Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec [5/5]

Everything in life is about metaphysics except metaphysics. Metaphysics is about power.


“These ideals are not going to change in nature, even though they may change in representation.” -Sermon Eighteen

My favorite book right now is an ancient eastern religious legend. It’s full of striking imagery, engaging narrative, and complex metaphysics. Unwrapping its layered meanings requires several passes and an openness to associative—arguably even loose—judgment. Unsurprisingly, its full significance can only be understood with a context that is not contained entirely within the text, and I don’t have the background or time to make all of the connections that would have been more apparent to its original, intended audience. On each new read-through, however, I learn a little more. The story is divided into sermons collectively known as The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec, the eponymous character being the god whose legend lies at the center of the narrative thread and who allegedly passed the text down to his people, the Velothi.

Of all religious books, it’s hard to say why this one in particular has drawn me in. The translation I’ve been reading by Michael Kirkbride is mostly in prose, but T.S. Eliot’s aphorism that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” seems to still apply. The mystical style and overtly-contradictory content suggest a depth that, on closer inspection, rarely turns out to be specious. Even the few sermons that first appear straight-forward reveal themselves to be subversively didactic.

It’s also relevant that no one currently practices the religion, so it’s easier for me to read the text as literature or allegory rather than a collection of preposterous claims that actual people believe to be true. While trusting in the underlying truth of scripture motivates religious practitioners to hunt down and absorb the significance of canonical texts, as an atheist, knowing that no one else takes a particular doctrine seriously enables me to evaluate it on its own terms.

However, there are many other extinct religious mythologies, and I’ve never been so engaged by any of them. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, struck me as remarkably stale, with the same basic templates repeated ad boredom. The Lessons, on the other hand—whatever they might be—are never uncreative. Continue reading

Book binding: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec

I have a review of The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec in preparation and should post it soon. I’ll take the anticipation of that post as an opportunity to show off the book that I made for Starburst’s birthday last year (the one in 2013; this is officially Old News, but as they say on Springer: it’s my blog, I do what I want!). Ruby’s considerable talents were very helpful throughout the process, especially with the case.

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Giving what we will

The effective altruism (EA) movement is still small, but I see what must be a disproportionate amount of discussion about it. Some of this comes from friends on Facebook, some comes from Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, and some comes most recently from Ozy Frantz at Thing of Things.

For those who don’t know about EA, the first few sentences of its Wikipedia article will be a good enough introduction: “Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.”

Some of the discussion I see is about straightforward in-group concerns: which charities do the most good per dollar, how can we compare investments that are high-risk-high-reward against those that are low-risk-low-reward, etc. A remarkable amount of discussion, on the other hand, is about spreading the word. How do we get more people interested in charity? How do we get people who already donate to charity to exercise more discretion about what their donations achieve? How can we tell people that we give 10% or more of our income to charities without them getting defensive? And so on.

These latter questions are very important. One of the EA hubs is Giving What We Can (GWWC), which encourages people to pledge 10% of their income toward effective charities. Each additional pledge is a huge win in terms of human impact. GWWC claims that 10% of my annual (graduate student!) income would be expected to save a human life in the hands of a high-impact charity. They currently have only 670 members.

This post serves a couple of distinct purposes: first, it describes two new proposals that might get more people to donate to charity; second, it’s an announcement of my own intention to follow one of those proposals.

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Television review: Doctor Who, Series 8 [2/5]

He Only Hurts Me Because He Loves Me Edition


Most shows are sometimes flat. Many are sometimes good and occasionally great. Doctor Who is all of these things in a totally unique way. Even the cheesy episodes radiate an unqualified enthusiasm and philanthropy that touches on some precious feeling, maybe only the tiny remains left over from childhood, that there is a right way to do things and that obstacles can be overcome in the end if you are the best version of yourself and dare to trust good people. Those episodes are sweet in a way that I don’t see anywhere else. On all but my grouchiest days, that seems to be worth something.

The good episodes, on the other hand, can be as brilliant as the Doctor himself. All of those worlds with their people, their dangers, their struggles; all of those bubble universes and rewritten time lines; the larger-than-life characters and long traditions; a world where literally anything is possible—how could great stories fail to emerge?

In a show whose central theme, if there is one, is the magnificence and power of being human, the Doctor’s two hearts symbolize his status as something even more than that. The series itself, however, has for some time now lost its heart. The increasing reliance on zany spectacle instead of genuine emotional investment has been much criticized, as well the insistence that every conflict have higher stakes than the last. The most beloved episodes of Doctor Who, by contrast, are small stories: Blink, which focuses on a young woman who has suddenly discovered the danger hidden in her ordinary life; Dalek, which interweaves Rose’s compassion with the Doctor’s hatred; and my personal favorite, The Doctor’s Wife, which is a beautiful story about the search for community and the ability to find it in unexpected places.

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Video game review: Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons [3/5]

Brothers is a recent installment in the burgeoning genre best described as “feelsy indie games,” though mainstream critics might use a more dignified-sounding term like “art games” or sometimes the uselessly undescriptive “indie games.” (An alternative I particularly like, due to Jonathon Blow, is “arty games.”) After discovering Braid, I made a respectable effort to explore this genre, only to be consistently disappointed. Brothers gives me renewed hope for its future without giving me confidence that its hopeful future has arrived.

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Book review: Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone [3/5]

Gaming the Vote is a book so ambitious it has a title, subtitle, and sub-subtitle. In full, it appears on my cover like this:


Why Elections Aren’t Fair

(and What We Can Do About It)


Social choice theory—the field of mathematics that asks how to best fit a single “social choice” or “social preference” to a collection of conflicting individual preferences, usually in the form of an election—is a hobby horse of mine. After reading a lot of online articles and a handful of math papers about it, I was hoping to find a more cohesive introduction without having to wade through hundreds of pages of mathematical theorems. With Gaming the Vote, I was not entirely disappointed.

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58-page review: Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson [2/5]

I intend to write book reviews here sometimes, and perhaps it’s appropriate that I start small, with a book that I have only read 58 pages into: Quantum Computing Since Democritus. It goes without saying that all general statements about the book should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Scott Aaronson’s ego.

Quantum Computing Since Democritus is a remarkable book in part for feeling even more undisciplined than its title suggests. Aaronson tries very hard, and sometimes succeeds, at being entertaining. As a hilarious way of setting the tone, the preface begins as follows:

by Scott Aaronson

To give another example of his stylistic flavor, Aaronson writes in the opening paragraph of the actual book, “[Democritus] was a disciple of Leucippus, according to my source, which is Wikipedia.” I enjoy this kind of banter, and Aaronson is pretty good at it, but it doesn’t make my time feel well spent when reading his book or help to teach me anything. At best, the conversational tone allows him to get in some good, quick jokes; at worst, it obscures the distinction between throwaway asides and the deeper points made in the book. On the whole, the balance of this trade-off is negative.

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Are we there yet?

[Content warning: Reflections on a recent breakup. Especially if you were party to said breakup, you should figure out whether you want to read my reflections before continuing. As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t post this here if I weren’t okay with certain people reading it.]


When my girlfriend Ruby and I broke up after about four and a half years of dating, I was told by a friend of a friend that her friend says that it takes one month of being single for every year of the relationship to get over it. (There’s a formula! Time goes in, time goes out!) So around the beginning of month four, I started thinking about how my recovery process would look in the light of this maximally-authoritative maxim.

By then, I was working on a proposal deadline, had a week-long out-of-town conference, and had just found out that I needed to find a place to live in another state, so now I’m just in time for a reflection on the five-month mark instead.

Still, I can’t do a very good job of answering whether I’m over it yet. What would that even mean? Here are some trial answers:

  1. I am at a level of risk indistinguishable from zero of harming myself or others.
  2. I enjoy many of the things that I do.
  3. I routinely perform tasks at a significant fraction of my best, and sometimes perform at my best.
  4. I am interested in dating other people and excited about the prospect of a healthy new relationship or set of relationships.
  5. The breakup has not significantly damaged my sense of self-worth.

On the other hand, what would it mean for me to not be over it? Again, some trial answers:

  1. I think about Ruby every day.
  2. Though I don’t get sad every time I think about her, I do get sad at least one of the times that I think about her each day.
  3. The thought of running into her makes me physically uncomfortable in a way that seems associated with some combination of anxiety and terror.
  4. I routinely have dreams about her, which I usually experience as being unpleasant.
  5. Our breakup has significantly compromised the sense of narrative coherence I had for my life.

Maybe this ambiguity is intentional. When people ask me, “do you think you’re over it” or “are you okay,” they want me to be comfortable answering however specifically or vaguely I want. The problem is that it is always uncomfortable for me to communicate imprecisely, and even the answers that lie deeply within “answering specifically” territory still feel so vague and general as to be completely misleading. So whereas I probably ought to say, “I don’t understand what the question means, and in any case, I’d rather not answer it right now even though I appreciate the concern,” I mostly just feel confused and unsure of how to respond. This is no less true when I’m the one asking the question.

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