Sunday, August 9, 2020

A Better Toolkit

 In an old (Dec 2002) Locus interview a writer, Orson Scott Card, who isn't a huge favorite of mine discusses the versatility of SF

Science fiction gives writers a tool set unmatched by any other genre. We can take our tools and step into any genre and do really well, but they can't take their tools and step into ours and do anything but flounder around. Our tools include most (but not all) of theirs. We have the ability to lead readers into a world that is not their own, step by step, without pain. We don't all do it -- there's plenty of bad science fiction where you have no idea where you are and what's going on. But from Robert A. Heinlein on, we've had the tools to do it without expository lumps, with the little details bled in. We train our readers to be able to absorb the changes, the differences between the world of the story and the world they live in, bit by bit and build up the picture slowly, frame by frame. Figuratively, we've learned how to start in a small room and only open the doors as we need to open them. The world expands as we move through it and as we need to reveal it -- which is way better than the horrible prologue that tries to give you the whole big world picture before dropping you into the story. We've learned techniques that actually work.

Artistic Progress

There is a natural progression in art forms: simple, then lovely, then distant, then abstract, then death of the form. Simple can be clumsy and unsophistocated or plain and clear . Lovely is self-evident. Distant begins to pay too much attention to the way it's executed, too self-referential, a third person perspective. Abstract takes the navel gazing to new extremes, typically skill is still important but it's more about propping up something artless with bogus theory and claims of "this is important" where obviously if it was important it wouldn't be necessary to proclaim it so. Death is when the artifact is completely devoid of any pleasure-giving, it must have a placard beside it specifically telling the fickle public why it is art for without that placard it would be misunderstood as just a piece of crap. Death can also be recursive reproductions of any of the earlier stages over and over again.

Painting did this: flat gothic, Botticelli, impressionism, Picasso, Pollack

Art music: Gregorian chant, Mozart, Bruckner/Debussy, Berg/Schoenberg, Billy Joel piano sonatas.

The art forms that were mature by the 1800's are especially prone to this cycle as technique became highly respected. Newer forms were slightly more resistant. Jazz fell to it because the skill level was so high: Armstrong, Miles, Monk, Miles [second quintet], Ayler followed by reproductions of each era over and over again. 

Because the artists in those last two stages were considered "important" everyone had to take account of them. New artists were required to reconcile their expression with these ideas. Rock was able to totally sidestep it because skill was never as important. Acts like Zappa, King Crimson & The Residents may come around but nobody follows: technique-wise they can't and record labels won't let them. The furthest along popular rock ever got was Distant with bands like Talking Heads. Country never made it past Simple & Lovely except maybe play-with-the-form work by guys like David Allan Coe (see, it already gets less enjoyable)

Abstract is the trap of the insecure


I just re-read this Heinlein essay and I'm not convinced anything is going on with the creation of this new field of science. Certainly not in any institutional way

The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, not the morals of young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous "encyclopedia" -- which isn't even arranged alphabetically. Our "file cards" are spilled on the floor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need. Call it the Crisis of the Librarian. We need a new "specialist" who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences. But we are not likely to get either one in a hurry and we have a powerful log of grief before us in the meantime. Today the forerunners of synthesists are already at work in many places. Their titles may be anything; their degrees may be in anything -- or they may have no degrees. Today they are called "operations researchers", or sometimes "systems development engineers", or other interim tags. But they are all interdisciplinary people, generalists, not specialists -- the new Renaissance Man. The very explosion of data which forced most scholars to specialize very narrowly created the necessity which evoked this new non-specialist. So far, this "unspecialty" is in its infancy; its methodology is inchoate, the results are sometimes trivial, and no one knows how to train to become such a man. But the results are often spectacularly brilliant, too -- this new man may yet save all of us.-- R.A.Heinlein in "Where To?" 1950/1965
Not really sure if there's been any movement on this except for the many "Meta-studies" that have been published recently combining lots of experimenters' results. I suppose it could be in the realm of the creative amateur: feature magazine writers, Usenet, websites, etc. [this was from 2004]

Heidegger and Mayans

Nice description of Heidegger's idea of an individual (Dasein) in his culture's "thrown-ness" from Schele & Freidel's A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

As we grow to adulthood, every human being acquires a special way of seeing and understanding the world and the human community. This is a shared conception of reality, created by the members of a society living together over generations, through their language, their institutions and arts, their experiences, and their common work and play. We call this human phenomenon "culture", and it enables people to understand how and why the world around them works.
This leads the chapter attempting to explain how they experienced their world. As the authors explain the sacrament of blood-letting, they come to an interesting analogy
In our world, for example, we could not imagine letting blood from our bodies, as the Maya did, in order to communicate with our ancestors. Such violence seems crazy and "uncivilized" to us. On the other hand, the ancient Maya would find our war-time custom of drafting young men to go and fight in the place of the leaders of our nation both barbaric and cowardly. Maya lords fought their own battles and a king often paid for defeat in the coin of his own capture and sacrifice.
This is a fascinating book which also serves as a primer for basic hieroglyphic translation.

New aphorisms

You can't ascribe causality to superficial changes. Look deeper or at more systemic differences and you may find causality

Accurate Timeline of Pre-Socratic Philosophers

There's a great new resource available to help keep the chronology of early Greek philosophers straight. Which thinkers were contemporaries, which ones were earlier and later. Previous references were all over the place so it's nice to have this all in one well-researched book.

Check out the publisher Cosmographia ( and the main page for the book by Philip Thibodeau here:

I found out about it from the BMCR write-up here:

Enjoy! I sure am

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Epictetus: three-stage strategy to think stoically

I knew of this but hadn't really thought of it as a "thing" until I saw a reference in Julia Annas's essay "Epictetus on Moral Perspectives". Then going back to the Oldfather translation of the Discourses and there are references all over the place. Somehow it never registered with me before. Here's the explanation from Annas:

  • Firstly, you examine your desires and aversions, to weed out the bad and encourage the good
  • Secondly, you scrutinize your impulses to act, checking their appropriateness
  • Thirdly, you concern yourself with your assents to what you should do, scrutinizing your ethical beliefs for consistency and mutual support.
See Discourses III.2.1-5; cf. I.4.11; II.17.14-18; III.12. The second stage can be introduced in the context of social duties — cf. III.2.4

Here are those references and the pointers contained within which can be found in the W.A. Oldfather translation of Epictetus scans on

Discourses Vol I.p.xxi
Triple division is a pedagogical device for lucid presentation rather than an innovation in thought. See A. Bonhoffer "Epiktet und die Stoa", 1890 22ff; Zeller, p.769; especially P.E. More "Hellenistic Philosphies", Princeton, 1923, Epictetus (pp94-171), p.107f.

Discources I.4.11
What is the work of virtue? Serenity....[it is not enough to have read Chrysippus; and one who only claims to have read it "all by himself"] "...why do you try to divert him from the consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue, that he may learn where to look for his progress?" Look for it there, wretch, where your work lies. And where is your work? In desire and aversion, that you may not miss what you desire and encounter what you would avoid; in choice and in refusal, that you may commit no fault therein; in giving and withholding assent of judgement, that you may not be deceived.[These are the three spheres or fields of human activity, inclination, choice, and intellectual assent, upon which the Stoics laid great stress. See III.2.1]

Discourses I.7.1
Most men are unaware that the handling of arguments which involve equivocal and hypothetical premisses, and, further, of those which derive syllogisms by the process of interrogation, and, in general, the handling of all such arguments, has a bearing upon the duties of life. [With the Stoics, whose sole standard of judgement in problems of conduct was the appeal to reason, the proper training of the reasoning facilities was an indispensable prerequisite to the good life. Three modes of sophistical reasoning are here differentiated. "Equivocal premisses" are those that contain amiguities in terms which are intended to mean one thing at one step in the argument, another at another. "Hypothetical premisses" involve assumptions, or conditions. The last class proceeds by drawing unexpected conclusions from the answers to questions.]

Discourses I.26.18 Note
But Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination [cf Plato, Apology, 38A]

Discourses I.27.10
I cannot avoid death. Instead of avoiding the fear of it, shall I die in lamentation and trembling? For the origin of sorrow is this — to wish for something that does not come to pass. Therefore, if I can change externals according to my own wish, I change them; but if I cannot, I am ready to tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way. For it is man's nature not to endure to fall into the evil. Then, finally, when I can neither change the circumstances, nor tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way, I sit down and groan, and revile whom I can — Zeus and the rest of the gods; for if they do not care for me, what are they to me? "Yes," you say, "but that will be impious of you." What, then, shall I get that is worse than what I have now? In short, we must remember this — that unless piety and self-interest be conjoined, piety cannot be maintained in any man.

Discourses II.17.14-18
And yet what need is there for me to bring forward now our strife with one another and make mention of that? Take your own case; if you apply properly your preconceived ideas, why are you troubled [the opposite of the even flow of quiet waters], why are you hampered? Let us pass by for the moment the second field of study [the three fields: desire, choice, assent] — that which has to do with our choices and the discussion of what is our duty in regard to them. Let us pass by also the third — that which has to do with our assents. I make you a present of all this. Let us confine our attention to the first field, one which allows an almost palpable proof that you do not properly apply your preconceived ideas. Do you at this moment desire what is possible in general and what is possible for you in particular? If so, why are you hampered? Why are you troubled? Are you not at this moment trying to escape what is ineveitable? If so, why do you fall into any trouble, why are you unfortunate? Why is it that when you want something it does not happen? For this is the strongest proof of trouble and misfortune. I want something, and it does not happen; and what creature is more wretched than I? I do not want something, and it does happen; and what creature is more wretched than I?

Discourses II.18.24 [compare to middle of III.12]

Discourses III.2.1-7 [bold is III.2.4]
The fields of study in which the man who expects to make progress will have to go into training; and that we neglect what is most important
There are three fields of study [cf II.17,15 This triple division of philosophy is the one original element in the teaching of Epictetus, and even it is rather a pedagogical device than an innovation in thought. Compare Vol I.p.xxi, and the literature there cited] in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions, that he may never fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he avoids; the second with cases of choice and of refusal, and, in general, with duty, that he may act in an orderly fashion, upon good reasons, and not carelessly; the third with the avoidance of error and rashness in judgement, and, in general, about cases of assent. Among these the most important and especially pressing is that which has to do with the stronger emotions; for a strong emotion does not arise except a desire fails to attain its object, or an aversion falls into what it would avoid [a briefer definition is given in I.27.10] This is the field of study which introduces to us confusions, tumults, misfortunes and calamities; and sorrows, lamentations, envies; and makes [The expression is not logical, for the field of study obviously can do nothing of the kind, but the fault is probably not in the MS. tradition.] us envious and jealous — pasisions which make it impossible for us even to listen to reason. The second field of study deals with duty; for I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue, but should maintain my relations, both natural and acquired, as a religious man, as a son, a brother, a father, a citizen.
The third belongs only to those who are already making progress; it has to do with the element of certainty in the matters which have just been mentioned, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness, or a state of melancholy-madness, a man may not be taken unawares by the appearance of an untested sense-impression — This, says someone, is beyond us — But philosophers nowadays pass by the first and second fields of study, and concentrate upon the third, upon arguments which involve equivocalk premisses, which derive syllogisms by the process of interrogation, which involve hypothetical premisses [See I.7.1, and note for these first three], and sophisms like The Liar [i.e. if a man says he is lying, is he really lying, or telling the truth] — Of course, he says, even when a man is engaged in subjects of this kind he has to preserve his freedom from deception — But what kind of a man ought to engage in them? — Only the one who is already good and excellent.

Discourses III.12.*
Of Training
We ought not to take our training in things that are unnatural or fantastic, since in that case we who profess to be philosophers will be no better than the mountebanks. For it is a hard thing also to walk a tight-rope, and not merely hard but dangerous too. Ought we also for this reason to practise walking a tight-rope, or setting up a palm, or throwing our arms about statues? ["Setting up a palm" may possibly mean climbing a pole with only the hands and the feet, like the climbers of palms, as Upton and Schwighauser (after Bulinger) suggest. There was a "palm-bearer" connected with the gymnasium at Tegea in Arcadia, who possibly had charge of the exercise referred to here, whatever its exact character may have been. As for embracing statues, Diogenes was said to have done that nude in cold weather, so as to harden himself] Not a bit of it. Not every difficult and dangerous thing is suitable for training, but only that which is conducive to success in achieving the object of our effort. And what is the object of our effort? To act without hindrance in choice and in aversion. And what does this mean? Neither to fail to get what we desire, nor to fall into what we would avoid. Toward this end, therefore, our training also should tend. For since it is impossible without great and constant training to secure that our desire fail not to attain, and our aversion fall not into what it would avoid, be assured that, if you allow training to turn outwards, towards the things that are not in the realm of the moral purpose, you will have neither your desire successful in attaining what it would, nor your aversion successful in avoiding what it would. And since habit is a powerful influence, when we have accustomed  ourselves to employ desire and aversion only upon these externals, we must set a contrary habit to counteract this habit, and where the very slippery nature of sense-impressions is in play, there we must set our training as a counteracting force.

I am inclined to pleasure; I will betake myself to the opposite side of the rolling ship, and that beyond measure, so as to train myself. I am inclined to avoid hard work; I will strain and exercise my sense-impressions to this end, so that my aversion from everything of this kind shall cease. For who is the man in training? He is the man who practises not employing his desire, and practises employing his aversion only upon the things that are within the sphere of his moral purpose, yes, and practises particularly in the things that are difficult to master. And so different men will have to practicse particularly to meet different things. To what purpose is it, then, under these conditions to set up a palm tree, or to carry around a leather tent, or a mortar and pestle? [reference to Cynics who carry all the simple things they need in life at all times (in an ostentatious manner). Seneca mentions a man who has practised carrying about enormous burdens on his back] Man, practise, if you are arrogant, to submit when you are reviled, not to be disturbed when you are insulted. Then you will make such progress, that, even if someone strikes you, you will say to yourself, "Imagine that you have thrown your arms about a statue." Next train yourself to use wine with discretion, not with a view to heavy drinking (for there are some clumsy fools who practise with this in mind), but first for the purpose of achieving abstention from wine, and keeping your hands off a wench, or a sweet-cake. And then some day, if the occasion for a test really comes, you will enter the lists at a proper time for the sake of disovering whether your sense-impressions still overcome you just as they did before. But first of all flee far away from the things that are too strong for you. It is not a fair match that, between a pretty wench and a young beginner in philosophy. "A pot," as they say, "and a stone do not go together." [Compare the fable about the earthenware pot and the bronze jar in Babrius 193 (Crusius) == Aesop 422]

After your desire and your aversion the next topic [Upon this division of the field of philosphy, which appears to be peculiar to Epictatus, see note on III.2.1] has to do with your choice and refusal. Here the object is to be obedient to reason, not to choose or to refuse at the wrong time, or the wrong place, or contrary to some other similar propriety.

The third topic has to do with cases of assent; it is concerned with the things that are plausible and attractive. For, just as Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination, [See note on I.26.18] so we ought not to accept a sense-impression unsubjected to examination, but should say, "Wait, allow me to see who you are and whence you come" [cf II.18.24] (just as the night watch say, "Show me your tokens" [A token or mark of identification was frequently called for in ancient times by the police (especially at night), much as in some of the occupied and annexed districts of Europe since the Great War] "Do you have your tokens from nature, the one which every sense-impression which is to be accepted must have?" And, in conclusion, all the methods which are applied to the body by the persons who are giving it exercise, might also themselves be conducive to training, if in some such way as this they tend toward display, they are characteristic of a man who has turned toward the outside world, and it is hungting for something other than the thing itself which he is doing, and is looking for spectators who will say, "Ah, what a great man!" It is this consideration which renders admirable the remark that Apollonius used to make: 'When you wish to train for your own sake, then when you are thirsty some hot day take a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out — and don't tell anybody about it!"

interstitial footnotes are in brackets

A Better Toolkit

 In an old (Dec 2002) Locus interview a writer,  Orson Scott Card , who isn't a huge favorite of mine discusses the versatility of SF Sc...