Having never read any of Rilke's poetry, I was told by a friend to read this, my expectation being that it was profound and beautiful. I ended up rolling my eyes through most of it.

Rilke comes off as some sniffly blowhard hipster. School is too difficult, Paris is impossible to focus in, Christmas is a drag, Italy's art is too temporally disconnected to be taken seriously. I would send you some of my work, but I'm so poor that I can't afford to; please go buy a publication, Dear Mr. Kappus. Did I mentioned we're staying my friend's summer house this season? It's nice, but the weather affects my delicate disposition and physique. You understand of course, right, friend?

Rilke is so self-aware of his supposedly particular lens on life, that every correspondence comes of as this pompously dressed up condescension: "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place."

Or how about this Zen masterpiece, "But they are difficult things with which we have been charged; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious." People revered for passing off tautologies as wisdom piss me off. If you're implying that the knot of the thing is somehow itself beautiful just because it's a knot and despite the fact that you're the one who tied the fucking thing, then I'll have my coffee elsewhere.

Or all the metaphors to fruit and harvest, when Rilke comes off as someone who would himself wilt in the sun, someone who's never held a hoe or a shovel; these letters read like a Mumford and Sons song (see: Josh Tillman making fun of all the 2010's tropes about suburban kids singing about railroad tracks while wearing wife beaters and $500 boots.)

Or the naive idealistic hippie drivel, like "Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as a distraction instead of rallying toward exalted moments." I just want to live in the moment, mannnnnnnn. I just love love, mannnnnn. You're doing it all wrong, maaaannnnnn.

Rilke is the kind of guy Hemingway would've beat up, and I wouldn't pity either.

None the less, under the 15 piece suit Dandy Rilke dresses his words up in, there are some good points.

His point on irony, it being a cancer if not wielded thoughtfully and with a purpose other than itself, that's a good point.

His descriptions of sadness are also accurate and insightful: that sadness is a displacement of familiarity that forces your emotions into hiding, something that you have to come to terms with. (Although doesn't this contradict the idea that sensual pleasure is supreme if only you would just look past using it as a salve? If my father dies, should I go get laid and get over it? Pick a side, Rilke.)

The idea that doubt is ultimately useful, but needs to be matured into an instrument you can play masterfully; "Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps..."

Not worth reading.

A marriage ends.

He realizes all the meaning he’s taken for granted, now gone. He weeps, the image of which he immediately imagines as being sympathetic. And then, immediately after that thought (i.e. that he looks worthy of sympathy while weeping), actually during that thought, he’s disgusted. A massive loss of substance, and he’s preoccupied with his image. Reflecting further: this vanity and conceit must be why his marriage ended in the first place; what he offered was thin and presentable but not sustaining. And then, another step: if his past offers were so easily invalidated, so vain, then so is this present, supposedly sympathetic image. Cyclical self-defeat, paradox. His tears aren’t worthy of sympathy and his presentation isn’t worth worrying about, and yet he continues to cry, so his tears must be for a real loss and not vain; but he is crying as a result of his vanity.

The whole idea implodes in on itself, and he’s left lost, defeated.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Warning: this text may contain spoilers

My main problem was this: if you imagine the male characters female and the females male, the story reads entirely the same, with most of the consequences of power being stereotypical, over simplified, bond-villain-style tropes of masculinity. The ending confirms the suspicion, that the premise of the book is this: power corrupts universally and simply. And for that, the book loses impact. I don't agree with the premise. People are complicated. Organizational power structures are not simple. The world is multivariate. Power is not one thing, and strength is only one variable in the equation.

Femininity and masculinity are substantial. They have weight and consistency and impact. And yes, men can be feminine and visa-versa., but the book claims power erases all and turns people into totally predictable animals. Gangs of raping women, stumbling drunkenly out of bars? Power crazed matriarchs ruling their countries into the ground infected by paranoia? These stories have already been told with men as the culprits, and yes, women are capable of the same atrocities, but this is no different than men, and so what's interesting about telling a story where they're women? The author is not introducing anything original with this break of expectation, and so the point of switching the sexes does nothing for me. Tell me the story of how femininity interacts with strength, and I'm interested. And that's, initially, what I was sold, but it's not what I received.

Also, imagine this: a football or baseball game. In the middle of the game, someone claims that the game is an illusion and the rules are all made up. Why don't both the teams decide to work together to hit balls? Or more malevolently, why don't they decide to burn the stadium down because all this energy spent running around bases is a slavery imposed by those commissioners organizing the whole thing from the top! To a degree, you can't argue because the game is known to be made up. But what's ignored is that it's still fulfilling to play the game, and there is profundity and skill in doing so. Emergent from this silly social invention comes quality, character, diligence, cooperation, development. And we can start to understand how these qualities emerge by studying the game, and then eventually we can cultivate its components elsewhere. And we can study how other games relate to the game we're playing, and see how they contrast and compare. We can see how certain ideas for games would be impossible or destructive to play.

But, if all we ever do is yell that the game is bullshit and should be torn down, we're left with nothing but needlessly razed earth from which nothing can grow.

This is what The Power claims. It says that power has infected and will continue to infect everything, so nothing is worth doing and all claims about the benevolence of structure are more than suspect, they're convicted a priori.

Get real.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

On point, a bit ornamental, but in a white suit in winter kind of way.

And subtle. It's like: you want to know what happens after and under all this acid talk. Give me some direction or deep explanation, but instead you keep getting this flowery alliterated enumerations of all the stuff the hippies are talking about. Which after a while, one realizes, it's a perfect mirror of the acid movement itself.

Another subtle, subversive, satirical yet steel-manned criticism from Tom Wolfe.

(Perhaps a silly thing to say after he's already passed away and established his legacy, but I'm just reading him for the first time, so let me out some slack.)

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Mind of a cynic? Reminds me somewhat of Catcher in the Rye, except rather a redeemable Holden Caulfield coming to age, in Notes from Underground you've got a character who never got over the inauthenticity and naiveness of the real world. What happens when this perspective goes to its extreme? Answer: you get the narrator and his notes.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

When I was a kid going to church, I got a prescription that was top down: Christ is god, Heaven is real, be good or else, believe what the books say. All other explanation was filling in the gaps below these claims. If Christ lived, what was his life like? Enter the Gospels. If God is all powerful, what exceptional work has he done? Enter the stories of the Old Testament. This was religion by deduction, with Christ being the unquestionable axiom. The literal truth of the story was all important, and the lessons less so. In my head: doubting whether Jesus lived was worse than disobeying the moral behaviors he prescribed.

At a certain point in my life, it all became too incredible. My understanding of the world was developing outside of the church and through an opposing methodology: bottom up. Fundamental yet simple ideas were built up to into reproducible, verifiable general claims. The apple falls from the tree at the same rate every time it drops. Enter Newton.

What's interesting about Mere Christianity is it tries to prove (the value or the fact or both), or perhaps tell the story of, Christianity by induction. It emphasizes the quality of the claims and of living those claims out, rather than make you feel simply guilty or dumb for not believing what supposedly should be obvious.

It's the first time a Christian work gave me the feeling that doing right was more important than belief in the supernatural, and that understanding what was right and wrong was more important than some vague emotional feeling of transcendence.

That being said, I'm still not convinced Christianity is the best articulation of morality or the best instruction set for behaving correctly, at least not for everyone. Rather, Christianity seems to be something of an intellectual fractal: at any scale of intelligence, it has a distinct compelling form or presentation.

For simple people, the mystical legend inspires and aligns; for these people, coming back from the dead and being all powerful are enough. For more curious people, there's a deeper explanation of perfection and humanity and intelligence vs. instinct, lessons that inspire just the same. Mere Christianity is an attempt at joining the two, emphasis on the latter. The distinction and its importance reminds me of the contrast between Sam and Liza Hamilton in East of Eden.

While C.S. Lewis doesn't concede that Christianity could just be an allegory — and in fact claims it can't be and that it must be actually true — he does allow for the possibility that his idea of Christ could be working in the hearts and on the minds of non-believers, perhaps slowly unveiling the truth (by the author's understanding) to them (i.e. the non believers). To me this is useful, because it means goodness and morality can be achieved without Christ, or as Lewis would argue, without the knowledge of Christ, at first. (Lewis argues this is what is going on in the BC religions and other "somewhat right" religions). Baby steps, if you will, but also a good argument for mutual compatibility and tolerance.

There's a good amount of silly stuff in here as well. Some of the comments on blacks, women, and gays are so silly and wrong. Granted, it's a book from the 1950s, and the other ideas are explanative enough to redeem the book without endorsing the wrong-headed ideas.

Specifically, on those wrong-headed ideas, take for example gay people. C.S. Lewis seems convinced that Christ and our conscience are constantly reminding gay people that their preferences are perverse, and women that they should be dependent, and blacks that they are inherently inferior. And subsequently, he's reminding them to not to stray. And maybe back in the day that was more true (that the internal reminder was there, not that these claims were actually true), a consequence of the guilt and social pressure and communal definition of these roles' place in the world. But in 2019, when so many gay people can and do live guiltless, diverse lives; and so many women are successfully independent, without sacrificing any of their loveliness; and so many blacks (not to mention biology itself) have demonstrated melanin's lack of influence on a person's humanity and intelligence and their right to be treated accordingly... These aren't propagandized claims that I think I believe in, but that my heart (and Christ?) tell me are actually wrong. These are truths I'd have to do work in order to disprove to myself. There's just too much evidence for these people's authentic claim at love in their own way, capacity regardless of gender, humanity regardless of race. It's ironic that Lewis, creator of so many fantastic worlds, lacks imagination in these cases — but it was a different time. Oppress a people for long enough and they will look like the dumb caricature in your head.

Then again, couldn't we, the contemporary world, take Lewis's own argument of Christ showing us what's right whether we know him or not, and use that argument to transitively justify our own intuitive and learned knowledge, the understanding that gays and blacks and women deserve to be respected and empowered and loved justified by saying that the knowing itself is the result of Christ's guiding hand? It seems you could, except when you then try to incorporate the scripture's specificity into the thing, you loose that dynamism.

And so at the end of the day I'm forced to choose between the literal truth of the canon and the intuited truth of a moral conscience. I don't think Lewis's Mere Christianity resolves this choice as well as he thinks it does, but it does give an elegant explanation of what Christianity is, in technical detail.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I'm not sure who this book was written for. It wasn't me, which is fine.

Best case, this was written for other strugglers, those curious and intelligent enough to want to break out of their own binds, but who are limited without the right model of their own problems or the right example of a feasible solution. It's written at a high school level, not in the sense that it has grammar issues or is incoherent, but in that it's so simple and full of cliches and unironic tropes that only someone who hasn't read much or seen much could possibly take it totally seriously. It's one order away from ending with a "...happily ever after. The End.", but that might work for the capable but held back hillbilly excuser.

But I think I'm trying too hard to be generous. The book reads, transparently, more like a memoir than a recommendation or an essay.

And so if it is a memoir, then it's more of a high school reunion Cadillac than some insightful, nuanced psychological explanation. "I came from the dirt, got my shit together thanks to willpower and the grace of loved ones, and now I'm doing great". The author seems to think his story is tied up nicely with an implied "...and you can, too!". But, oblivious to the author, it's more like "...aren't you proud?" or more like "...aren't you jealous?".

And so if it is a demonstration of J.D. Vance becoming a man and an intellectual -- by way of The Marines, of a finally realized education and the resulting J.D. from Yale -- then why is his language so immature? One irony of his writing: he puts his family's (e.g. Grandma's) crassness next to his own (claimed to be) polished explanations, obviously trying to affect some kind of salt-of-the-earth, haven't-lost-my-roots expectation in his readers, that he can then spike down with unexpected sophisticated explanation. But instead of that spike, you get some obvious two-sentence fact or some -- I'm sorry -- dorky story: e.g., rednecks are loyal, drugs are bad, diligence predicts success. e.g. I'm the schoolyard vigilante that beat the shit out of that bully, I used to eat cake and now I can run 6 min miles, etc.

His talk of the marines could be a feed for #justbootthings memes. His being impressed with a classmate calling a stranger's head small, unironically and out of the blue, because of how matter of fact the comment was, will make anyone that's gone to an engineering school roll their eyes. Big Bang Theory and its main character are revolting for the same reason.

Could it be that, rather than his past being some twenty-two variable equation of strife and encouragement that eventually yielded greatness, J.D. Vance is just a nerd whose talents demonstrated themselves despite where and how he was brought up?

There were contradicting points in the book. On one hand he seems to be arguing that people need to embrace upward mobility as a possibility, get out of their own way, take responsibility for their actions, etc. Then he goes out of his way to say his life was bad getting worse until he found the stable environment of his grandma's house. And then he goes on to say he was basically useless until the paternal influence of The Marines taught him how to tie his shoes. Granted, he got through it, and that is something to be proud of, and I'm not judging him or his journey, but rather his explanation of his success and how universally applicable it is. Where's the line between will and environment? Nature and nurture? These questions are hard for a reason. J.D. Vance argues both sides, folds his arms and says, "See? All settled."

e.g., if you were to give J.D. Vance's bathroom-break-taking reject coworker a stint in The Marines and four years at grandmas's basement to study, would he (i.e. the bathroom-breaker) get into Yale? Would he get past the first week of boot camp? I doubt it, and I doubt Vance would disagree. So how does Vance's advice of straightening up and taking responsibility help this reject, if we all agree that type of person is some level of irredeemable? And how did he (i.e. the reject) get to the point of being so useless in the first place? Isn't Vance's advice on the level of "to jump 10 feet higher, simply grow 10 feet taller"? I don't know the answers, but apparently neither does the author.

All of that being said, these are my thoughts held against the light of my expectations. It's unfair of me to not consider that J.D. Vance never asked for this book to become much of anything. Perhaps, instead, it was meant to be a cathartic exercise to honor and thank his grandmother and to articulate his story, and now here I am cruelly judging it as something more. One thing I absolutely can not deny Vance is that his life has been impressive. His mother's behavior was ridiculous, his living situations absurd, his access limited, yet he took all that handicap all the way through soldierhood, Yale, a wife, and beyond. He is accomplished and I am impressed. I'd probably enjoy going to the bar with him, so long as I was allowed to bust his balls and roll my eyes.

Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins

There's good advice in this book, clouded by a lot of senseless drama.

The story of how Goggins survived his childhood abuse, got through his military training, and accomplished so many athletic goals is impressive enough. The challenges he makes to the readers and the explanation of the battle in his mind, the description of what it takes to run 100 miles, that's interesting and useful.

But to me, it is made much less impressive by his deciding to run on broken legs, push through kidney failure, and work out while in arrhythmia the morning of heart surgery. The absurdity of running marathons on a whim, after injury and having previously decided to recuperate; of doing a glacier run without the proper shoes, the masochistic convenience of his crampons breaking in the first mile, of his camelbak going to shit in the first 15 minutes, of his bike throwing him over the handlebars in the final stretch.

There's, ironically, a military idiom that goes: Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance, and yet Goggins seems to want you to know he's above that. He doesn't need to plan. Better are the stories where he's trying something impossible and fails because of his impulsiveness, but too often you get this peppering of needless nonsense and ball grabbing.

This latter kind of crap seems pointlessly desperate and self-destructive. If the goal of the book is to inspire the reader and not promote the author, as Goggins explicitly hedges half a dozen times in the book, then why is he going out of his way to tell me about such stupidity. Maybe an editor wanted to make the thing more of a blockbuster, more appealing to knuckle-draggers. Maybe Goggins really thinks running ultras and breaking world records isn't enough, and that those things need to be embellished to really drive the point home. I don't know. I found myself having to weed through this kind of stuff to get to the rich ethic underneath, which is:

Pushing yourself is useful and it's a skill you can hone way further than you think. Goggins is a rare, inspiring, and dedicated human being. His accomplishments are incredible and yet verified. You can't deny he's won the medals he's won. And this book can teach you some practical methods for doing the same. For that alone, it get's four stars from me. But don't be like this dude, too much. You can push yourself consistently and gratifyingly until the day you die without putting yourself on the fast track to death. Not to mention the failed marriages and kid that go nearly unmentioned.


You’ve been of age for years, but midway to the bar you still get nervous.

Walking there, it’s dark out and your jacket is too thin to block the gusts. Wet, coarse asphalt, alongside the concrete, alongside chainlink guarded baseball fields and three-story apartment buildings. The occasional back-alley yellow-cab making that dopplered paper rip noise cars make as they coast past through shallow puddles. Street-lights tinting things the rarely realistic slight-sepia of city night.

At the entrance your nervousness peaks as your wallet is in motion preparing to provide identification. Why the guilt? 

It’s deeper than being afraid that they might not believe you’re you, or that even if you are you, that you’re simply not old enough. Instead, the standard they’re applying has always had some unspoken aspect to it, something more sophisticated, more quality-related than a yet-to-come birthday. Not any of that superficial distraction either: e.g. clothes, entourage, velvet rope. By now you’re reflexively over and above petty vanity like that, unaware of its existence at the same level of unconsciousness that you ignore panhandlers and protesters. It’s boring. Both need to lose the signs, jingo-jingles. But in the other direction, there’s this bar. This is a scene you’ve volunteered for. It’s attractive. It has serious potential. You went out of your way to be here. To be terminally judged here is to fail against your own standard. A standard that you’ve never fully laid out for yourself and, in its ambiguity and through your own self-doubt, a standard that you’ve always wondered if you will ever meet. All of this is encapsulated in the more manifest embarrassment of neither knowing what to do with your hands or where to look (and for how long) as the guard reviews your license. Confidence is elusive.

A glance later, he unceremoniously hands the card back to you from his outdoor bar stool, while at the same time turning his head to the next person in line, his expression unchanged, the whole algorithm, simple, fluidly executed, effective from the venue’s perspective. One disinterested guy doesn’t arbitrate The Scene. They know that, he knows that, and now that you’re in you remember it too. And so with your proof accepted, the whole scaffolding around the doubtful feeling collapses, and so the feeling implodes and pops out of existence. You start to toy with whether or not you’re going to check your coat, regularly unaware of your hands again, excited about good music, cocktails, friends, the mystery of idealized strangers.

Through the threshold, you pass into The Scene. Are you part of it or observing it? Are the decorations hip or hipster? Chic or ironic? Are you? Opinions flow turbulent like a chipmunk’s GPS. Look at all these kooks. Posers. I wonder when my friends’ll get here. She’s cute. Does anyone here know how to read? Do the readers know how to drink? Was that the drummer?

Past the entrance hallway, you prove your ticket, and get inside the venue where the show is between opening and headlining sets. The lights are up, but dim. The bar is operating like a dependable engine. “What can I get ya’?” … “Leave it open?” Glass left to pour itself unattended as she sets up the tab, pushing different sized squares, paging through sequential options on the touch screen, finishing with just enough time to cut the tap, pass you your drink, pick the next customer, and shoot out the finger-gunned “what can I get ya’?” all over again.

Scanning for your friends, you see circles of people chatting. Some of them have their coats draped over interlocked arms, most are holding pint glasses, beer. You get in line to check your coat, and attempt to text one of your friends, but get distracted by the habitual cycle of digital litter. Cycle complete, you send the text and look up leaving the phone in your hand. The coat’s checked, yet no return text. What to do?

You start with a lap around the place, passing bodies with a drunken-boxing rhythm, carrying non-existent hot coffee to the front of the pit, focused on reaching the rail of the stage. Arrived. Take in the sights. Set-lists, just out of legible view. Gaffed cables. Behind you, the atomized clusters of people who already know each-other that, together, make up the crowd. Some of them with the beginnings of show-glow, an offering left by the opener. You gracefully ignore the assumed (brief) scowls projected at the back of your head by the last group of people who you just elbowed past. Glance at your phone. Still no response.

What do you call this kind of a moment? There’s a restless emptiness to it. It’s a void. No hand to play, but the body keeps moving. Gaze scattering around, energy focused into ticks like checking the phone, looking at the ceiling and over the shoulder. It’s anxiety over the lack of stimulus, and yet you know the show will start in minutes. There’s nothing to be responsible for, nothing to aim at. All that’s required is still, calm waiting. But it’s difficult. The flywheel hasn’t slowed in years, and if it stopped wouldn’t that mean death? Standing still, even when you know it’s the right thing to do, is difficult. More difficult than moving. Shouldn’t the required effort, and not the lack of effort, relate to how difficult something is? It doesn’t, always. Why?

There’s your friends.

The difficulty is forgotten. You snake your way back through the crowd with intent and its provided relief. Wrinkle-eyed, high cheek embraces. The lights dim further. A wave swells. This moment is right. The first chords are awesome. You close your eyes and smile wide open. 


I’m gonna lick your heart.

I’m gonna floss your fingers.

I’m gonna inhale.

I’m gonna read your work.

I’m going to pluck your apple, honey; and press its taught skin to the inflection between my nose and upper lip.

I’m gonna smell your fields, and doze absentmindedly in your radiance.

You’re gonna crack the igneous shell in my head and let forgotten fragrant life seep out in relieving streams of cool viscous purification that flow over my open eyes and open mouth.

We’re gonna leapfrog the common vanities into a unique chaos, unpredictable personal permutations born from a new union, one unmarketable, unremarkable and thus unknown to others, but instead lock and key to us. Vital.

An iridescence impregnated with significance, because we’ll be in the right mood for it, out of the gallery and into our moment, exploding apathy into a billowed focus, custom-deluxe just for us.