On Myth


I'm mostly living in my shell these days, but here's a long-overdue essay from my other blog. Paul and Alison in particular have been formative of it, since a long time ago.

We in the west tend to think that myth is a naive attempt to understand nature. That’s untrue and not sufficiently generous to those who came before us. Myth is not a failed theory of the universe; it’s a brilliantly successful technology for changing it.

What is the world? It is of course the stars, the Earth, the weather, life, and all the things that are out there. But we do not perceive these things directly, nor do they affect us. What affects us comes through our senses, and the way we perceive is as much a product of our embodied senses and our mind as it is a representation of the true disposition of things. Our perceptions are shaped by the ideas we already hold.

As soon as our ancestral apes became intelligent enough to affect the world, seeking to make it more hospitable to their vulnerable existence, two paths were open. They could make tools, draw predictions, and try to alter the physical world immediately around them, or they could alter their own minds so that their experience would be less harsh, more hopeful, more meaningful, fanciful and interesting, and even less bound to the actual sensations of cold and hunger that the body sometimes offered. The ability to alter the human experience of the world through the communication of ideas is myth.

Read the rest

New blog


This is just to let you know that I exist, although I don't really feel that blogging about my life is very interesting any more. I still live in Edinburgh and in Athens for part of the time, work a bit too much (it's interesting, but not for here), and generally get on through life in a well-meaning but unremarkable way. You can find me in various imaginary online places, or sometimes in corporeal existence here in Edinburgh.

I wanted to let you know that I've got a new blog for public stuff. That's politics, technical rants, the occasional review, and other stuff that people I don't know might possibly like to read.

I'll move past content of that type from LiveJournal to there, and also keep this LJ as a social blog but fail to post anything inspiring in it...

Take care!


Why are nine out of ten movies uninspired and formulaic? Because it's hard to make masterpieces, obviously, but why do we buy them? We don't buy music like that. We slowly collect music that we personally consider exceptional and listen to it over and over again. Yet we equally buy superb cinema and commercial dross and see it only once or a few times. We buy games like music and books like films. Is this something about the cost of production or about the wiring in our heads? Is it an essential feature of the media, or an accidental like conventional length. If discovery is the discriminating factor, is this extricable from narrative, and are there substitutes? To what extent is consciousness needed to create the discoverable, or to imbue it with value? Can the cycle between creation and discovery be reinforced, and can it be sustained by subconscious rather than arduous or constructivist creation?

* * *

So, we have a racist party in Greece. How, ummm... modern. Their acronym spells out the word for nation and stands for "national orthodox alarm". I kid you not. They managed to elect ten representatives. So far they have not blamed any fires on the communists. At least you cant blame Greeks for racism, we learn it as school: Evil Ottoman this, glorious Slav-cleansing emperor that, greatest nation of own arse.

* * *

Everyone in Greece talks of how political parties did in the elections as if they were appendages of their leaders. Did one party lose the election because the man in charge was too feeble? Should they pick this other guy to put in charge who has bigger balls? If that's really how the people think I propose they should use an alternative method for electing the prime minister. First they should put the candidates naked on a stage and measure their penises. Then they should have them mount some women and see how many each can manage. Finally they should measure the volume of the sperm that they produce. This method will be more amusing to watch and I think a better barometer of the popular will.

* * *

I hate coming back to this second-rate target of repugnance. Airports the world over have erected barriers around the US and UK making it clear that you're travelling to the places that people detest. If you go there, they fence you off and double check that you're not some agent of hate because, well, they expect them. At least the US work on their enemies: They bomb them and invade them and support brutal regimes. The British are just running after the emperor's chariot crying, "Us too, us too, we support the Romans, we demand that you hate us as well".


Stupid politics

As I watch the impending elections here as a sort of outsider with a good grasp of the language, it strikes me that the offering to the voters is organised in a very stupid way.

Greece is a bipolar system with fringe parties. The two parties that alternate in government behave like service providers. You put them in office, and buy state services from them. They behave entirely like integrated service providers might do: Each of them wants to sell to the entire addressable market, their package is as lousy as it can get without losing customers to the other, and each tries to have some small USP. They have PR sense too. The ruling party reacted to the country being ravaged by forest fires, and to criticism about its weakening of legal protection of the wilderness, by removing the flaming torch from its traditional logo.

I wonder if politics could be improved by electing smaller branches of government independently, in the sense that you might get better service by shopping for services individually than by buying a "for dummies" bundle. But I'm told that I'm out of touch with reality concerning people's "intelligent buying" habits.

Meanwhile on the fringe, the fascist candidate is putting on a well presented show for his following. The Left, as usual, are not. There's the boring communists with their back-to-basics slogans, the supposedly modern communists with yet another random name and logo, and the Angry Left #1, #2, and #3. There's possibly more Angry Lefts, I've only noticed these three. The Angry Left posters are, frankly, childish. I'm going to vote for the supposedly modern communists, but I despair. I'm not sure what the point of concept parties is in an election of service providers, but I wish the Left valued credibility even slightly.

The importance of product management (from an old geek joke)

There's an old joke comment attributed to Bill Gates that goes: "If General Motors had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

Well, they have. Cars are enormously better than they were twenty years ago. The controls are far more usable and standardised. The engine delivers power more smoothly over a broader range of speeds, while emitting less pollution and making less noise. Accidents are less likely due to better handling and performance, and when they happen they're much less hazardous to the occupants and even to pedestrians. Cars have sensible user interfaces for opening doors and turning the lights off. You can buy cars for carrying a passing fling or an extended family, and you can buy them as cheap accessories or as durables.

If the computer industry had evolved computers in the way it thinks the car industry evolves cars, we would all be using home computers that could only add numbers between 0 and 255, but could do so on four concurrent streams at a rate of two billion numbers a second each. They'd display fabulously crisp images on your HDTV using 8, or maybe 16 colors chosen to include cyan and magenta. The computers would forget everything between each use, including you, and you'd have to type epic BASIC programs or insert several USB sticks in the correct order to tell them what to do. Computers would differ by having rigid keys or rubber keys, but they'd all run for 1000 minutes on four AA alkaline batteries and nobody would pay more than $25 for them.

Fire and dross

Greece is mostly on fire. This happens most summers and is usually merely "a shame", but this time round over fifty people got burned alive in their cars or houses. Common knowledge is that forest fires in Greece are set on purpose, to get rid of forests and thus develop properties that are covered by the forest. This is, of course illegal, but one can be caught for cutting the forest, while there is no official geographical record of where the forest ought to be. So once it is burnt, the owner of the land can say "what forest" and develop. So over fifty people dies because of greed and (tacitly accepted) technical incompetence by the state. Several attempts to establish such a geographical system met with resistance or non-cooperation and failed.

It could be worse, of course. In places such as Nigeria or Pakistan you occasionally hear that a fuel truck crashed, people turned up to scoop the petrol off the road with metal canisters and they all burned alive in the inevitable explosion. So in terms of civil stupidity Greece rates slightly higher than some of the world's worst countries, but not by much.

I'm in Edinburgh and it's the last few days of the various festivals. Normally the festivals are a good thing, but I'm kind of overcome by dross. The great majority of the Fringe is, of course, dross. This in itself would be OK if it merely meant empty seats at bad shows, but we don't get such efficient market discipline. We get to see the ugly side of the market, more often than not. People crowd the High Street and try to grab the attention of punters with the cheapest possible tricks: A man wearing a kilt, Jokes about inflatable girlfriends, another man who is dressed as a slice of toast. They give you flyers for equally stupid and ultimately unsatisfying productions. After a while you feel harangued by this constant stream of people wanting to take your money in exchange for some valueless hastily thrown-together entertainment non-product. It's hard to resist insulting them before they do it to you.

The trend in response to this is what in general business is knows as channel consolidation: The people who control the channel of bringing the goods to the market, which in this case are the venue brands, consolidate. Five large distributors, Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly, C, Sweet, and the ultra-lowbrow Meadows Big Top monopolise the venue real-estate and essentially turn the Fringe into a corporatised supermarket experience. This seems to go down well with the crowds of stupid people from London, who apparently are here to drink beer and be generically entertained, or possibly distracted from the banality of their beer-drinking but scores of derivative comedians.

No theatre genius!

The other night I dreamt that I was watching an exceptionally clever piece of theatre, whose single scene consisted of a political debate by the leaders of a country about a matter of utmost importance. Although no introduction was given and the play started abruptly from a dark stage mid-debate, the matter clearly involved the timeless question of gong to war.

The politicians, who were some kind of parliament, were standing crowded in a long, twisting, featureless corridor-like dark room, and they wore mostly black. A bright spotlight illuminated this or that portion of the room in dusty, sweaty film-noire style, and those who were under the spotlight would speak their stance as forcefully as possible. The light would then move to the next speaker. The audience was seated only in the circle seats, and so could see at any time the lit portion of the corridor-parliament over its walls. The rest of the stage was dark.

The debate lasted a while and covered the whole spectrum of views, from the most reactionary to the most progressive. The politicians were arranged that way along the length of their corridor-parliament, and this was made apparent early on in the play by some well-placed exchanges between Left and Right speakers, with corresponding light movements. The text consisted of classic, relatively shallow rhetoric about the ethical and occasionally practical questions of war. So, throughout the play, the audience was conditioned to follow the light and predict quite accurately the position that would be argued.

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