I have always thought that it was somewhat lazy to rely on Wikipedia as a source for almost any discussion, but seeing as I do not have the right sort of subscriptions to view the primary research, I figured that I would share this Wikipedia article about a new potential class of antibiotics. The implications of this research are enormous. At a time when overuse (especially in India) is generating resistance in bacteria that could spread across both gram negative and gram positive strains, having a whole new subclass of antibiotics that use novel mechanisms for infection inhibition is a huge victory for humanity.
Musings on the world at thirty-two in 2018.
Today I am turning thirty-two (or thirty-three by East Asian counting.) I have done and seen an incredible array of things and places in my life, and, fortunately, my memory remains robust and rich in detail. Growing up we did not have a lot of money, and I did not learn many of the social and networking skills that define the upper middle class skill sets that dominate a lot of “successful” people’s outcomes. I have nonetheless managed to get to the point where I am 100% free of debt (as of this paycheque), I have a good start on retirement savings in an index fund, reliable transportation, and a good network of personal and professional contacts that I think will allow me to manage any personal or small-scale crises that come my way in the future. I still write in overlong sentences, though.
One thing that I have observed over the years is the interconnectedness of human lives and events. It seems to be a natural, especially Western, mentality to compartmentalize and label things and to lock them into hierarchies and “stovepipes” of different disciplines and different schema of organization. By itself, this is not a bad impulse or civilizational habit to have – but I have noticed that the most successful ventures in business, charity, government, or military fields come from interconnectedness. Some people, especially academics, seem to take that life lesson and want to impose hierarchy, bureaucracy, and synthetic order onto complex issues. I have observed this approach and found it to be oftentimes the opposite of a successful strategy for accomplishing anything from providing social services to managing major military operations. Centralization may offer short-term gains, but it also plants the seeds of sclerosis, stagnation, future failure, and defeat.
Many writers far more erudite and perceptive than I have pointed out that the global order is in an inflection point. Assumptions about the track of human events are daily set on end and shaken about like a chew toy in the mouth of an energetic puppy. The forces of sclerotic decline are in control of most of the West’s institutions, if not, at present, the actual position as “leader of the free world” for what that means anymore. Their more violent, repressive fellow travelers control China and other significant civilizations in Asia and South America. Overall, however, I think it reasonable to be optimistic about the future.
So, from the strange and potentially dynamic and fruitful Middle East post-monopoly on global energy markets, I sign off on my thirty-second birthday.
I was able to get a few drinks of whiskey tonight, and that, combined with some “best of Chicane” and a general bent towards nostalgia, stirred up a whirlwind of memories for me. One thing that strikes me is how I experience the past – a lot of times even fragmentary experiences are multi-sensory. By far my strongest sense is my vision and, by extension, my imagination. But it surprises me sometimes how I can also recall disparate events that are joined together by a similar emotional “flavor.” Even something like a particular temperature or barometric pressure can act on my mind like a sort function in a spreadsheet, laying out memories strung together and blurred end to end like a montage. A truly good blog post would be more poetic and florid, giving a snippet of what that experience was like and describing situations that would share some of those memories and sensory impressions. Unfortunately, tonight, I do not have the luxury of enough time to share. Something to consider for another, longer, more worthy entry.
I read Slate Star Codex pretty regularly, and one of the commenters on that site posted a link to a fun little web game that you can play to get a better understanding of the implications of game theory. The link is here. What struck me about the instructional web game was its elegance. Without tagging everything, or making things deliberately obscure, it gives you clues to certain features of the illustrated, interactive explanation before it actually verbalises the fine points of “always cheat” or “repeated patterns.”
I would like to say that I have learned a great deal about game theory and economics from extensive reading, but even after studying histories of strategy, I still sometimes struggle to grasp the essential utility of applying game theory to real life. In many ways I feel like I take a lot of economics thought and philosophical implications on a faith basis – having never formally studied it, it seems important without my being able to verify that intuition of its importance. I think this is a common situation that people find themselves in, even when they are of above average intelligence. Sure, we would all like to be knowledgeable about as many aspects of the world as possible, but much of the time we are reliant on other people’s knowledge and experience, and ultimately have to take many things on faith, or at least with a sceptical sort of trust that what others are saying is not total nonsense.
The difficult issue is that so much of what people actually say is total nonsense, be they “experts” or “credentialed” or be they “folksy” and “wise.” I am going to work on being more consistent with updating this blog as the year continues – my time here in Qatar, with its long hours and strange circumstances, is coming near its end. I plan on producing at least one to two entries each week, and I will look to have more substance to my posts than even this one with its singular link. Certainly I want to go over some of the books I have been reading in the past couple of months, at the very least.
Apologies to anyone who has continued to follow my blog and noticed a prolonged absence of posts! It has been a busy few months for me both at work and in my personal life. To return to form, -ish, I will write some brief comments on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs. Unlike a conventional history of one of the great powers of Europe, Montefiore writes almost like a gossip columnist. Interspersed with bureaucratic missives and detailed accounts of political debates are recountings of interior design choices of tsars’ mistresses or a note on the color of a soldier’s eyes. It takes what could be a dry-as-dust chronicle of some six hundred-odd years of history and enlivens it as though watching a very long, meticulously researched miniseries on a finer cable network.
The actual history is very intriguing, as prior to this book most of my knowledge of Russia has been either its Soviet and present incarnations, or very limited exposure through literature, music, visual arts, and some notional popular accounts of individual Romanov rulers. Montefiore’s real gift is his use of personal letters, diaries, and other records to humanize these otherwise inscrutable autocrats and their complex and hidebound Empire. It is like learning all of the details of the helm of the ship and its officers in the aftermath of a mutiny of passengers and staff. The Romanovs, it could be said, were ordinary people, too.
On Antonio Gramsci…
As an exercise in learning about multifarious schools of thought, I have paused the study of Stoicism to read letters and essays by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was an incredibly influential member of the European Marxist movement, his works full of effusive praise for the Soviets and plans for overthrowing, undercutting, and remaking the society of his native Italy through institutional insurgency and cultural hegemony. As a writer, he comes across in translation as very succinct and clear in his ideas. It is easy to see the appeal he would have both among dogmatic Communists and among those already inclined towards his ideology. And, like most Marxists, he is often adroit at identifying a problem in the society around him, but instead of looking at it as a moral failure to correct, he seems to take many of them as an avenue for dismantling his existing civilization and substituting it with an Internationale/COMINTERN sort of anti-culture.
One thing that particularly stands out in his writing is that the class divisions and groups of people he takes for granted as extant in Italy and most of the West at the time are far diminished in number in today’s service economies. Marxism as a system is predictive and idealistic to its detriment, and seems, in hindsight, incredibly stagnant and conservative of a particular understanding of how economies and societies functioned in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Even he also acknowledges, albeit with a completely different suggested impact, the fact that at no time has Communism or Marxian Socialism taken hold of a capitalist economy of the sort that Marx envisioned being necessary to achieve even the baseline centrally-managed economy of Socialism that would, with the hand-waved, anti-human nature magic of “revolution” lead to pure Communism.
Also of interest is his praise for the Futurists. As an artistic and intellectual movement, the Italian Futurists were in some ways anti-humanist and enamoured of a world built around industry and the machine, with the needs of he human scale much reduced to maintenance and engineering of ever-larger technological complexes and structures. I find it interesting especially because Gramsci defends much of his theory/theology of Marxism on the grounds of it being the most humanist and most caring of worldviews for the greatest portion of Italian society.
On Epictetus’ “Dialogues”…
I am still working my way through Epictetus’ Dialogues and Selected Writings. One thing about the material itself – it is incredibly dense with ideas in every sentence. What makes that density so powerful, however, is that it is not based on complex concepts and hard-to-define abstractions. Stoicism is not, thus far, and I have gotten a decent way into the text, all that interested in the absolute bedrock level of reality. There is a large element, at least in Epictetus’ Dialogues that must be taken for granted or accepted, akin to a postulate in geometry, such as faith in God or gods, the definition of a few terms, and certain maxims about life. But even with the academic “imperfection” of the philosophy, it remains one of the most compelling moral philosophies I have ever encountered.
Simultaneously Epictetus is able to rationally explain why it is paramount to tend to one’s own, and yet also explain how this does not conflict with the need to do the best one can by all others. It is not meant to be a complex code of regulations for life, but a set of sparse precepts for managing the situations that most often befall human beings. The “end goal” in Stoicism is not, then, to question all things to the point of inscrutability, nor is it centered around maximizing any one trait but personal “goodness,” for a mutable value of “goodness,” but rather to overall strive to be the best person that one can in any sort of life circumstances. Absent are the imprecations about afterlives and specific practices found in Buddhism, but the overall theme of moderation and self-restraint is, if anything, more pronounced in Stoicism. Epictetus leaves the mystical to the mystic and godliness to the gods – at no point do I imagine Stoicism in some alternate timeline spawning a pantheon of bodhisattvas with myriad arms and incarnate cosmological concepts riding unknowable steeds.*
As far as advice for living, the Dialogues are very much “old man” advice. I can see how many, if not most people, upon first encountering such a curmudgeonly tone, would be quick to dismiss the validity of the words, but if you look at what he is saying, it makes more sense than the soaring dreams of a younger man or woman’s emotionally-derived thought problems. Upon reading it, really, it seems so close to “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” that the novelty of seeing it spelled out and amassed is almost greater than that of a Wittgensteinian or Hegelian maelstrom of terms, classifiers, contingent phrases, and attempts at answering questions that, to Epictetus, would seem wasteful and unnecessary to ask.
One of the things that I find most difficult to take up as a personal creed is the idea of not seeking better “place” and social standing. Growing up, I always felt so painfully outside of the world of normal socializing and interactions, that one quest for me has always been to develop the skills to blend in in nearly any sort of situation, to be accepted by as many people as possible and, when able, to garner praise or admiration even on a small scale. In Epictetus’ eyes, this is a waste of time and almost the closest that one can come to a “sin.” Alternatively, however, I do not gather from his text that he feels it is morally wrong to accept, earn, or receive such honors, but that making them the object of your life is a life mostly wasted.
That concept seems very much in line with some folk wisdom from my own father, who has always pointed out that if you are successful and passionate in whatever you are doing, then people will come to you and praise you or find you captivating without you even having to expend any extra social effort. I always took this to be a naive reading from someone whom I knew to be socially successful in his youth and maturity, but the more that I see of life and the more I think about it, that is accurate, useful, and true.
I have more thoughts on all of this, but I think for tonight that is all I will tap out on the blog.
*I mean, it is possible to imagine such a world, but it seems counterintuitive to everything in Stoic philosophy to allow it to transform, barring incorporation into some other, alien tradition of religion or mysticism, into something full of “woo” and extreme supernaturality. So far the most mystical references in the work have been to auguries, performed ritually on animals, and how they show the designs of the gods/God. Even then, Epictetus seems to allude to the fact that these are not really anymore concrete than imagination.