Ellen Ullman – The Bug

Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, about a creation overpowering its creator. Unknowingly, she lived out the drama of her story – nothing else she did achieved the same fame, and her entire life now lives under that book’s shadow. One day, Mary Shelley’s name will be spoken for the last time. Some other day afterwards, Frankenstein’s name will be spoken for the last time. The interval in between might be thousands of years.

Frankenstein is science fiction, but maybe the fiction runs deeper than people realise. Think of “Frankenstein’s monster” and what comes to mind? A shambling green Boris Karloff, with bolts sticking out of his neck. In the original book, the monster’s skin is yellow, and it has long black hair. The public’s conception of the monster changed with the years, to where it bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s creation.

It mutated. It evolved. Mary Shelley called it a monster. But perhaps in our nomenclature it could be called…a virus.

Ellen Ullman’s The Bug is a post-cyberpunk footnote to Frankenstein. A computer programmer encounters a bug in his company’s software. This bug has a life of its own, resists his efforts to document and eradicate it, and cripples the program to the point of threatening the company’s big IPO.

At first, it’s called U-1017, as it’s the thousandth and seventeenth bug discovered in the program (although you’d think the programmers would use zero-indexing, making it U-1016). Then, matters become personal, and he calls it Jester. The fight against it takes on mythic proportions.

While he struggles against the bug, his personal life is falling to bits. His wife is unfaithful, the company is screwing him, and his neighbors play music too loud. His failure to defeat U-1017 feels like a referendum against his existence on Earth. Programming is literally the only thing he does. If he’s a failure at that, what’s he to do? He liberally comments his code with existential angst.

Ullman adds lots of interesting asides about programming, linguistics, and math. One of the book’s most interesting themes is Conway’s Game of Life: an x-y grid where cell-like automata live, breed, and die in accordance with simple rules. This is introduced as a parallel to corporate programming. There’s a brilliant typographical conceit where the beginning of each chapter contains an iteration of the Game. Clever though this is, it spoils the book. If you know how the Game works, you can guess how the book ends after seeing the final iteration.

(John Horton Conway, by the way, is another Mary Shelley. The Game of Life is so visually intuitive and thought-provoking that it overshadows most of Conway’s other work, much of which he feels is more significant.)

The novel is set in 1984, the age of the Apple Macintosh and the IBM. A lot of bands like Van Halen and Quiet Riot are name-dropped. Women are described as having padded shoulders so frequently that it becomes like a tic. A book like The Bug could never have been written today. The programmer would have posted his code on StackExchange and gotten six solutions by his midmorning break.

The Bug evokes a pretty powerful response from modest ingredients. It’s fascinating, and emotionally affecting. And Ullman doesn’t cheat: we actually do learn the solution to the bug in the end.

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Paradox: a perfect sociopath would have a really good sense of empathy.

In CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a devil laments the fact that evil is crippled, unless it also contains a strain of good. Bill Maher expounded upon a similar point: the 9/11 hijackers were courageous. They wouldn’t have been able to fly a plane into a building otherwise.

I see a lot of “low-functioning sociopathy” in the world, where someone attempts shenanigans and fails because they don’t actually understand how normal humans think. To really fuck with someone, you’ve got to be one of them. Or at least, you have to be able to model the way they think. A sociopath with an intact theory of mind would be really dangerous.

Recently, there was a protest at Columbia University. A few people attempted to frame the protestors as pro-pedophilia by infiltrating their ranks and holding up a “NO PEDO BASHING” banner.

The trouble is, actual pedophiles never never refer to themselves as “pedos”. The word is used as a pejorative. They instead use words like “boylove” and “hebephilia”.

The most visible of such organisations is the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA. A Google search for “pedo”/”paedo” retrieves just seven results (out of 161 total pages) on their website, all of which are either quotes from other people, sarcastic gestures towards the media’s “pedo-hysteria”, or furious negation that the term applies to them.

A pedophile group with a “no pedo bashing” banner is about as believable as an anti-racist group with a “no nigger bashing” banner .

It’s a plant. An obvious plant, unless you’re stupid, or pretending to be stupid. The banner itself is large and attractive, with lots of colours. It’s the best banner at the protest, from what I can see. Someone spent money printing it. Too bad that it’s a sign that nobody actually holding pro-pedophilia views would write.

(Do you imagine that when the sociopath showed the banner to his friends, a couple of them thought “it’s too obvious” but kept their views to themselves? I mean, what benighted soul would chime in with “it should say ‘no boylove bashing'”? You’d be forever marked as “that guy who knows a lot about pedophilia.” It’s like how all men are required by law to mumble and get vague when talking about feminine hygiene products.)

Apparently, this was the same group of waterheads who planted that embarassingly fake Rape Melania sign at a protest outside a Trump International Hotel…angled perfectly towards the camera, even though the rest of the protestors are facing the opposite direction, at the hotel.

I’m torn. I mean, it’s a pretty ignoble thing to do…but since they’re so incompetent at it, maybe they should be encouraged?

(By theory of mind, I mean the one Sally-Anne False-Belief ability that we gain at around four years of age. Tell a child this story: Tweedledee puts a marble in a box and leaves the room. Then Tweedledum enters the room, takes the marble out of the box, and puts it in his left pocket. Tweedledee now wants his marble. Where will he look for it? If the child is three or younger, they will answer “in Tweedledum’s left pocket!” Only as they mature do they realise that although they they know the marble’s correct location, Tweedledee thinks it’s still in the box. Of course, maybe Tweedledee heard Tweedledum enter the room, knows that he likes to steal marbles, and furthermore, knows that he is left handed. In that case, you might expect him to check Tweedledum’s left pocket first. Your theory of mind must reason two levels deep: Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. Or suppose Tweedledum is sneaky and puts the marble in his right pocket to confound expectations. You’re now three levels deep: Tweedledum’s mind -> Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. This can be carried forward an infinite number of steps, minds mirroring minds, until the test subject reaches the end of their ability.)

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My ARma ran over your Dogma

[Forgot to post this. No longer topical.]

Today, as on so many other days, America crouched in fear.

Why must history always repeat? We talk, and wring our hands, and promise to fix the problem, and yet here we are again: the quietness shatters like glass, and the air turns lethal. Once again, The United States is in the grip of an op-ed writing spree.

Right now, there are countless journalists picking firing words at defenseless strangers. Even as you read this, a delusional madman, prompted only by mental illness and a fetishistic need for attention, is about to unleash the terrifying staccato noise of a fully automatic keyboard.

In a just world, there would be a law banning civilians from owning unlicensed opinions. But thanks to lobbying by pro-opinion activists, American still labours under the loathsome “First Amendment”, allowing any psychotic to spray rapid-fire opinions at defenseless people.

Here is one shell casing. The NY Times declares that regulations in cars reduced the number of deaths via car, and that regulation for guns might produce a similar effect.

There’s a joke about economists who try to calculate the value of cows from the price of a steak in a restaurant. The NY Times appears to be doing the same thing, except the steak has already been processed through someone’s lower intestine.

They’ve taken a summary statistic (deaths per 100 million vehicle miles travelled), put it on a bar graph, and are implying that various regulations are the reason for the decrease. This sort of thing is difficult unless you know exactly how the sausage is made (ideally, the process should be reversible, with all the input variables known). Does the NY Times know this? Does anyone?

Urban roads are far safer than those in rural areas: “Based on data from 2009, highways in rural areas have a fatality risk that is 2.7 times greater than that in urban areas. In general the lower average speeds, greater provision of lighting, greater deployment of traffic control devices and fewer curves in urban areas more than compensate for factors such as the greater number of intersections and the presence of pedestrians.” Over the relevant period, the urban population of the US increased from around 50% of the total to nearly 90%. Could this affect anything?

Cars are safer and more reliable than they were in the 1950s. In some ways this is driven by regulatory requirements, such as the ones in the NY Times article. In other cases, they’re clearly not. Safer cars are more marketable, and I would expect them to out-compete unsafe cars. Early vehicles (such as the 1936 Cadillac had rigid dashboards, studded with knifelike projections. These were replaced with padded polyurethane dashboards, not through law, but apparently largely through market demands.

I’d also wonder about medical care, which is better today than it was in the past. This should have a reductive effect on car mortality, completely orthogonal to government regulation. If I stab someone in the chest in 2017, they’ll rush him to emergency, stabilize the injury, obtain a chest radiograph, perform an orotracheal intubation, clean the wound with saline, and if God is good, he might survive. If I stab someone in 1917, there’s probably nothing anyone can do.

You’ve got a summary statistic generated by a very complicated picture of background facts, and I don’t think we can even learn anything about car regulation from it, let alone gun regulation.

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Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust has many descriptors, but only one matters: filth. People watch it because it’s filth. Midway through, an anthropologist and his guide surreptitiously watch a native ritually rape and sacrifice an adulteress. “Enjoy the show,” his guide advises. The anthropologist throws up, but doesn’t stop watching.

Few films manage to capture such vileness and perversity. The jungle’s heat and humidity seems to press upon you through whatever piece of glass you watch it on. The camera lens itself appears infected, like a petri dish. The soundtrack mixes whimsical Italian pop, eerie tribal percussion, and experimental electronic music, becoming a bleeding and suppurating welt of sound.

The plot is secondary, or tertiary, or duodenary. An anthropologist is in the Amazon, searching for a film crew that went missing many months before. He discovers their tapes, brings them back to civilisation, and watches them. There isn’t much to this movie beyond a powerful impression of sickness. But it’s clever: because it knows to keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Other than one attempt at a moral point (“what if WE’RE the real cannibals?”), the violence happens very far from home, both literally and morally. You don’t feel threatened by the gore and bloodshed, or the fact that you’re enjoying it. It happens in a part of the world so strange that it feels like an alien planet, and everyone who dies is either a primitive native, or a white person who “deserves it” (the missing film crew are established as arrogant and dislikeable). That was Cannibal Holocaust’s “it factor”. Guiltless violence.

There was a “shock jock” radio duo called Opie and Anthony who were famous for their sex-based stunts (such as launching fireworks out of a female fan’s vagina, which sounds very boring over a radio show, but whatever.) At the peak of their infamy, they were interviewed by conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly. They described their on-air hijinks, and he took them to task, calling them disgusting and degrading to women and so forth. Very well, they’d expected that. They gave him stock answers. Mumble, radio show, mumble, entertainment, mumble, First Amendment. Next question, please.

But O’Reilly wouldn’t let the topic go. He kept coming back to it, over and over, like a dog with a bone. The sex. The nastiness. He wanted to hear all about it. He wanted them to describe it. He wanted to register his shock and disgust, repeatedly. They had an epiphany: O’Reilly was exploiting sex in the exact same way they were. But because his audience was made of grandmas and geezers (median age of Fox News’ primetime audience: 68, according to Nielsen), he had to cloak his pruriance in moral disapproval. It was his way of getting filth on the air: he just had to make sure it was coming from someone other than him, with him wagging a disapproving finger.

Everyone loves perversion, but some of us are hypocrites about it. There’s a saying among prostitutes: he who points with one hand is masturbating with the other.

I won’t overstate Cannibal Holocaust’s cleverness. Of course, “awful things happening in foreign lands” is a common trope, even outside cinema. Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden features long, almost slavering descriptions of the tortures supposedly carried out in Cathay, and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels work at a similar level (Marquis de Sade, with typical ballsiness, set all of his atrocity porn within his own nation of France). In fact, Cannibal Holocaust’s portrayal of natives will discomfort modern viewers, even beyond any of the events of the film. You’re not supposed to make indiginous peoples look like savages, and monsters. They’re people!

Yes, they’re people. But at real life digging sites, all around the world, anthropologists find human bones in ominous proximity to camfires. Sometimes they’re roasted and split, the marrow sucked out. The events portrayed in the film have really happened, sometimes shockingly recently (the Fore people of Papua New Guinea were practicing cannibalism as late as the 1960s). The truth is, you don’t need to be a monster to eat another person. Even we would do it, if circumstances required. If we are only three missed meals away from anarchy, how far away is cannibalism? Four missed meals? Five? The day might come, and then we will see how much ironic distance Cannibal Holocaust has.

It’s shot well. It has a strong atmosphere. It has all the grace and subtlety of a flint axehead crunching through your parietal lobe. There are some good performances. It is a good movie, by many categories.

But it’s filth. Not just at the surface, but right the way through. After a wave of bannings, censored cuts of it were released, but they did no good. You can’t wash clean a pair of hands that are made of dirt.

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A Clockwork Orange

A teenage delinquent is arrested for murder. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he submit himself to experimental medical treatment. It quashes all of his violent impulses, along with his ability to enjoy classical music: the thing that gave his life fulfillment and meaning. He emerges from prison a changed man, and perhaps not a man at all. Should the state be allowed to do this?

I think so. I also think Burgess stacks the deck against the state by not asking some obvious and important questions. Here’s one: “if not the Ludovico Technique, what should happen to Alex?”

Should he receive life in prison? The electric chair? Or should he be allowed to resume his crime spree? Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet only seems like a bad idea until you notice the smoke spiraling from the engines, and Burgess cheats by not considering the even worse alternatives. Much is made of Alex’s lost ability to enjoy classical music (a metaphor for his humanity), but there are worse things. The woman he murdered is now incapable of enjoying music of any style.

A Clockwork Orange‘s theme is stated within the book itself: Alex is like an orange, once bursting with juice and sweetness, changed by the state into a piece of machinery. The natural, turned into the unnatural. But to what extent was Alex’s behavior ever natural? At the start, he and his gang drink “milk-plus” to fortify themselves for a night of carnage. The inference is that this is stimulant-laced milk. Alex chose to put a mind-altering substance into his body…just like he chose the Ludovico Technique. Why is the first an act of free choice, but the second isn’t? Beyond that, it opens the question as to whether “natural” is even a defensible word, or “free will” a tenable concept.

Oranges are a poor choice of metaphor, because they are clockwork to begin with. No wild oranges exist, and they were presumably bred from some other citrus fruit. That fruit was probably bad tasting, and perhaps inedible or toxic. Through a combination of genetic mutations, planned breeding programs, and hybridization, we have the modern orange. Many kinds, in fact! You can get a Valencia orange, which is sweet with a lot of juice. Or a blood orange, a tarter fruit with an attractive red color. None of this is natural. The orange was guided towards its present forms by mankind’s hand.

In the same way, Alex didn’t sprout from the forehead of Zeus – he was created and shaped by factors beyond his control. Alex’s “free will” is actually the genes of his mother and his father, the prenatal environment in his mother’s womb, and the society he was raised in. Some think that the increase in crime in the latter 20th century was fuelled (literally) by the presence of leaded gasoline in the soil. After gasoline became unleaded, crime rates dropped. Imagine if Alex’s sociopathy came from lead – a mistake by the government. The Ludovico Technique is an attempt to correct that mistake. Why confuse the mistake as Alex’s free will, and the correction as abhuman meddling?

As a novel, the book is very good. I wish it had only tried to be a novel. It moves quickly, except for the prison scenes in the middle part. The depravity is as nasty as it is exciting, and Burgess’s dystopian England is fleshed out just enough to seem realistic, leaving the attention on Alex (as he surely would have wanted.)

Most of Burgess’s other work are comic novels, and there’s lots of humor here: after Alex finally suffers some consequences for his actions, he writes “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning.” That was a Good laugh. (Unfortunately, the book also contains a Bad Laugh: at the start, Alex is beating up a stewbum who suddenly launches into a melodramatic speech worthy of Hiawatha.) Burgess’s most brilliant concept here is nadsat, an argot based on Russian, schoolboy talk, and Cockney rhyming slang. It adds an alien, disaffected quality to Alex’s mind, as though we’re seeing the world through a Babelfish translation. It also might have been a tactical move on Burgess’s part. Harder to get outraged over in-out-in-out performed on a devotchka then rape performed on a woman.

Even so, the US version of the book didn’t escape a critical (and notorious) edit, the omission of the final chapter. Alex, having broken through the Ludovico Technique, nonetheless decides that ultra-violence isn’t for him. In other words, he grows up. This chapter was cut over Burgess’s objections by his US publisher, probably for marketing reasons. Readers are used to the storytelling convention of “fall, then rise, then fall”, or “rise, then fall, then rise”. The uncut version of A Clockwork Orange is more like “fall, then rise, then fall, then rise”. For decades, only the 20 chapter version was available in the US. In 1986, the full 21 chapter book was published for the first time.

The extra chapter completely transforms A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t know which version I prefer. The 21 chapter version is didactic, and feels like Burgess tying too neat a bow on the story. “Well, Alex grows up anyway, so that proves it was all for nothing.” At 20 chapters, A Clockwork Orange falls more into line with the film. And I strongly dislike the film.

Say what you will about Burgess, but he never tries to make Alex your pal. Never, ever, ever. He’s an evil kid, and you are supposed to dislike him. Stanley Kubrick almost seems to hero-worship Alex, even modifying his crimes so that they’re less awful (instead of raping a pair of ten year old girls, Film-Alex has consensual sex with two adult women). You can go over the film scene by scene, and note the shots Kubrick takes of Malcolm McDowell, making him look dashing, romantic, even darkly Messianic. You can also note the way he portrays Alex’s victims as bug-eyed goons and creeps. Burgess’s book seems to say “Alex is evil, but was it right for the state to alter his brain?” Kubrick’s film seems to say “hey, don’t harsh Alex’s flow, man.”

Films have an annoying habit of colonising the books they’re based on. Now it’s hard to read A Clockwork Orange and not see Kubrick’s milk-plus bar, or Kubrick’s Durango ’95 speeding down the highway. The Ludovico Technique is now the Kubricko Technique. The film amplified the very parts of the story that Burgess had tried so hard to tamp down, and this may have been why he later disowned it. Once, he could have claimed ownership of A Clockwork Orange. But now, in the minds of millions, Burgess’s most famous work is…someone else’s!

On its own, the book is a great story. Very dark. Too bad Burgess also wanted it to be a gedankenexperiment, because it doesn’t have much gedank.

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Impellitteri – Venom

The power of Christ Impels you! This album completely surprised me, as I’d always classed Impellitteri as one of the flock of 80s shred metal bands: long on guitar sonatas, short on songwriting ability or actual hooks. Venom proved to be one of the most powerful, focused, and concise albums of its year. The LD50 for this album is very low.

What to expect? Savagely fast and technical riffwork, which runs all up and down the neck while still remaining tight and groove-laden. Guitar solos that throw away any notion of “taste”, “musicality”, or “wearing pants” and just eviscerate the listener with almost unimaginably fast blurs of notes. Soaring vocals that bend and weave around the guitar lines. A bass and drum rhythm backdrop that crushes you hard enough to undergo atomic fusion.

With ten songs that are all around three minutes long, this is a shred metal album LARPing as a punk rock LP. There’s an immediateness and directness to the music that can’t really be compared to other shred metal. This is the anti-Yngwie. It doesn’t get right to the point – it starts at the point, from the moment the needle touches down. The songs fly by with alarming efficiency, verses and choruses and solos appearing and evaporating just at the point where they’ve got you intrigued.

Chris Impelliteri’s guitar sound is like the glass shards from a dirty window. Smooth, glassy, but also throat ripping, full of points seeking out the body’s softness. His tone is so thick and suffocating that he must have quadtracked the rhythm parts, despite the agility and tightness of all these songs.

And the tempo is very fast: the album strings so many uptempo songs together that the thirty-three minute runtime soon seems like a necessity, before the listener taps out. “Venom”, “Empire of Lies”, and “Nightmare” are progress at a gallop. “Face the Enemy” is perhaps the album’s slowest song, a Virgin Steele style uptempo rocker with a big chorus.

“Domino Theory” is a rolling thunderstorm of a track that might be my favourite from Impellitteri’s work here. “Jenovah” and “Rise” have hard-edged choruses with some surprising progressive sensibilities in their construction. The album closes with “Time Machine” and “Holding On”, which are equally ominous but perhaps more melodic. The European edition has a bonus track called “Rock Through the Night”, which is fine on its own, but takes the album to the point where there’s too much of the same and it starts to become a bore.

But Impellitteri astonished me with what they accomplished on this album. A shred metal album that you can listen to in one sitting, and still want more…wasn’t this always the endpoint for the genre?

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Dean Koontz – Odd Hours

Some bad books are like buildings, collapsing safely in their own footprint. Cordon off the area, wear protective gear, and you’ll escape the obliteration unscathed.

But other bad books are like trees, falling sideways. They don’t just doom themselves, they also destroy other books that happen to be nearby.

Dean Koontz writes many bad books. If they’re standalone, I don’t have a problem, as they kill nothing but themselves. But this is the fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, and as the first Odd Thomas was very good I’m not impressed that he keeps cheapening it with afterthoughts.

The story is familiar by now. Odd can see ghosts, and he must resolve the lingering conflict that keeps them from moving on. The concept is derivative of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Stephen King’s generic “big secret in a small town” conceit, and Art Bell’s radio broadcasts, but back then, it was fun. It no longer is. If Odd Thomas was The Godfather and Forever Odd was the Godfather 3, then Odd Hours is squarely in The Godfather X: Electric Boogaloo territory. It has a terrible, meandering story, a cast of “colorful” characters with no purpose beyond chewing the scenery, and a bone-deep sense of pointlessness. Odd Thomas should resolve the lingering conflict that stops his own series from moving on. I think the author murdered it, midway through book two.

Odd now lives at a place with the alarming title of Magic Beach. He has dreams of a nuclear-red storm coming in with the tide. Some thugs try to kill him. He meets a woman who gets lots of character development until Dean Koontz literally seems to forget that she’s in the story. Is there an intelligent dog? You bet. Does the main character use a gun and is consumed with guilt and regret afterwards? See, these things write themselves!

The plot is insane and nonsensical. It doesn’t have logic, it has a series of events, all occurring without reference to one another.

The sheriff of Magic Beach is plotting a dastardly conspiracy – I don’t buy that a guy running a small-town cop shop would be capable of buying nuclear warheads, but your mileage may vary – and Odd Hours soon enters a familiar rhythm of the hero running away from bad guys and solving problems with author’s convenience. In this case, it doesn’t take too much convenience, because the (six or seven) villains are all bumbling idiots who could be thwarted by a childproof seal. Dean Koontz can’t figure out how to resolve the story, so he has them all shoot each other. Then the book ends.

Dean Koontz is still a good prose stylist, but he’s a heavy-handed good prose stylist. Every sentence aspires to be a lyrical utterance of lapidary beauty. Every page is crammed with wordplay, literary allusions, “clever” character names, and other pukesome shit. Dean, stop trying so hard. No, seriously, stop trying so hard. You are fish and chips. I don’t need fish and chips served on a fine Kensington tea set.

He also does that annoying thing where he writes something clever and then nudges you, to make sure you got it. Early in the book, a character is described as having “hair like wool-of-bat and tongue like fillet of fenny snake”. I’d hoped he’d leave it alone, but of course he has someone point out (for the reader’s benefit) that this is a Shakespeare reference. Thanks. Literary allusions should always be bashed through the reader’s skull with a Louisville slugger.

Koontz’s recycling is now obvious, and impossible to ignore. All the cliches make an appearance. The frequent references to classic Hollywood cinema. The angry old man rants about popular culture and modern music (you can immediately detect a bad egg in Dean Koontz’s novels, because they enjoy gangsta rap or heavy metal). At one point, he writes the character of Dick Halloran from The Shining into the story, except instead of a black man it’s a white woman and instead of “the shine” it’s “the twinge”. I hoped that he’d also borrow the axe murder scene from Kubrick’s film version, but no luck.

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What It’s Like to Solve a Problem on the Internet

[You have a problem.]

[You google the problem.]

[The only relevant result is a forum thread from 2011.]

OP: [exact description of the problem you are having]

Person 1: [wrong answer]

Person 2: [wrong answer]

Person 3: [correct answer to a problem that is not this one]

Person 4: [“solution” that involves twenty hours of work, broken laws, $2000, and a fresh human kidney]

Person 5: [“solution” that amounts to “have you considered not doing the thing you’re trying to do?]

Person 6: [pointless chiming in that they don’t have that problem and therefore cannot help you]

Person 7: lol! Person 2 has a Better Call Saul avatar! Does anyone watch Better Call Saul?!? Let’s talk about Better Call Saul right here in this thread!

Person 8: [correction of spelling mistake that itself contains multiple spelling mistakes]

Person 9: [wrong answer, stated with utter confidence. Post contains the words “this WILL work” and ends with an unprompted “you’re welcome! :)” because clearly the problem is as good as fixed. Reacts with bafflement and hostility when their solution doesn’t work.]

Person 10: I have the same problem! [proceeds to describe a problem that, although superficially similar, is in fact wildly different to the one in the OP. Everyone rallies around Person 10 and starts trying to fix his totally different problem.]

Peanut gallery: [steady stream of inside jokes, innuendo, and resurrections of old catfights that nobody but they themselves understand.]

Person 11: Hey, OP, this should help [posts a link]

OP: Thanks Person 11, you fixed my problem! Wow, that was a real head-scratcher! I would NEVER have thought of that on my own!

Moderator: issue resolved. Thread locked.

[You click the link. The website went offline a long time ago, and the domain redirects to a Russian goat porn site. No backups exist on the Internet Archive.]

[You start your own thread asking for help]

Everyone: jeez, learn to search the forum! We already resolved this issue!

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The Diary of Samuel Pepys

In 1660, an English functionary called Samuel Pepys began keeping a diary. This diary would eventually run for a million words, covering ten years of his life (and England’s history). He documents some of the most important events in history, along with things like his masturbation in church, his affairs with a variety of household maids, and the first performance of Romeo and Juliet (“it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”). The diary has no longer just describes history, it has become history. It’s like the Great Pyramid: built to memorialize a great man and great times, and now great for its own sake. People will know of the Great Pyramid long after they have forgotten Khnum-Khufu.

A lot of the diary is spent documenting minutia of Pepys’s day to day life. The diary begins not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the rearrangement of the state has landed Pepys with a new job (he notes at one point that when England suffers, he prospers). Soon we learn more about his personal life, which includes plays, wine, and endless marital strife (Elisabeth Pepys was often unhappy with him. Given his habit of seducing their housemaids, one feels empathy). Some of this is eternally fascinating, and some would have been mundane at the time but now provides a valuable glimpse of how an upper class Englishman lived his life in the days of the Rump.

Almost everything we know about the past is drawn from a stacked deck – conquerors writing of their greatest battles, artists painting their subjects in the full flower of youth and health. Time has an editorial process that winnows out mundane events, but you need the mundanity. A historical document without trivia is like an English sentence without conjunctions or articles – informative, but jarring, and you spend a lot of effort reconstructing the missing words. Pepys’s diary, even in its most boring pages, provides one of the clearest windows we have into Renaissance England. Most of the others are made of stained glass.

The diary’s most harrowing pages are the eyewitness descriptions of the Great Fire. Pepys’s prose is evocative and almost Blakean (“the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down”), which is appropriate, because the fire was apocalyptic, a bowl of wrath spilled before the appointed time. And it was very typical of Pepys to notice the poor pigeons. Earlier parts of the diary are hard to read (particularly Pepys describing his careful renovations of his home) because you know what will happen soon.

But the diary leaves mysteries as well as answers. For example, was this really a window into Pepys’s private, unfiltered thoughts? Or did he intend for it to be read by the public?

We don’t really know. The diary was written in a nearly impenetrable shorthand, and was deciphered in the 19th century by a St John’s College undergraduate (he would later learn that his effort was needless, and the key to the cipher was in the college’s very library). Modern editions of the diary are very clean and readable, once the reader trains his brain out of imposing anachronisms on the text (“sack” means wine, and when Pepys refers to someone as “a black man” he means that their hair is black, not their skin.)

A lot of this is embarassing and frank. I suspect Pepys knew that he might be playing to crowd. The prose seems not just precise but laboured – the work of a man not just trying to get words down, but gets not getting the ideas down, but getting the ideas down right. But he certainly composed the diary in a variety of different moods, and there’s probably portions he would have edited or excised, had he reviewed it with a cooler head.

A politician (who was not Pepys) said that writing a diary lets you experience life three times. Once, in the living. Twice, in the writing. Thrice, in the reading afterwards. But sometimes diaries reach the outside world, which means the experience was lived thousands or millions of times, or a number that might approach infinity (depending on how long such books are read). Khnum-Khufu obtained immortality, but not the sort he was hoping for. Pepys captured that immortality even better, in written words of his own design. “Dear diary” usually precedes boredom and narcissism. But here, a diary becomes genuinely great literature.

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The Burning Book

In the 1970s, there was a book called The Anarchist Cookbook. Hippies had many gods, and just as many bibles. This was the bible of the Church of the Broken Window.

The book isn’t much. It’s a “how to” guide for picking locks and phreaking phones and building shoebox bombs. Although never outright banned in America, it was printed in small quantities and was highly sought after in certain circles. Owning a copy made you the belle of the domestic terrorism ball.

Unfortunately, many of the recipes were a little “off”, plus the people who tried them generally didn’t know what they were doing. The book’s actual recipe was 1) dumbass kids try to make nitroglycerine 2) they blow off their own fingers or burn down the Podunk High gym hall 3) juvie prison sentences all around, plus the school goes into lockdown from now until the end of time. Over and over. There is quite possibly more authoritarianism in the world thanks to The Anarchist Cookbook than there would have been without it.

There were always conspiracy theories that the Cookbook was written by an “outsider”, someone trying to discredit anarchy or sabotage the movement from within. As of 2013 the copyright resided with a publisher just two blocks away from a National Security Agency depot in Arkansas, but that’s probably a poetic concidence. Regardless of his intentions, the book could be viewed as reverse-activism, advocating violence and accidentally making the world a safer and more secure place.

Or maybe the world would have become safer anyway – books usually don’t matter much. Writers are very excited by the prospect of book burning, the way Christians are excited by tales of Satanic cults running global governments, and it’s easy to see why. Life frequently stomps on us, seemingly for no reason at all, and it’s flattering to believe that we’re being stomped on because we’re important.

BBSs soon became popular, and the Cookbook obtained a fragmentary second life. Bits of it (literally) were streamed over 1200 baud modems, often interpolated with additions by someone calling himself “The Jolly Roger”. This person appeared to be barely literate, someone who learned English from the txt files in Doom wads, and his advice was even worse than the original’s.

“Break a ton of matchheads off. Then cut a SMALL hole in the tennis ball. Stuff all of the matchheads into the ball, until you can’t fit any more in. Then tape over it with duct tape. Make sure it is real nice and tight! Then, when you see a geek walking down the street, give it a good throw. He will have a blast!!” -Jolly Roger-

Consider putting a fuse in the tennis ball too, otherwise it won’t blow up and he’ll think you’re challenging him to tennis for two. Aerobic exercise is linked to positive health outcomes, and you won’t have killed him, you’ll have made him stronger.

Decades later, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook went public and disowned the book, thus inspiring perhaps even more people to seek it out and learn from its recipes. This page has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Do you doubt that at least one pair belong to a young, impressionable person who will actually try the recipes in the book? And that we’ll soon hear about him on the news, along with the twenty or thirty unfortunates who happened to be standing near his trailer at the time?

I don’t believe William Powell has ever made a decision that worked out the way he wanted it to. He should have gone to Vietnam, and watched the war effort crumble within a week. Or he should have advocated for cleaner streets, and watched as whole communities drowned in an apocalyptic tide of cigarette butts and plastic bags. There are hippie gods, and hippie bibles. William Powell, apparently, was the hippie Jonah.

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