The coming anger

The current climate has compelled me to rethink my approach to a fundamental emotion: anger. Previously, I’ve seen it through two lenses. The first lens positions anger as a political tool. The second lens positions anger as a manifestation of weakness.

ANGER AS A POLITICAL TOOL

Rory Miller knows about conflict, but more importantly he understands violence. In one of his books–Meditations on Violence, I think–he explains a continuum of how we exert our will upon one another in social situations. He cites four types of people; nice, manipulative, assertive and aggressive. There are tradeoffs and nuances which I won’t go into, but generally the nice are controlled by the manipulative, the manipulative are controlled by the assertive, and the assertive are kept in check by the aggressive.

Now think about anger and its effect… Most people are nice, some are manipulative, and a few are assertive. Not many are aggressive (at the civilisational scale, this is by design). So one of the simplest ways to control others is to manufacture a facade of anger. Any slightly evil person has to–if they hope to climb the ladders of society–be prepared to use anger, or at the least to confront it. It is a tactic, a useful one.

ANGER AS A WEAKNESS

This one is easier to parse. A Jedi falls to the dark side when he embraces his/her anger. Stoicism teaches anger is the necrotising of an un-satisfiable desire for something or other. Anger, in many contexts, is cited as nothing more than a manifestation of uncertainty, confusion, fear, weakness or depravity.

ANGER AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE

However, there is another alternative: anger as a moral imperative. There’s a reason Patrick Rothfuss writes of the “three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”

Moral anger is a totally different beast from anger-as-weakness or anger-as-political-tool. It’s range in time and space is long, not short; it doesn’t blaze so much as smoulder; like a glacier, it is slow to build yet nigh impossible to halt; it is the catalyst for revolution and the cause of civilisation-wide resets. And when I look around me now, I feel it. The world, as a collective, is fucking angry. And so am I, if I’m honest. Need I describe why?


Supposedly, Keynes said that “Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Likewise, the powerful and the influential have been getting by based on the fact that we can’t organise our anger quicker than they can organise and spew their lies. It’s been this way, I think, for decades, but with the clusterfuck of crises at our feet and on the horizon, it won’t remain that way.

The anger pooling in hearts and minds around the world–an anger that is justified–will not be denied much longer. It will seek, and it will find, an outlet. Like pressure building in a system of pipes, it could be deliberately bled. Those in control–or those who claim to be–could respond. They could release their desperate stranglehold, they could quit it with the lies and deceptions, they could share the gains and help mitigate the wholly unnecessary losses. But they won’t.

Consequence? The system, left unbled, will blow. People, sick of the pain and the suffering, will fight. People, sick of the pain and suffering, will die. There will be winners, there will be losers, but more importantly there will be no-one who remains untouched by the coming anger.

The tempo of (in)competence

Whilst struck dumb by an audio instruction to recall a previously learnt sentence in French, I had a realisation. The sort that, whilst intriguing, isn’t pretty. Here goes: we correlate linguistic incompetency with stupidity.

I suspect I thought this because I was imagining the look on my own face at that moment–slack jaw, furrowed brow, eyes glazed, head tilted askew. The kind of face one imagines gracing a mountain troll when the hero(ine) vexes it with fundamental logic. The epitome of dumb.

I guess this is some subset of the outgroup bias (or it’s just a malfunction in my own cognition). An other who cannot (or struggles to) speak your native language whilst situated in your native country is unconsciously perceived to be of lesser intelligence. Obviously, this is nonsense, but it provides a weird window into the human psyche. It also raises a question: how does tempo relate to the perception of incompetence?

Imagine you’ve conducted three different interviews over the course of a single afternoon. Assume all persons gave the same answers to a set of questions. Person one did not pause before responding to any of the questions. Person two paused for two to three seconds before responding to each question. Person three paused for ten seconds before responding.

If we travel in time and insert our consciousness into the three separate moments where the first syllable emerges from each of the interviewee, what will we be thinking? Here’s my guess:

  • We won’t think anything about person one; there’s no time. Effect on perception: neutral.
  • We’ll think person two is thoughtful and considerate, possibly high status. Effect on perception: positive.
  • We’ll think person three is an idiot. We’ll likely be annoyed. Effect on perception: negative.

This is a blog post, not an Odyssean treatise, so I’ll leave you to ponder other scenarios. But to me, it does seem there’s a tempo that we associate with competence and its opposite. And it’s not as simple as fast; neutral, moderate; good, slow; bad. There’s way more nuance depending on the situation–an interview, a performance in a sport and the construction of a sculpture, will all have varying tempos of competence and incompetence. But it’s worth thinking about.

Imagine, cynic that you are in this hypothetical scenario, that a situation requires you to present the appearance of competence. Unfortunately, you lack the time to invest in gaining it in substance and opt to gain it in style. Outside of exploiting the halo effect, or relying on cronyism and/or nepotism, a good tactic may be to mimic the tempo of competence.

In motion

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front, and not without reason. “Things” are in motion…

First up, Hitler, My Hero is done. Or at least the content is. I am now going through the process of designing the paperback and ebook for release. The paperback proof is currently making its way to me. Once it arrives, myself and my partner (out of goodwill) shall be reading through it and highlighting any errors. Then I’ll fix ’em and hit “PUBLISH”. I haven’t decided whether to wait to complete the ebook first, though…

With the novel done, I’m biding my time. I have a few options for my next longform project / book. Without revealing too much, they are:

  • A set of non-fiction essays on a particular topic.
  • A semi-fantastical meditative novella.
  • A full-scale standalone fantasy novel.

I’m about 60% sure which one I’ll end up opting for, but I’m giving myself a little time to thoroughly ponder. And I’m using that time to do something I’ve long desired: learn another language. French, specifically.

My aim is, within about six months, to get to at least B1 standard. Maybe B2. I was considering doing a post that breaks down my approach but there is nothing especially innovative about it. The only thing really of note is that, in the early stages, I’m focusing almost exclusively on speaking and listening. I’ve had a fair bit of experience with tools like Duolingo, and while I plan to get into reading and writing deeply later on, I’m finding it more effective to limit the breadth of my approach. After all, that’s how ickle babies do it, right?

That is, for the most part, what is currently in motion.

10,437 DSB

I’ve known about David Chapman’s Meaningness for a while, but only recently have I begun to pay it closer attention. In particular, I’ve been thinking about what Chapman calls the “complete stance”. I don’t think there’s much value in myself trying to compress and reframe Chapman’s ideas further–he does a good job of communicating the concepts with clarity. Instead, I want to make a note. And I’ll do that with the help of the following graphic:

I haven’t poured over Meaningness, but I noticed no immediate reference to the opposite of the “complete stance”–no stance. In my mind, “no stance” could be akin to the normie level of non-awareness concerning all the topics Chapman writes about.

However, an alternative interpretation can be found in martial philosophy of the East. From Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings comes the notion of Stance-No-Stance:

“This is the principle in which there is, and there is not, a stance. At its heart, this is first taking up the sword and then cutting down your opponent, no matter what is done or how it happens. Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back, or touch your opponent’s cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down. To think, “I’ll parry” or “I’ll slap” or “I’ll hit, hold or touch” will be insufficient for cutting him down. It is essential to think that anything at all is an opportunity to cut him down.”

Translated from sword-play concept to philosophical concept, the idea of “no stance” could be a call to use beliefs in accordance with their utility. If “cutting him down” is translated into “getting by”–or “getting ahead”–then a stance is worthy of adoption if it makes life easier for oneself, or for others. It could perhaps also be linked to the aphorism, “Strong opinions, loosely held”, or to the aggressive empiricism advocated in Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

Another thing: my own beautiful graphic has a left-to-right upward tilt, with “no stance” in red, “confused stance A/B” in amber, and “complete stance” in green. The implicit–and unintended–signals:

1) The “complete stance” is better than “no stance”.

and

2) that one ascends from “no stance” to the “complete stance”.

I don’t necessarily agree with either of those statements. In fact, I suspect the situation is a great deal more cloudy. Occupying a “complete stance” may not be the same as recognising it, and it could turn out that, like inhabiting the present and noticing the present, the two are utterly at odds.

Further, I suspect the no-stance-confused-stance-complete-stance planet itself turns on its own unfathomable axis, and that’s why we feel so bewildered so often.

In the sentence immediately following the above quoted passage, Musashi advises the reader “to investigate this thoroughly.” It’s his way of saying one can’t learn the way of the sword without swinging it. Maybe it’s equally true that one can’t learn the philosophy of life without living?

I’ll heed Musashi and investigate this thoroughly…

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We were lucky. At the end of February–weeks before the UK government decided to do something about Covid19–we moved house.

I was lucky, too: the day before the UK pseudo-lockdown was announced, several boxes of books were drawn out of the storage locker known as my parent’s house and returned to me. Additionally, like I have at past addresses, I’ve had a room to read and write in. All this equated to a satisfying lockdown task: organise my “study”.

Of course, some things have been put on pause and I can’t fully complete the task. But I can–and I have–started to wonder about what is going to occupy the wallspace. Being a creator who toils with words, I decided on something non-wordy. But I didn’t want negative space. Not on the walls, anyway.

Art was the first thing that came to mind. But good art tends to be expensive. Plus, I didn’t know the sort of art I wanted. Paintings? Of what? Landscapes? Abstract things? I did think of having a portrait wall, but decided that would be a tad intimidating–for me, and for visitors. How about sculptures? Curios? Objets d’art? No, no, no. Something else.

Whilst sorting my books, I thumbed through Peter Turchi’s A Muse and A Maze and Maps of the Imagination. Aha! Mazes; maps; schematics?

I looked into it. Unfortunately, by nature and by nurture I am not an engineer. Which meant that the schematics and technical drawings I thought to source were not only mundane but entirely lacking in personal salience. I switched back to the idea of maps and my mind began to whir…

In my notebook, I wrote the following:

> Milky Way
>> Solar system
>>> Earth
>>>> Europe
>>>>> UK
… and so on

Like a cinematic intro sequence, the intention was to begin at a far-removed viewpoint and zoom in, ending either on a floor plan of the house we occupy, or da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano.

I started with the Milky Way, bu after navigating to this NASA page about the solar system, I was stopped in my tracks. Do I go with cartographic/technical representations or artistic ones? I came upon the same question when looking at representations of the Earth, Europe and the UK, too.

I sighed. Several times. Then, for whatever reason, I thought of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands–which I haven’t actually read. Why don’t I plaster my study’s walls with my own selection of “legendary lands”?

Since asking that question, I’ve put together a shortlist and archived some examples. And as we’re all looking for a bit of light-hearted digression in these strange times, I thought I’d share them with you. In no particular order.

There are a few others. I’d like a reproduction of Herodotus’ Known World. And maybe similar illustrations from Thucydides and Xenophon. A map of the world’s internet infrastructure would be cool, too. Perhaps maps from Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4–two more influential video games. I’d also like to have a well-done rendition of the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning from my own novel, but that can wait.


It’ll probably take me a while to pull all these together and get them up on the walls. In the meantime, it’s worth reminding myself (and you) of the original motive: “escaping reality” doesn’t have to mean fleeing it. It can be a means of enduring it, as well as a way of altering it.

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“Move fast and break things” can, if one is not careful, become “move too fast and things break you.” I riffed on this recently (see 10,367 DSB) and suggested that a software development ideology perhaps isn’t suited to governance. What I failed to realise is that this is an example of a bigger issue: models becoming morality.

Sticking with MF&BT: the idea is that rapid, repeated iterations of the Build-Measure-Learn cycle will reveal the most viable option(s) for a business to adopt. More crassly, it’s the strategic throwing of shit at walls. The aim is to find what sticks. But here’s the problem:

Move fast > Things break > The strong survive > The survivors are the strong.

The shift from a software-development model to a concept from evolutionary biology, and onwards to the (mistaken) assumption that there’s some sort of cosmic justice in operation can happen terrifyingly fast. Unfortunately, the recognition of “success” results in haloes, so people/orgs that effectively apply a model in an appropriate domain are likely to experiment with its application in other, inappropriate fields. (Additionally, the novel application is unlikely to be attempted at a smaller scale–success tends not to satiate ambition.)

Examples of the misapplication of models abound. A startup founder can cash out and, post-liberation, reinvent him/herself as a nutrition guru; a journalist can refactor him/herself as a practitioner of the hard sciences; a SEO marketer can, after bootstrapping a few parenting blogs, become a developmental psychologist. Heck, I can read some books and write a lot of words and it can appear like I’ve accumulated more insight than the average person–of course, that’s debatable.

Models becoming morality is a subset of the violation of domain dependence. I’ve found the best way to think about this to be the concept of translation.

When foreign literature is translated from its native language to a non-native form, something is irreversibly lost. Language itself is nuanced and every language is nuanced in its own special, spectacularly weird way. I can’t just copy-and-paste a passage of original Dostoevsky into Google translate. Translation is a real skill. Plus, translators unavoidably imbue their work with a piece of their selves in the process.

Another lens to view domain dependence through? Metaphors. A metaphor compares one thing to another in order to emphasise a specific property of the original object. Yet, no-one ever mistakes a metaphor for a literal comparison…

Summa: we all carry models within our minds. These models work better in some domains than others. We need to be increasingly wary of forgetting this in these complex, complicated times.

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Early on in Dune, Paul Atreides is given the “test of the Gom Jabbar.” As it says on the appropriate Dune fandom page:

“The gom jabbar test would be to determine whether an individual’s awareness was stronger than their instincts. If their awareness of the gom jabbar’s presence was strong enough, it would override their instincts to withdraw from the test, which usually involved great physical pain.”

The idea being that Paul would prove his humanity by overcoming the animal instinct that commands him to flinch away from physical pain.

I’m still reading the Dune trilogy. I’m also reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.

Part of the first volume, The Fifth Season, follows a young girl. She is an “orogene”–meaning she can manipulate the earth around her. In her world, however, orogenes are both feared and reviled. Orogene children, if discovered, are often killed by the communities they inhabit. So a Guardian–a mentor slash overseer–comes to collect this young girl before she can be harmed, or do harm to others. See, when threatened, orogenes reach instinctually for their power to protect themselves.

On the journey to the training centre, this little girl’s Guardian teaches her why she must never, ever lose control. He reminds her of the consequences, takes her hand in his and begins to crush it, little bone by little bone. He wants to see how she reacts. If she reaches. Like the Gom Jabbar, it is a test that pits pain against will.

Reading both Dune and Broken Earth has been thoroughly enjoyable. It has also raised a question: In the absence of an intimate relationship with physical pain, can one claim enlightenment? Like a fair weather friendship, what use a spiritual discipline or philosophy if it’s abandoned in times of extreme physical duress?

Going back to the best/worst case x best/worst self idea of the previous post, surely enlightenment can only assert itself in the lower left quadrant?

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Inspired by Vinay Gupta’s “fireside chat” with Collin Morris, I’m toying with the idea of thinking on a planetary scale.

During the chat, Gupta mentions how he spent some time war-gaming responses to civilisation-level catastrophes–e.g. an event that shuts down food supply chains worldwide or a pandemic that obliterates a third of the human population.

Gupta explained that, from his perspective and experience, he’s a good fit for such emotionally devastating work. Most would be hamstrung by contemplating mass death and suffering; Gupta was (is) able to keep such sentiments at bay for prolonged periods.

Phrased another way: he is able to bring his best self to the contemplation of the worst case scenario. A rare ability, indeed. Visualised, Gupta occupies the bottom-right quadrant:

Which brings us nicely to my speculation: how does an individual stay in the right-hand quadrants and avoid slipping left? Answering that requires me to dial in what “self” and “case” actually refer to.

For “self”, I’m tempted to lean towards utility: your “best self” is the one that takes the action that 1) does the least harm and maximises options for good. Conversely, your “worst self” is the one that takes the action that 1) does maximum harm and 2) minimises options for good.

What “case” refers to is harder. I’m gonna dodge the question by claiming it’s an amalgamation of physical, mental, spiritual and social health and communal and societal wealth. I’m also going to limit “case” to possible realities–no fluffy utopias or bizarre, speculative dystopias allowed. “Best case” is probably comfortable existence in a western liberal democracy. “Worst case” is pretty bad–a community confined to local means of subsistence due to a breakdown in the global ecosystem.

So, back to the question: how does a person stay right and avoid slipping left? On an individual level, I think the answer is education and relationships. Though I confess I don’t know why I think that. Actually, after further thought, I think I’d strike education altogether.

Relationships provide a grounding in basic humanity. It doesn’t matter how smart a person is, how talented they are, how much of x, y or z they display or possess, relationships with other humans skew them towards the right (though there are outliers). Relationships put your skin in everyone else’s game.

Next question: how does humanity at scale stay right and avoid slipping left. Again, I suspect the answer is relationships (aka culture?).

I’m currently reading The End of History and the Last Man, and Fukuyama distinguishes between peoples and states. The distinction: a state is an abstract community, a people is a concrete community. For humanity to stay right and be its best self, something like localism seems like the best bet.

Final question–this one has a historical tint. If every person, from the start of human history to contemporary times, was a point on the 2×2, what kind of distribution would there be?

I’d like to think that there would be a swing up and right over time, but really I suspect the distribution is quite stable. Best case or worst case, in antiquity or modernity, I reckon humanity is mostly harmless.

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Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record was interesting for a number of reasons, but the one I want to mention here and now is this: early on in the book, Snowden talks about ideas he expressed on the internet as a teen. He goes on to say that we shouldn’t be penalised in the present (or the future) for ideas we’ve held or expressed in the past.

As far as I can tell, he doesn’t mean we should be excused for rabid racism or tenacious discrimination. His point is that we have, first, the right to be ignorant, and second, the right to leave said ignorance behind. But in a climate void of anonymity, where everyone knows who you are and everyone can find out what you’ve said, our expression and thus our growth is inhibited, stuck in a state of fearful stasis.

Around the same time I was reading Snowden’s book, I also read Aaron Z. Lewis’ post on Ribbonfarm: Being Your Selves. It contains the following passage:

“Much like our IRL social selves, an alt truly comes alive when it’s seen by others. Twitter is a type of echolocation — you learn about who you’re becoming from the followers and replies that bounce back to you. I often see alt accounts asking some version of the question “what’s my brand/vibe?” Without any strategy or forethought, you end up with an indescribable sense of “where you are” in cyberspace by paying attention to who and what shows up in your notifications. There’s a mysterious quality to it all. The algorithm seems to route tweets to the very people who will understand what the hell you’re talking about. You think you’re typing inside jokes to yourself, but it almost always turns out that there are others out there who get you. The more I shared my unfiltered ideas, the more ideas I started having. My random posts sparked thoughtful responses that sent me down months-long research rabbit holes and inspired several substantial writing projects. As @chaosprime — a popular alt — once said, “Cognition is not a discrete process taking place inside your head. It isn’t even a discrete process taking place inside your body. It’s a web extending everywhere, with dense nodes pulling it this way and that, synchronizing and desynchronizing, making models of each other.” My alt account quickly became part of my cognitive ecology, my extended mind.”

The aforementioned extension of self got me thinking…

(SPOILER ALERT) In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort uses a device called a horcrux to store a fragment of his soul. The purpose is to stave off mortality. By splitting his soul, Voldemort ensures he doesn’t have a single point of failure. But what if, by utilising alts, it were possible to do the opposite? Instead of dividing our soul, can we multiply it?

An alt, to be born, requires a sliver of the self. But that sliver, despite starting as a part of our self, can become its own whole. What if, rather like Voldy, we create more than one alt? Say we create seven alts to match Voldy’s seven horcruxes, and they all grow at a similar pace? Further, because those alts remain tethered to the original whole, does the growth in a peripheral node return to the centre? The answer–I think–is, yes. Growth in one node leaks to every other. But then, so does everything else. And this creates a weird dynamic…

In security, an “attack surface of a software environment is the sum of the different points (the “attack vectors”) where an unauthorized user (the “attacker”) can try to enter data to or extract data from an environment. Keeping the attack surface as small as possible is a basic security measure.” The more alts a person has, the greater their attack surface. However, another basic security measure is compartmentalisation: “the limiting of access to information to persons or other entities on a need-to-know basis to perform certain tasks.” The more alts a person has, the more compartmentalised they are.

To me, the conclusion is obvious: the possible gain from one or more alts outweighs the risk. Which clarifies the next action, too: alt it up.

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December 1st, 1913: the world’s first moving assembly line kicks into operation, thanks to Henry Ford (et al.). The result was nothing less than the transformation of automotive manufacturing, and soon after, the fabric of society. Fast forward a hundred years and an innovation of similar magnitude has taken place, all thanks to tools of thought.

Cloud-storage, notetaking, bookmarking/read-later services, social media, document sharing and collaboration, workflow and task automaters; all these have come to together to alter how we think, what we think, and why.

Before the introduction of Ford’s assembly line, the use of automobiles was confined to the well-to-do; after its introduction, driving was within everyone’s means. Before the proliferation of tools of thought, thinking (speculatively, rigorously, seriously, whatever) was a pursuit of the privileged; after the influx of tools of thought, everyone is an intellectual. Not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Let me explain. Consider this basic process:

  1. Choose a topic and read books about it on my Kindle and articles about it on Instapaper, highlighting salient passages as I go.
  2. Export those highlights to Readwise and curate them.
  3. Export to Evernote, tag them and, like pieces of a puzzle, see which ones slot together.
  4. Copy the pieces to a writing app (like Scrivener or Ulysses), write a short introduction and outro.
  5. Upload and publish the finished piece on a WordPress.com site and (automatically) on social media.

The topic above could be a historical figure, an outdated technological process, postmodernism, or cutting edge microprocessor architecture. Really, it doesn’t matter. The astounding thing is that such a simple process allows anyone (irrespective of class, gender, race, socioeconomic status etc.) to attain basic conceptual clarity about any conceivable subject. With minimal effort, I can become (or position myself as) an expert.

Before tools of thought were developed and democratised, such intellectual bootstrapping was inconceivable. A person’s thoughts were bound by local maxima. A person birthed in an environment of intellectual poverty was likely to die there. Not so anymore. And funnily enough, this revolution of thought has occurred in sync with the onset of the so-called post-truth era. Mere correlation, or causation?

I don’t know. However, considering the link between tools of thought and our post-truth era has caused me to wonder–is it fair to say that the smarter a society becomes in the aggregate, the more stupid its citizens must be as individuals?

Not absolutely, mind you. The average person today probably knows more than the average person one, two or three centuries ago (and has access to much more thought). I’m wondering whether we become relatively more stupid.

Imagine a ratio: what we do know in comparison to what we can know. Thanks to a host of factors, the former is indeed growing. The problem is that the latter isn’t growing so much as exploding. Tools of thought, as mentioned above, may help us maintain the gap as is, but a scary prospect is the possibility that the gap can only ever increase.