An exercise in thinking through how exactly bikes—an industrial product that is probably essential in most visions of a sustainable/degrowth—would be produced in such a post-growth world. It's an interesting thought exercise in that bicycles are close to an ideal technology, but complicated in important ways. They are mechanically straightforward with relatively few parts, especially compared to many of the other devices, but are still composed of technically-complex materials. They are relatively easy to repair and long-lasting, so production doesn't need to be non-stop—achieving bicycle "saturation" among a population is possible (if you consider the existing stock of bicycles, we might have already achieved saturation)—but maintenance still requires products like chain grease, bike pumps, and tools. There's relatively little variance among bicycles: aside from differences for bodies like frame sizes and seat shapes and maybe some alterations for different environments like types of tires, bicycles are more similar than they are different.
A lot of questions come up when thinking through this. Nowadays bicycles vary tremendously in price range, with cheap ones made of bad steel and extraordinary expensive ones made of more exotic materials like carbon fiber. What materials provide the best trade-offs for price, energy intensity, resource requirements, production complexity, and so on? What scale of production makes the most sense (maybe regional factories)? Will there be regional variances in bicycle production because of resource availability (maybe wood instead of steel or aluminum)? How is waste like popped inner tubes handled? Do we have specialist bicycle manufacturers or are is their production more on-demand at generalist facilities?
Are we coming to the end of growth? Degrowth feels less like the active pursuit of ending growth and more like stopping the desperate attempts to squeeze out one last drop and managing the damage that happens when it does end on its own. But if growth will end on its own, how do we know when it has? How can we tell if we aren't just in a "slump" on the road to yet further gains? A reasonable place to look for signs of the end of growth are in developing countries, who, as the label implies, should theoretically have the most room to grow.
Conventional wisdom says that development in the economic sense happens through manufacturing, but the power of manufacturing to grow economies has waned:
Rodrik’s observation is that deindustrialization has been happening across the Global South as well, where industrial employment has already peaked and begun to decline. This is “premature” in the sense that the peaks are coming at a lower level (measured in share of employment and output or the level of national income) than they did in the now-rich countries that industrialized earlier. At the height of the golden age of capitalism in 1973, Japan, Germany, and the UK had roughly 40 to 50 percent of their populations working in manufacturing. In Brazil, by contrast, the peak, reached in 1986, was 23 percent; for Nigeria, in 1991, it was just 13 percent.
Service-led growth was put forward as an alternative development path, but growth driven by services pales in comparison because productivity in services does not grow at the same rate that they do in manufacturing and they seem incapable of employing as many people:
Rwanda, which averaged over 8 percent annual economic growth from 1995 to 2015, has also been offered as an example of service-led growth. A major component of the country’s “service exports” is tourism, which is said to have grown over 20 percent per year between 2002 and 2012. As with India, even proponents of the service strategy give reason for skepticism. In this case, “The main driver of tourism, gorilla trekking, is reaching full capacity,” economists Ggombe Kasim Munyegera and Richard S. Newfarmer wrote in 2018, “and the country needs to develop additional attractions to keep the sector growing.” Even if these attractions materialize, which one hopes they will, it is important to remember we are talking about growth from a very low baseline. In terms of purchasing power–adjusted GDP per capita, Rwanda ranks 166th in the world. There is no evidence here of a way for poor countries to become middle-income countries.
Manufacturing demand is limited; eventually you reach a kind of saturation unless demand is stimulated/constructed in some way (I'm reminded of Aaron Benavav's Automation and the Future of Work):
Unlike in the United States, investment in China is not held back by the requirement that it produce private profits. But even unencumbered by this requirement, Chinese officials find they have run out of outlets for public investment: “We have plenty of bridges and roads already,” an official from Sichuan Development, a state-owned enterprise, told the Financial Times in 2019. Over the last decade, Chinese manufacturing has also declined as a share of employment and value added.
The end of the piece talks about "just-in-case" production (in contrast to "just-in-time") where overcapacity becomes a virtue, i.e. a buffer against catastrophes like a pandemic, and a turn towards domestic production for domestic needs rather than export-led growth. I've seen more talk of domestic manufacturing as a national security issue in the US amid the supply chain scares of COVID-19; but in the context of developing countries such an inward turn is more about serving the population's needs (which I guess is a national security issue from the perspective of some people). But my understanding is that the debts that many of these countries hold basically require them to pursue export-oriented development as part of those agreements and out of necessity to pay back those debts? And domestic production will be undercut by cheap imports, so such capacities will struggle to develop. This part reminds me of Ha-Joon Chang's great series, "Economics for People" and his book Kicking Away the Ladder where he discusses how critical protectionist policies were in the early development of the rich countries.
I wonder, when does growth != accumulation? That is, is growth always just the rearrangement of wealth or wealth-potential, and how much of the growth of the rich nations is just the capturing of the wealth of the rest of the world? Poorer countries can't really replicate that.
I find a lot of interesting stuff while searching for images, and this time I found Amazing Cultivation Simulator, a Rimworld/Dwarf Fortress-like game but set in a world of Chinese mythology.
It's really overwhelming. Way more like Dwarf Fortress in terms of complexity than Rimworld. It actually might be more complicated than Dwarf Fortress. I only played very briefly—I don't know when I'll have a chunk of time to dive more deeply into the game, but it looks like there are tons of different subsystems and subgames that could take weeks to fully digest. They all look interesting though, like the feng shui mechanic. But these games walk a fine line between a engaging story generator and a meticulous management nightmare.
It's listed as only Windows, but runs decently on Linux through Proton.
This week: Alternative RPG systems, race and anime, heavy bike cargo, farmland consolidation and ESG.
Alternative RPG systems
A comment on a thread about an upcoming tabletop RPG called Coyote & Crow led to me to look at a couple alternative tabletop RPG systems to D&D. The only other system I'd read anything about was the one for Cyberpunk 2020 which iirc isn't all that much different from D&D.
Anyway, that's not really what the linked thread is about. The commenter points that D&D and similar games usually encourage violent or other morally-compromising "solutions" to problems that come up. Having played a bit now, yes, violence, whether intentional or not, is the outcome of most scenarios in D&D. The mechanics probably do encourage it but that may also just be part of the fun of role-playing. The commenter points to some other rule systems that are designed to encourage other approaches to problem-solving (this is the context of solarpunk; cheating and murdering people is decidedly not solarpunk).
ORBITAL has a lot of interesting elements. It uses a system called "No Dice, No Masters", originally from Dream Askew. Instead of dice, players earn tokens by doing things and they can spend those tokens to take certain actions, and everyone acts as game master collectively. The way the game structures scenarios is also very clear and helpful. Characters aren't built around particular combat proficiencies like in D&D. It doesn't even look like there's a combat system.
Ryuutama basic system is much closer to D&D (dice-based skill checks) but also has a less clear delineation between game master and player. While there is combat, players gain experience through travelling long distances (their site says it's sometimes called "Hayao Miyazaki's Oregon Trail"), and the magic system has a greater focus on weird utility spells (e.g. "turn any biological matter into a bottle of jam"), which are way more interesting than combat-focused spells. Classes are also more along the lines of "farmer" and "merchant" rather than around combat roles.
Mechanics that don't rely on indiscriminate violence are something I'm thinking a lot about while developing Fugue. A handy term is here "ludonarrative dissonance" which describes the inconsistency between the game's narrative (you're a hero doing good things, or whatever) and the mechanics (but you're going around murdering hundreds if not thousands of people). I'm still on the fence about including combat in the game. Even if combat is a part of the game, only one or two characters will have any combat proficiency.
For what it's worth the D&D campaign I'm in is successfully minimal on combat! It's all the better for it.
An aside on dice systems: I've always found dice-based games and general randomness in games interesting. True randomness doesn't vibe well and paradoxically feels unfair, so game designers often tweak true randomness to align more with our poorly-attuned perception of randomness. If you sit someone down and tell you to write out a random sequence of heads and tails, people will under-represent streaks of heads or tails. Our vulgar understanding of randomness is some like "having no pattern" but in an independent random sequence like coin flips a streak is just as likely as any other combination of flips (though, depending on length, may be rare among all sequences of flips).
Anime character design
Among anime enthusiasts I probably only rank as a "casual" consumer of anime, but I've always wondered why anime characters look so "Western". I only recently learned of the term "mukokuseki", which translates to "without nationality", and at the time the hand-wavy answer I got was more or less "well they look Japanese to Japanese people". Clearly there's a lot more going on, and anime is generally terrible when it comes to issues of race. I have no doubt that this has been thoroughly explored in academia. But I haven't ever really encountered discussion of the topic "in the wild", but again I'm not very plugged into internet anime spheres. The most only recent memory I have of the topic is reading comments around The Last Airbender live-action adaptation, with many people arguing that Aang is white. That just feels wrong, but I don't know if the show runners ever came out with an official statement on that. One of the many, many disappointments of The Legend of Korra is that Aang's descendants are more heavily coded white in their features, so maybe that more or less communicates the show runners' stance on it.
This topic came back to mind after coming across this post on the topic while looking for Satoshi Kon character design images. The post points a bit more to how big the iceberg really is, but still doesn't go into much depth.
Japanese propaganda art during Imperial Japan's military aggression towards China and Korea is notable for featuring Japanese people looking more "European" with their larger eyes and white skin in contrast to the Chinese and Koreans, who were depicted with smaller eyes and stereotypical yellow skin (which is not a real East Asian trait). This artistic racialization was done by the Japanese to distance themselves from the rest of the Asian continent, particularly other East Asians, whom they viewed as inferior to them, and to put themselves on the same level as the West (white people) even though Japanese people obviously bore more cultural and physical similarities to neighbouring East Asian nations than, say, the French.
I love biking with cargo. I've never had a trailer or one of those bikes with the platform on it (I do have a small rear basket though) so I'm usually jury-rigging milkcrates and strapping tons of stuff to my backpack (and/or wearing a front backpack). I had to move out of two studios last summer this way (though for one of the moves I did borrow a truck for the bigger furniture pieces). Anyway this is an IG filled with images of people hauling cargo on bikes. It looks like these are mostly from North America or Europe because tbh this is kind of nothing compared to the cargo you see in China, such as cooking stalls and gravity-defying loads on 三轮车 (sānlúnchē; Kira and Crystal had a cupcake stand on one). But some are still pretty impressive. I'd love to get one of those cargo bicycles one day and haul stuff for people.
There was a moment of a lot of attention on "land grabs"; basically foreign private companies buying up large swathes of land throughout the world for speculative purposes (land being one of the fundamental resources and in fixed supply), for export-oriented industrial agriculture (increasingly seen as a good investment beyond the land itself, driven primarily by pension funds—people will always need to eat), for food security (e.g. countries with wealth but little arable land). Many of the projects on the purchased land puttered out. A report by GRAIN in 2016, "The global farmland grab in 2016: how big, how bad?", reflects on that moment. We can throw climate change into that mix for probably two reasons:
Climate change will probably exacerbate productivity differences across land, making land that remains productive through those changes even more valuable.
On the "green capitalism" front, if services like carbon sequestration become profitable (e.g. through government subsidies or mandates requiring companies purchase offsets), many of the sequestration options have big land requirements (re/afforestation and carbon sequestering agriculture).
Rich people owning a lot of land isn't really new, but Bill Gates is trying to spin it off as something socially beneficial. That also isn't necessarily new (e.g. land dispossession because people weren't using the land well/correctly or whatever) but this is a strong indication of where greenwashing is headed.
From the piece:
Investment firms are making the argument farmlands will meet “carbon-neutral” targets for sustainable investment portfolios while anticipating an increase of agricultural productivity and revenue.
ESG has gained a lot of popularity over the past couple years, basically the idea that you invest keeping environmental and social impacts in mind. The "governance" aspect of ESG is, as far as I know, already a part of most investment analysis. It's not quite the same as ethical investing (which excludes entire categories of investments, e.g. weapons manufacturers) or impact investing (which invests with particular outcomes in mind). My understanding of ESG is that it's a risk-based framework: for example, on the environmental front a company may be exposed to a lot of risk if they are heavy polluters and it's likely that some strong pollution regulation is coming down the pipeline. They'd bear a high cost in fines or purchasing new equipment/changing their processes to meet the new pollution limits.
As far as I know most of the risk in ESG is regulatory, at least if you only consider it in the typical 5 year or less time horizons that analysts usually do. Some might be cultural, e.g. if a company does something racist that goes viral, but I have a feeling that doesn't affect their bottom line that much (the people who make purchasing decisions on that basis are probably a much smaller fraction of a major company's overall market than we'd like to believe). The more important externalities like climate change take a much longer time to play out. If it's true that ESG risk is mostly regulatory, then ESG is really only as risky as the political environment the company operates in. And companies already take great measures to minimize political/regulatory risk.
The other way ESG goes is with this kind of greenwashed investing that's pointed out in the piece. Regulatory risk is one side of ESG, the other is regulatory opportunity. As I mentioned above, things like subsidies for carbon sequestration or carbon offset mandates. Out of those two sides, this is of course the better one, but it still treats climate change as only a technical problem i.e. a matter of carbon accounting.
I re-visited this series of Rick Roderick's lectures that were very formative for me. He has two other lecture series, "Nietzsche and the Post-Modern Condition" and "Philosophy and Human Values", both of which were good (so far as I remember), but "Self Under Siege" is the one that stuck with me the most. It's a compact but very accessible introduction to critical theory mixed in with musings on 90's American politics and pop culture. The name series refers to the various ways the "self" is under attack: people losing their sense of self, the increasing control of bodies and minds through more and more insidious and powerful structures, the devaluing of human life (of oneself and of others), and so on. Older ideas of dystopia start to look quaint ("Orwell's vision of a horrible future...a boot stamping on a human face forever, is a utopian image because he assumed there would be resistance and human faces") as oppression and control grow ever more diffuse, invisible, and sophisticated. As depressing and discouraging as that is, Roderick usually tries to point towards something better throughout the lectures.
Roderick is unashamed in (and has a talent for) presenting concepts in a very clear, forgiving, and not morbidly serious way, though he never makes light of the topics. He speaks with a consciousness about the tropes and idiosyncrasies in how philosophy is developed and how philosophers behave; that philosophers themselves engage in all sorts of socially-contingent behaviors (writing a particular way, valuing certain kinds of arguments, ignoring certain people and traditions, etc) that muddle what they talk about and how they talk about it. And he always relates everything back to what he feels is the project of philosophy: human liberation. I wish more philosophy (or anything, really) was taught this way. Sadly he passed away relatively young in 2002. I would have loved to hear more of his lectures.
It'd be interesting to see an updated lecture series modeled off of "Self Under Siege" for today. I wonder how different it would be. There's the internet of course, and many other developments, but it feels as though we're still basically on the same trajectory that he and the philosophers he discusses laid out decades ago. The reason I revisited the lectures is because I'm reading Achille Mbembe's Out of the Dark Night, and in the first part he reviews a lot of these recent developments—e.g. biosciences/biotechnology, neuroscience, expansion of the internet and ICTs, ecological/climate crisis, etc—and their causes, dynamics, and implications. It's kind of like a compact version of what I imagine an updated "Self Under Siege" lecture series would be like, now that I think about it (at least in terms of topic coverage). Nothing sounded fundamentally different than what I remembered from those lectures, just dialed up 100 times. But maybe there's some nuance there that I'm missing.
While revisiting those lectures I came across this interview with Roderick that I hadn't seen before. He goes into more of his background growing up in West Texas, his understanding of critical theory, social change, and the labor movements of the time, and how he thinks about teaching ("Don't leave my class saying 'strike out against all authority', based upon the authority of Rick Roderick. This is paradoxical. Find your own form of struggle, questioning, of living more fully"), among other things.
The Reconfiguration Thesis
A question that comes up again and again is the extent to which capitalist technologies and infrastructure can be used against or separate from capitalism itself. This falls under the umbrella of a more general question explored through writing like Langdon Winner's "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" and expressed through quotes like Audrey Lorde's "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"1. Working with computer technologies and adjacent to the tech industry exposes me to this question all the time, especially through positions like Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), ecomodernism, xenofeminism, and so on, which are all positions that I at some point held myself. And while I don't hold those positions anymore, I'm still sympathetic to them in a way (especially xenofeminism); at the very least I don't totally reject the notion that technology has some liberatory potential (it seems impossible to defend or refute these positions in general), for me the question is more about coming up with a better rubric for discerning technologies with that potential (e.g. a better and more honest assessment of the ecological implications/environmental feasibility of something like FALC, or that technologies implicate us in certain relationships we might not want to be in, and whether or not such an intensely technologically-dependent society is even necessary to achieve social goals), and understanding if going whole-hog on that direction is the best use of my time.
Anyways...in light of the Suez Canal blockage and because this question makes up part of Fugue, I revisited Jasper Bernes' "Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect" and Alberto Toscano's response, "Lineaments of the Logistical State", which explore this question ("the reconfiguration thesis") in the context of logistics and commodity circulation. These are long pieces, and admittedly the latter half of the Toscano piece still goes over my head even after all these years, so I hope I've understood their main points.
Bernes argues a few points:
Some main features of highly-developed logistics: it expands access to markets, the privileging of flexibility reduces the power of labor ("resiliency" not only in the face of natural disasters but strikes or unfriendly regulations as well), and just-in-time production reduces costs of storing goods/building up stocks.
One important effect: has facilitated decline in local productive capacity, which makes regional movements more exposed to capitalist crackback and enshrines a dependency that can undermine revolutionary movements: "the need to maintain an export economy in order to buy crucial goods on the international markets — arms in particular — meant that revolutionary cadres and militants had to use direct and indirect force in order to induce workers to meet production targets."
Blockades/sabotage are actions that are targeted at circulation, as opposed to production: "The blockade, it seems, might assume an importance equal to the strike in the coming years"
He proposes "counterlogistics": essentially mapping out the network of logistics so as to identify chokepoints and to clearly see how otherwise disparate actions integrate to form a cohesive whole.
As for the reconfiguration of logistics infrastructure, there are two main points I see:
Can it be made useful to revolutionary interests? Such infrastructure is optimized for circulation of specific forms; particular ideological commitments or capitalist needs are baked in: "individually packaged boxes of cereal...sold and consumed in sizes and types that reflect certain social arrangements, such as the nuclear family" or for particular relations of trade (consumer and producer nations).
Is it even needed? "For workers to seize the commanding heights offered by logistics — to seize, in other words, the control panel of the global factory — would mean for them to manage a system that is constitutively hostile to them and their needs, to oversee a system in which extreme wage differentials are built into the very infrastructure. Without those differentials, most supply-chains would become both wasteful and unnecessary."
Toscano's response, as far as I understood it, amounts to something along the lines of: well, most of it probably can't be reconfigured, but we should be open to the possibility:
I stressed that any “reconfiguration” concerns an evaluation, both practical test and theoretical anticipation, of, as I had said, “what aspects of contemporary capitalism could be refunctioned in the passage to a communist society.” This implies that some (many, even most – the ratio is not decidable a priori) of these aspects could not be refunctioned at all (though they would still need to be somehow dealt with or disposed of).
And regarding blockades and sabotage, he makes the point that "disruption is not sufficiently linked to control". To me this sounds less like a problem inherent in those tactics and more of a question of how they fit together into a broader movement, which is maybe what Bernes' "counterlogistics" is getting at.
Matt sent me this report on the far right's use of p2p. We talked about it and it dawned on me that, although most of my exposure to p2p has been in a left libertarian/anarchist context, as a general ecosystem/approach to social platforms, it's probably going to be first widely adopted by the far right. This report indicates that things are already heading this way.
It makes sense that p2p adoption would play out this way. The far right are the most visibly deplatformed by major sites, and so they have an actual need to find alternative platforms that are harder to moderate if they want to preserve their entire media ecosystem. The more popular approach to the problems of social media on the left is policy, e.g. anti-trust regulation, or even nationalizing such platforms (extremely unlikely). Because control over these platforms via policy actually looks feasible, alternative platforms look less necessary. This is obviously an incomplete picture, but hadn't occurred to me before.
The Illusion of Explanatory Depth
The illusion of explanatory depth has been stuck in my head. From the paper that introduced the concept: "People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth." It's when you feel like, "yeah I think I understand X", and then when pressed to explain further, you realize you don't understand X at all.
This is so common and less discussed than its closest counterpart, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is usually used as a bludgeon to shame people (in internet discourse, at least). I like developing models and simulations precisely because it forces me to reckon with this illusion. I think this is exactly why people say that teaching is the best way to learn something.
One of the best/funniest demonstrations of the phenomena is asking people to draw bicycles from memory:
I got sucked into the world of bardcore ("medieval" covers of pop songs). There are a lot of really impressive covers, like this one of The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights":
The comments on all these videos are also very entertaining (tons of jokes about modern problems in medieval times).
I haven't yet found any "bardcore beats to study to" streams yet.
We Will Always Love You, The Avalanches
In other music news, I started listening to The Avalanches' latest album, We Will Always Love You (I'm late to it, it came out last December). Their debut album, Since I Left You, is probably my favorite album (so much that I made a program inspired by it), and they have a lot of great mixes floating around on the internet. I was a little disappointed by Wildflower—it wasn't bad, it just wasn't as good as Since I Left You. We Will Always Love You still doesn't hit that mark either; I take it they've departed from the fully plunderphonics approach and so their sound has lost some of its uniqueness, but it works a lot better for me than Wildflower did (maybe the sophomore album curse doing its work there).
If you want to hear how much their sound has changed since the band's inception:
I also learned about Cola Boyy through the album (on "We Go On", with Mick Jones and sampling Karen Carpenter), whose music is also hitting the spot:
I love Junji Ito's work. Uzumaki was thrilling to read (I kind of want to re-read it now; spirals have been interesting lately because they are a kind of broken loop), The Enigma of Amigara Fault is kind of an internet in-joke now (not sure if it's yet ascended to "meme" status); in general he's very good at, well, horror. But the kind that sticks with you. Not in the way of a latent threat or lurking shadow but in a more cosmic way. Also, I normally hate body horror (just too viscerally disturbing) but for some reason with his works it is less hard for me to stomach. Maybe it's the illustration; I haven't watched the Uzumaki film because I think that would be too much for me.
Anyway, that's all to say that there's this game I recently tried, World of Horror, that's inspired by Ito's work. It's a roguelike, so very hard, but over time you pick up the "right" way to respond to certain situations. But there's still plenty of RNG so it's damn hard even then. And the art style also available) mimics Ito's well with its old MacOS 1-bit (2-bit also available) dithered graphics.
There isn't a Linux version, but it works fine with Wine.
Although there are many different interpretations of this particular quote. In Ed Whitfield's wonderful essay "What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones" he notes: "I would make her point differently. I think that you can tear down the master's house using some of the master's tools. Tools are just tools. They amplify, or multiply human effort and they don't have to be used the way they were intended or for the purpose they were created. I think that the real problem is that it is difficult to tear down the master's house while you live in it. And that, for many of us, represents the challenge. Our presence in the big house leads many of us to feel the need to defend it, rather than pray for the strong wind when it begins to catch fire." ↩
The fugue now seems a strange musical form: with its imitating and intertwining voices it embodies the tastes of an antique era. For the last two centuries we have been preoccupied elsewhere. Much concert music has been thought of as having two ingredients: a melody and an accompaniment. The melody is the solo voice: the instrumentalist or the singer expressing emotion, demanding attention. The accompaniment is the background, emphasizing a melody's tensions or commenting upon them, embracing a voice or confronting it. But melody reigns supreme. When we praise music, we are often praising its melody. Even symphonies, with their hundred instruments, are often remembered mainly through their themes.
The fugue is an entirely different story. It is all melody, or, perhaps, all accompaniment. It does not have an individual voice; it has many individual voices. And each voice is an image of the others, accompanying them by echoing them. A fugal theme may not even be distinctive as a melody. It might seem awkward, incomplete, lacking resolution or purpose.
But set that theme in motion. Then, after a few measures, set another voice to work, singing the same theme, perhaps at a different pitch; then a third, or a fourth, or a fifth. Build tension as these voices echo each other in cascades of fresh entrances; release tension as they break into free-form episodes. Invert a voice so it moves up where it once went down and down where it once went up. Fracture the theme or expand it. Keep the separate voices in a state of nearly perpetual motion and then confound the ear by allowing them to intertwine.
Such is the fugue — a drama not about the individual voice at large in a society of sound, but a drama about a society of sound created by related individual voices. It is an astonishing structure, constructed with intense concentration. In the midst of that musical society, combinations can never be random or arbitrary. Rules govern these interactions. And the character of the theme helps determine the character of the fugue itself.
...Each fugue's theme has a distinctive character; each character constructs its own society; and each society is bound by law while allowing extraordinary liberty. The fugue is a model of an ideal society in which obligation and independence coexist, in which the individual is incomplete without the society and the society unthinkable without the individual, in which passion erupts but reason rules.
The word fugue comes from the Latin fugo, "flight," as well as fugere, "to flee" (as do the words fugitive and refugee).
Finally, this piece, "Law is a Fugue", has a perspective on "fugue-as-subjectivity" that I hadn't considered:
This leads me to draw out a first line of thought from the metaphor: the comparison of the fugal subject with the human subject.
...For [Julia] Kristeva (as for many others), the subject “I” is an unstable identity. It is in continuous flux, under constant tension, and in the process of being made. The subject subsists in what she calls an “open system” where the structure of the subject is open to other structures that permit the subject to permanently renew itself. This open system could also be seen in terms of a more radical thinking of community. For example, J-L Nancy has written in similar vein but different discursive register of “inoperativity” or being “unworked”. For Nancy, the inoperative community is an ontology of community independent of any striving towards artificial delineation, cultivation, or hypostatization. The essence of community is that which is in a state of constant tension and flux between inside and outside, between finitude and infinitude, between subjects with others.
It strikes me that the subject of the fugue mirrors this thinking very well: the fugal subject is itself in a state of flux, in the process of being iterated yet still identifiable (as if an ‘I’) through the whole piece. Moreover, its identity is challenged and modified by the multiple voicings harmonising in counterpoint. One could call such polyphonic counterpoint the open system of voicings or even the community of voicings. Both human and fugal subjects become or modulate into something other when with voices in community, all while retaining their identities. Both are subjects in process.
There's also this interesting tidbit, connecting things back to fugues-that-break-with-Bach:
There is a flux or “play” between the fixed canonical subject and the breaking of the canon that subverts the rules that first constituted it, an act of sublime beauty in self-sabotage. ... The late Baroque music theorist, Jean Phillipe Rameau, wrote that fugal art “cannot be reduced to rules” and that it is as much about defying rules as it is to follow principles. 3 Some say J S Bach, undeniably the greatest exponent of the fugue, should be avoided if you want to learn the “true” principles of the fugue. He was brilliant precisely because he broke the rules.
I found those last two while searching for an image for this post, kind of funny how that happens.
A pretty worrying look into the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of US water treatment systems.
So many of these problems go back to default passwords as a major attack vector. I wonder a) what % of attacks this actually account for (since there are so many other failure points that are mentioned in that piece, e.g. non-default passwords but the same password everywhere and widely shared), and b) is there no better approach to creating initial passwords for devices?
The deeper problem is, maybe unsurprisingly, a drive towards lowering costs (mostly through eliminating labor costs) because this kind of critical infrastructure is so cash-strapped:
The origins of the problem are clear. The vast majority of the nation’s water systems are small and publicly owned, with limited resources and aging infrastructure. As they turned to digital systems and monitors to boost efficiency while saving money and staff, they failed to install the safeguards and carry out employee training needed to secure the resulting vulnerabilities. “Every one of them had one guiding principle over the last 50 years: increased automation to lower the size of the workforce to keep costs down,” Montgomery said. “Along with that, there should have been an investment in the cybersecurity of the infrastructure. But that did not happen.”
I wonder what the cost savings are after the necessary cybersecurity measures are taken into account?
There have definitely been more stories of these kind of industrial/infrastructural cyber-attacks, but I feel like they must still be vastly underreported (for example, hospital ransomware attacks feel like part of everyday background noise now). And will probably only get worse and worse as the trend outlined in the quote above continues.
This also reminds me of a data catalog I came across recently, the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data, which has a surprising amount of geospatial data available on US infrastructure (power transmission lines, hospitals, power generation facilities, etc) which are provided for researchers to assess the country's preparedness against these kinds of attacks.
Recently I started using OpenSCAD for sketching out simple woodworking projects and sewing patterns. There are a lot of options for CAD software, many more powerful than OpenSCAD, but I like that you control OpenSCAD through code. For me that's a lot easier than using a mouse or forms to layout a project. There are no doubt limits—I'm guessing that as designs get more sophisticated, the advantages of sketching the object out in code decline. But so far it's worked well.
The only thing is that the OpenSCAD language is kind of clunky. Even modest projects can feel overgrown and difficult to manage. I came across SolidPython, which is basically a Python library that compiles to OpenSCAD—you can leverage the power of Python and have a bit of a cleaner interface. For example, this bill of materials decorator looks amazing:
Put @bom_part() before any method that defines a part, then call bill_of_materials() after the program is run, and all parts will be counted, priced and reported.
ORION is the route-planning system that UPS drivers use. Interesting to read their comments on the r/UPS subreddit. Every comment I've seen mention ORION is about how nonsensical (to a human) the routes are, it slows them down, doesn't compare to experience drivers' route knowledge, etc. The shortcoming might be ORION itself, or, as this comment suggests it might be the fault of the dispatcher entering in inaccurate data, or it's just because there are so many factors like specific pickup/delivery times that rule out more efficient and human-legible routes. The routes are puzzling even to outside observers waiting for their packages.
My main interest in ORION is because of dial-a-ride systems; I first learned of them after reading this book, Multi-agent System Applications: On-demand Electric Vehicles Dial-a-Ride Operation System. Dial-a-ride systems are basically a public precursor to Uber and the like (but with minibuses instead of personal vehicles), from as early as the 1970s. You call up the service a day in advance and let them know when you'd like to be picked up and where you're going. Then some route planner or route planning algorithm figures out routes for each available bus. It's been some time since I read about them in detail, but if I recall one major challenge was limitations in route planning algorithms. Nowadays computing power is not only cheaper but the algorithms have been improved with these ride-sharing services. UberPOOL and Lyft Line basically "reinvented" dial-a-ride systems. Interest in the topic is up again with the possibility of autonomous vehicles, but there still seems to be a lot of promise in their public transit application, and taking whatever Uber or Lyft have developed for that purpose is nice example of feasible algorithmic expropriation.
There is so much good media analysis on YouTube and this one is a great reflection on Miyazaki's trajectory from Marxism—especially his belief in labor's power to change the world—to a disenchantment of industrial progress in general and a skepticism towards any possibility of revolutionary change. The more explicitly Marxist elements fade and earlier elements that once co-existed with those previous beliefs come to the fore: romanticism of agrarianism and a more ecologically-harmonious pre-industrial past. Eventually, this romanticism gives way to a deep pessimism and misanthropy in the Nausicaä manga (which sounds wild), where ecological collapse takes center stage. Humanity is irredeemable.
This gives way to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which start to synthesize all of these phases and point towards the possibility of something more positive.
Miyazaki's fluctuating relationship with Japan and nationalism also runs throughout his films. The scale of Japanese atrocities during World War II does not strike me as well known in the US, but I know of them through my family; my grandfather refused to buy Japanese-made cars since several Japanese car companies (Mitsubishi, as in Miyazaki's The Wind Also Rises, and Subaru) have their roots in creating the aircraft used in the war. Miyazaki had a close connection to the war: his father owned an airplane factory during WWII. He clearly struggled with this and Japan's history, and is definitely not trying to make excuses for that history, but I have to say that whole aspect of his work makes me uncomfortable. Especially because of how Japan's reputation in the West has been so sanitized through anime and that network of cultural products.
Also mentioned in the review, but could probably be expanded upon a lot, is Miyazaki's own changing class position throughout his career and what influence that had on his movie's themes.
Anyways, there's a lot more in the review—definitely worth a watch!
Anachronox is a great game (now 20 years old!) that isn't very well-known, especially compared to the JRPG lineage (Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger) it draws a lot of inspiration from. I re-watched Errant Signal's reflection on the game which reminded me a lot of the game's best aspects: a strong ensemble cast (each of whom had a special skill for interacting with the game world), its non-seriousness/lightheartedness/comedy, its range of rich environments, and its willingness to try a lot of things—for example, a literal planet as a party member and a comic-book themed sequence that breaks from the rest of the game's style.
The various planets in the game's universe give a nice sense of the game's humor (quoting the video):
Democratus: a planet which, as the name implies, enshrines democracy as its core value, but "reveal[s] itself to be an oligarchy because voting on issues is hard and the everyday person might not get it"
Sunder: "a planet full of scientists that ironically acts more like a religion by sequestering heretics whose scientific views goes against the orthodoxy"
Hephaestus: "a religious planet that operates more like a hyper-capitalist theme park/industrial mine where bishops hawk t-shirts"
The game was originally supposed to have a sequel, because it was basically a financial failure, it never happened.
First I've seen of cloud seeding in the US. I remember hearing about it while living in China. I'm guessing it also has some drought/agricultural purpose but I was told that it was to help clear out pollution (the skies were noticeably cleaner after rainfall). Another example of "solving" the problem but not the cause: "Experts who have studied cloud seeding point out that it is no panacea, given it doesn't solve the systemic causes of drought".
[The 'Reflections of Nature' jewelry line] includes five unique sets and a total of 39 'exclusive' pieces that, according to De Beers, are meant to honor and 'immortalize the glorious triumph… [and] raw beauty of nature untouched by man.'
The greenwashing of precious stones is a new one. I guess buying pieces of nature to show how much you love nature and destroying nature in the process fits into the current trajectory. This piece gives an example of how corporate-led remediation projects disproportionately focus on the PR/optics rather than the actual remediation, while actively excluding the Indigenous people who can make use of the land. It fits well into the tradition of conservation-as-displacement (Western notions of pristine nature as one without humans, so to conserve nature means to remove people who live there).
After playing video games for a couple decades, there's a lot of game-specific logic I take for granted but that make no sense to someone who hasn't played before. One that I don't think was mentioned in the discussion but that I've encountered a lot is that experimentation/just trying things is "cheap" in games. Some games actively encourage it but others at least have some kind of save system where you can try things without much—if any—penalty. People who haven't played many video games are often worried about making a mistake or messing up as if the consequence will be irreversible.
This week: arenas in Rust, food safety and preservation, Jevons' paradox, Buddhism and empire, climate narratives, and Outer Wilds.
My feelings around the Atlanta shootings this week remind me of this piece by Kali Holloway following the capitol riots: "I’m for Abolition. And Yet I Want the Capitol Rioters in Prison.". Cops are the right hand of white supremacy and patriarchy, the criminal justice system is an embodiment of their violence, but in the immediate present...the "justice" that system offers can feel like all that's available. However, actual justice would mean ameiloriating the harms done (what's possible, at least), and doing what it takes to stop something like this from ever happening again, and I know the justice system won't do that.
When I first started picking up Rust a couple years ago, the first application I wanted to make was a multithreaded actor system. In an actor system you work with "actors", which can basically do the following things:
Receive messages into an inbox
Send messages to other actors
Read and act on messages
It's totally possible to do something like this in Rust without anything outside of the standard library, e.g. using Arcs and Mutexs, but at the time it felt so messy. I also played around with tracking actors and their inboxes by indices through a single monolithic vectors, but it seemed so hacky. I thought the language and its concepts just weren't clicking for me. So my first experiences with Rust were very frustrating.
It was only later when I re-visited Rust that I learned that these kind of graph-like structures where there may be cyclical references and unclear ownership is exactly what Rust isn't good at (out-of-the-box, at least). I was encouraged to learn that some of the approaches I tried that felt hacky weren't too far off from the recommended approaches. It was around this time that I learned of the arena data structure which makes these (potentially cyclical) graph structures much easier to work with.
The most recent This Week in Rust (#381) includes a paper that compares different approaches for these graph structures, and the arena approach (also called "region-based allocation") performs the best, though there is no one-size-fits-all approach when considering pathological cases. Rust's standard Arc and Rc both perform well too, though leave open the possibility of memory leaks. These perform well in single-threaded contexts, which is actually probably fine because often you have one thread deal with the graph structure (e.g. one thread running a simulation that uses the graph) and preserve other threads for e.g. dealing with networking messages or something (for multi-threaded contexts, the author instead recommends an approach called "epoch-based reclamation" though this doesn't perform as well as arena and Arc/Rc in single-threaded environments).
I also came across this post that explains arenas in Rust in more detail and also mentions the bumpalo arena library, which has the advantage of faster allocations but loses memory deallocation/re-use for individual objects (so better if working with groups of objects that are allocated/deallocated all at once).
Great overview on food safety and preservation techniques. When we think of "food preservation" our minds probably jump to refrigeration as the major innovation, but there are so many other approaches to managing the microbial/viral activity in food, each of which sprouted their own culinary traditions and forms (jams, miso, cured meats, and so on). The show Flavorful Origins covers regional Chinese cuisines and many of the best showcased foods have their genesis in some kind of long-term food storage.
Energy efficiency improvements are usually advocated with the implication that they will lower energy demand (thus lowering e.g. greenhouse gas emissions). The Jevons Paradox describes how such energy efficiency improvements can paradoxically lead to an increase in aggregate energy demand. While it might be easier to see these effects at a large scale, it can be really hard to pull apart specifics or identify them with a lot of certainty at smaller scales. These effects can be really sprawling too: one example mentioned in Timothée Parrique's "The political economy of degrowth" (which has a good section on rebound effects, using an alternative typology to the one described below) is that more fuel efficient cars further entrench car culture and car infrastructure, which in turn increases reliance on cars, making lower-impact alternatives like bicycles or public transit more costly to adopt.
When I was researching "Inside Out" I struggled to find a lot of material on the paradox (I probably wasn't looking in the right places). This week, however, a couple papers came out on the topic.
The first paper, "The Jevons paradox unravelled: A multi-level typology of rebound effects and mechanisms", lays out a new typology of rebound effects (more detailed than the previous popular typology), breaking them down by mechanism (the actual cause of the effect), the effect (the size of the change in energy consumption), the scale (micro:firm or household, meso:market or sector, macro:national economy, or global:world economy), and the time frame (short or long run), summarized in this figure:
The example they offer gives more details about how the typology works:
efficiency improvements in car production can allow companies to increase profits and expand production (output mechanism) – a mechanism at the micro level. When many firms introduce this new technology, price competition may lead to lower prices and, thereby, to higher sales (intermediate goods and services mechanism) – a mechanism at the meso level. This mechanism at the meso level would not have taken place without the mechanism at the micro level. Mechanisms at higher levels can also impact a rebound effect at a lower level. With regard to the car example, an efficiency improvement can lead to decreasing energy demand at the macro level, which can result in a lower energy price in a competitive energy market (overall energy price mechanism). This reduced price, in turn, further decreases the car manufacturer costs and may trigger additional expansion of production (output mechanism at the micro level).
The second paper is "Energy efficiency and economy-wide rebound effects: A review of the evidence and its implications", which reviews 33 studies looking at economy-wide rebound effects and finds that at least 50% of the gains from energy efficiency are negated by rebound effects, and that this relationship is not captured or is underrepresented in the major integrated assessment models. So these models are probably overly optimistic about the effects of energy efficiency improvements. It's a better result than, say, if the rebound effects exceeded 100% (i.e. energy efficiency improvements lead to an overall increase in energy consumption). But I don't think any of the reviewed studies try to measure rebound effects like the car infrastructure one in "The political economy of degrowth".
As part of my research for Fugue I've been reading more about East Asian Buddhist schools of thought (Pure Land, Chan, Zen, Huayan, and Tiantai). I had a lot of interest in Buddhism when I was a teenager but it was pretty "basic"; I didn't delve at all into the overwhelming strands of Buddhist tradition and thought (especially their dizzying metaphysics) that developed over the thousands of years of its existence. Fugue will be anchored around cycles, which are central to Buddhism, e.g. in samara/reincarnation, the imagery of the wheel, etc (owing to its antecedent Indian subcontinent religions), and I wanted to better understand the concepts and their surrounding history before relying on them.
The popular reputation of Buddhism and Buddhists is something like: peaceful/pacifist, austere, gentle, jovial, kind, maybe even environmentally-friendly, and persecuted (Tibetan Buddhists specifically). The Rohingya genocide has disrupted that image (there are also claims of Tibetan slavery and serfdom, which, based on this incredibly detailed thread, sounds like it's not totally accurate in that serfdom/slavery in Tibet didn't completely match European serfdom or chattel slavery, but sounds close enough in that they did indeed have serfs and slaves1) but still might be taken as anomalous in the religion's history. Buddhism's spread, though small compared to the major Abrahamic religions, is substantial, and usually that kind of spread has some kind of violence behind it. I listened to this interview with Johan Elverskog on his recent book, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia, where he discusses Buddhism's relationship to empire and expansion, which supports this suspicion.
One main point he argues is that Buddhism, despite its reputation as ascetic, is a prosperity theology. Austerity is for the monks and nuns, but for the laity its conception of karma provides a framework for rationalizing/justifying wealth separate from birth/caste. It makes it more "meritocratic"—if you're wealthy, you must have done something to deserve it (good karma). Wealth becomes something you earn based on personal merit, rather than something you're born (or not born) into.
He also mentions Buddhism's role in the expansion of empires: that monasteries are located where they are as part of the development of commodity frontiers and owned tremendous amounts of lane, that monks had an active role in the spread of more intensive agriculture and used slave labor for that agriculture, and that these stem from the fact that Buddhism requires surplus production to support the clergy and devotional displays of large and ornate monasteries and the like. He even goes as far as pointing to European colonialism as a comparison. Buddhism, as an organized entity, is not unlike other major organized religions or states—they have their own interests, and expand to secure those interests.
A very critical review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future, which, disclaimer: I haven't yet read, so I can't really comment on the fairness of the review. I found it helpful more for thinking through climate narratives and theories of change around climate change than about the book itself. The reviewer describes the tension between useful present value and abstract future value; i.e. how hard it is to convince someone to give up something in the present for something so far in the future that it feels abstract, that they probably won't be around for. The example given is "fishing plastic out of the ocean", which serves two purposes: keeping the fishing industry employed (valuable politically and preserves livelihoods) and cleaning waste from the oceans (environmentally valuable), contrasted against fishing fish (which gives you fish now, but at the potential expense of fewer or no fish in the future). I don't know if this is the best example to make that point—cleaner oceans have near-term benefit as well (water recreation, there are probably some short-term effects on fish stocks too), but the general framing is helpful for me.
The reviewer also poses another problem very clearly: "how you make the economics of not manufacturing more profitable than manufacturing".
A more constructive piece of criticism:
Utopian imaginaries often set up a dichotomy between a high tech, complex global economy growing ever more complex until it spans the solar system, versus a return to what’s imagined as “primitivism,” foraging for scraps, or toiling as a vast agrarian peasantry. But there’s something in between and beyond that we need to envision. It takes imagination, and for those who make a living using theirs to render it.
I think about this a lot: this dichotomy is really deeply rooted, and it's really hard for people who hear something like the term "degrowth" to envision it as anything other than regression, a suggestion of extreme austerity and poverty. Sure, some degree of re-ruralization/re-agrarianization may be in the cards, but it doesn't mean a life of uncertainty, precarity, and suffering (at least, not any more than what we already have) or a sudden loss of all the knowledge we've accumulated in the past few centuries.
The review also criticizes the book's focus on bureaucratic/technocratic institutions as the main actor in combating climate change, in contrast to (for example) on-the-ground direct action and the like. It was good to read alongside this reflection on forest defense/occupation in Germany, which includes debates on sabotage and militancy's effectiveness in achieving their goals (which go beyond the immediate goal of halting the clearing of trees).
There were also a couple papers referenced in the review that were interesting:
"It’s the End of the World and They Know It: How Dystopian Fiction Shapes Political Attitudes": "there are strong reasons to think that ideas contained in fiction may have just as strong an impact on people’s beliefs and attitudes as nonfictional content, given that people tend to incorporate ‘facts’ they learn regardless of whether the source is labeled fiction or nonfiction, and the narrative structure typical of fiction is known to be exceptionally powerful in shaping cognition and persuasion."
And: "we find consistent evidence that dystopian narratives enhance the willingness to justify radical—especially violent—forms of political action"
"Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity": A social network analysis of the Game of Thrones books: There are roughly 2000 characters mentioned in the books, though each chapter (which are each told from a different character's POV) has around 35 characters on average. 35 people "has been identified as a stable subgrouping within social networks and as the typical size of (contemporary) bands of hunter-gatherers." The POV characters rank high on degree and centrality measures in the complete series' social network; that is, the POV characters are also the ones most important in the social network, and the major POV characters have an average degree of 154 (close to Dunbar's number, "the average number of stable relationships usually maintained at any given point in human life"). These features make the large amount of characters in the series cognitively manageable.
Possible spoilers for Outer Wilds and The Three-Body Problem
I finished Outer Wilds this week, after first giving it a try maybe a year ago. I had trouble getting into it at first, but the whole thing comes together as the loop of the game becomes familiar (the game is structured around a repeating 22 minute loop) and you start putting together the star system's mysteries. The process of investigation and discovery work really well, as simple as they are. Reading other comments, it seems like a lot of people also found the game to be unassuming and then are struck with how attached they become. The relatively brief encounters you have with the other (living) characters end up being surprisingly powerful by the end. The final sequence will probably stick with me for a long time—I was really struck by how unexpectedly emotional it was, providing small comfort in something as terrifying (but also so distant as to be entirely abstract) as cosmic death. One of the central themes in Fugue is rebirth, and Outer Wilds portrays it beautifully.
It reminded me of the ending for The Three-Body Problem, which now that I'm thinking about it has a very similar, but less moving, end. Interstellar maybe also tried to grapple something similar, what about quantum physics and the scale of space and time and so on, but it didn't land in the same way.
In any case, I highly recommend it.
From the thread: "The situation in Bhutan is still in living memory and we can probably infer that the situation in Tibet wasn't very different. In Bhutan, like Tibet, there was a very rigid aristocratic system. The majority of properties that weren't run-of-the-mill subsistence farmers run by extended families (80% of the population), were either monasteries run by tulkus (meritocratic systems run by knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures, Drukpa Kagyu in Bhutan, Gelukpa or Karma Kagyu in Tibet), or Lamaist choje families. ... So while these large extended aristocratic families ruled estates and concerned themselves with matter of religion and politics, the first set of serfs were lay-followers who didn't want to take the vows of Buddhist monks or nuns but still wanted to live in close proximity to the Lamas. These people became the first class of serfs called "drap." Drap were not hereditary, so while they were not taxed individuals, their children were born free. Drap were also granted less menial jobs in the house and were oftentimes more skilled than their contemporaries. The "Zap," the lower class of serfs/slaves, were a little bit different. ... Bhutan has a long tradition of north-south contact with Assam and Tibet, and less but still prevalent east-west contact with Sikkim. Part of this included the slave trade where parties of Bhutanese raiders would descend into Indian territory and kidnap Assamese, Bengali, Nepalis, etc. and sell or trade them as workers to wealthy families. Note this is not chattel slavery like we're familiar with. The parties of Bhutanese raiders tended to be associated directly with this village or that chöje family and already knew who they were kidnapping Zap for. There were no slave markets. That said, the Zap were hereditary. Their children were born Zap and their descendants still live in Bhutan (and Tibet) today. While the Lamas were required to cordon off a part of their land for Drap to live and provide for their own sustenance, the Lama was given no real obligation to provide the Zap with shelter. They showed up on the Lama's estate, were given three meals, and worked. (I have no idea how this system was enforced. It seems like it would be rather easy to run away and I'm sure there was a lot of that happening." ↩