Basket-case Reduction

David MacIver writes good articles about psychology and coping with life, for example “How to do hard things”. Over in the world of computers, he is also an expert in something called test case reduction

The idea of test case reduction is to find the simplest thing that will break a program. You might, for example, start with a thousand-word essay that you can’t upload to a particular website. To understand what’s going wrong you remove text until you find the shortest input that breaks things – maybe the website can’t handle accented characters or something. You can do this by hand, or if you’re smart you will use some of David’s code to do it automatically.

David has heroically resisted the temptation to phrase self-help in terms of debugging. In his position I would have given in immediately – because so many of the processes I go through to figure out my head are equivalent to debugging.

I have the benefit that my brain is pretty good at running simulations of how I would behave in different situations. So when a situation freaks me out, I can later apply my own internal test case reduction. ‘Would I have coped better if I had trusted the other person?’ I might ask myself. “What about if I felt confident in my knowledge of what we were talking about?” And if it works, I’ll eventually have a simplified scenario which showcases the bug in my brain.

Octopi have tentacles instead of children

Here is an exhilarating idea from Alison Gopnik: octopi have tentacles instead of children.

Any mind must navigate between exploring and exploiting. Are you flexible and ready to learn (explore), or do you optimise along a path that you have already chosen?

Humans deal with this by behaving differently at different life stages: children explore, adults exploit. We really do become set in our ways as we get older, down to the rate at which neurons connect. We fix our understanding of the world in our early years, and spend adulthood taking advantage of it.

Octopi do not have long childhoods. So they deal with the explore/exploit differently: by having different brains for each

octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like.

A Romanian queer manifesto

I have an odd fondness for manifestos. So I was overjoyed to be shown this manifesto for a queer art festival in Romania.

Really, it is a manifesto for queer identity and queer community:

Our bodies can still feel the cold creeps of the jail bars from the jails that we’ve visited. We could have sought revenge for all this misery of ours, but, instead, we chose to use our bodies as tools to imagine an utopian future, where all of us, absolutely all of us reproduce to infinity and beyond their most deeply hidden identities.

Queer because it encompasses all our identities without imposing a predetermined norm and assigning us to predefined houses. Queer because infinity.

Reading something like this is, just occasionally, the jolt I need to pull me out of melancholy complacency. Most elaborately in 2008, when reading Laurie Penny’s first, angrily political dive into blogging pulled me out of a months-long depressive slump. More problematically when the manifesto thrills me despite being politically objectionable. The fascism of Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto fits here, as does the violent anarchism of the catechism of a revolutionist

Corona bureaucracy

Germany’s rate of corona vaccinations has jumped in the past 10 days. That is great, but also frustrating.

Frustrating, because the reasons are symptomatic of how people are being killed by the slow, cautious incompetence of government bureaucracy.

The first reason is that German family doctors are now allowed to give vaccinations, a role previously reserved for centralized vaccination centers.

The second reason is even worse: We have just started a new quarter.

Yes, really.

The discussion on manufacturers vaccine production schedules have largely been on numbers per quarter. Given that the EU is scapegoating them for delays, the manufacturers really really want to avoid missing their targets. And that leads to weirdness at the boundaries of the quarters.

Here’s the data on deliveries in Germany

At Biontech, production is going well, and they are comfortably meeting their Q1 commitment (~12m doses). But they have promised to almost quadruple that in Q2. So through March they delivered a steady 1m doses per week. Then in April, when we start counting against their Q2 target, the deliveries jump to 2.7 million per week.

AstraZeneca are the opposite. They are behind schedule. So they squeezed in a huge delivery at the end of Q1 (actually a couple of days later, but it’s being counted as Q1), like maybe 5x what they usually deliver in a week.

It’s rational behaviour from both companies. When you’re dealing with a short-tempered and annoying customer, you CYA by fulfilling the letter of your contracts, even at the cost of a worse outcome for the customer. And that’s the position the EU have put Biontech and AZ into.

Admittedly this is mainly speculation – but I do think it fits the facts and the (non-altruistic parts of the) motivations of everybody involved

[first posted on Less Wrong]

A Person From Pullach

Since I mentioned Coleridge, I thought I would bring up my personal headcanon about one of the little mysteries of his life: the “Person from Porlock”
The poem Kubla Khan came to Coleridge as a vision in a dream, the result of a book he had been reading on Mongol history, combined with the effects of the opium he had taken the night before.
The poet woke up and began to compose a poem based on his dream. But after he had written the lines we now have, he was interrupted by a visitor. This “Person on business from Porlock” so distracted Coleridge that he forgot the rest of his dream, and the poem remained incomplete.

The identity of this visitor is a perfect miniature mystery, intriguing and yet totally inconsequential. The mundane answer is that there quite possibly was no visitor, and Coleridge just wanted an excuse for publishing a poem with an unusual structure. Or it was Wordsworth or another friend popping in.

Wild speculation is much more entertaining, though. So there’s one theory that “a person on business” was Coleridge’s way to hint that it was his dealer, stopping by to top up his supplies of poetry-inducing opium.
And for anybody writing historical or time-travel fiction, this is the perfect opportunity to get their character some face-time with a poet. So Ada Lovelace has been the Person from Porlock. Doctor Who has been the Person from Porlock. Douglas Adams even wrote a book where his protagonist becomes the Person from Porlock – in order to save Coleridge and the world from an extraterrestrial ghost.

My personal headcanon is that Coleridge’s visitor was, in fact, a Person from Pullach. Pullach is a suburb of Munich which, until recently, housed the headquarters of the German intelligence services. In my fantasy Germany has developed time travel. Prevented by paradox from killing Hitler, the spooks are instead zipping through history tinkering around the edges. One of them is a fan of Coleridge – why not, he was a Germanophile who translated Schiller and allegedly even understood Kant. So he shows up at the poet’s door, and inadvertently robs us of the remainder of Kubla Khan.

Bonus alternate history: I’ve been idly imagining a timeline in which Israel is not created, but the Zionists do instead succeed in colonizing Mars.

Piranesi to Cyriak

In her salon on curation, Patricia challenged the participants to imagine how they might arrange a gallery. This gave me the chance to mention a fantasy exhibition which I have occasionally toyed with. It would gather together works which share a particular aesthetic, of “endless growth and self-reproduction”. I would start with some 18th-century etchings by Piranesi, and end with the cheerily nightmarish animations of Cyriak.

Piranesi lived in Rome, and made a living by selling his etchings of Roman architecture to young aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Presumably he got bored of real buildings, because at some point he turned to drawing elaborate architectural fantasies

One of Piranesi’s prisons

The most famous description of the Carceri is by a man who never saw them. Literary drug-fiend Thomas de Quincey was struggling to describe the “mighty visions of more than earthly splendour” which appeared to him in opium-fuelled dreams.

Fortunately, Piranesi’s etchings had been described to de Quincey by his friend and fellow addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge1. de Quincey recognized a picture which matched his dreams, with “vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machiner,… expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome”. And, homing in on what to me is the key to Piranesi, he wrote of the endless growth and self-reproduction represented by the stairways repeating themselves into infinity

Had de Quincey been living in another time, he might have found his “endless growth and self-reproduction” elsewhere. He could look at Cyriak, who has become a Youtube star by making animations of just that.

It’s not quite the same. Cyriak uses cats where Piranesi uses towers, and replaces monochrome etchings with a style that is Very. Not. Monochrome. But couldn’t you imagine de Quincey dreaming a Cyriak video, if his cat jumped on him in the night?

My fantasy exhibition, then would have Piranesi and Cyriak as bookends. Between then would be any number of other artists who share the same fractal horror.

MC Escher would be hard to omit. His optical illusions form enclosed and inescapable worlds, whose human figures are prisoners of the artist’s impossible geometry2.

For me, though, something about the cleanness of Escher’s illustrations renders them less unsettling. Piranesi’s vision feels more like an anthill or an oil refinery. You feel that the outward disarray may indeed be the result of some ancient masterplan, but that it has been submerged under generations of repair and modification.

The work which most shares this aspect of Piranesi is Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels set in an uncanny aristocratic mansion of the same name, where the inhabitants lead lives of strange ritual in service of the house and its lord.

Gormenghast forms an enclosed world of barely-understood tradition and hierarchy, with the present always buried under the physical and mental detritus of the past. Everywhere is gothic and grotesquely distorted, a dustily English mirror of magic realism.

The books’ central obsession is with the physical architecture of Gormenghast itself, the embodiment of whatever ancestral pathology has left this world endlessly collapsing in on itself. Gormenghast has spent centuries simultaneously decaying and growing new appendages, trapping its inhabitants within a tumor of stone turned cancerous. Peake’s opening lines could just as well be describing Piranesi’s prisons or de Quincey’s nightmares:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.

There are many more creations which reflect some of this aesthetic. SF artists such as Inward or Maciej Drabik explore cityscapes of immense buildings, but without Piranesi’s sense of weight and dread. HR Giger brings the dread, but his focus is more on the monstrous fusion of flesh and machine. JG Ballard’s architectural horror is somehow more human, or at least more interested in what buildings do to their inhabitants. H R Giger’s nightmares don’t just trap creatures between their walls, but make them components of the architecture.

Few of these were directly influenced by one another. They have mostly stood on the edges of their tradition, half-accepted by their peers but also seen as curiosities or exceptions. Yet somehow the same obsession keeps cropping up, giving us these depictions of endless growth and self-reproduction.

1 Coleridge also shared with de Quincey a tendency towards drug-induced architectural fantasies. His poem Kubla Khan, composed on waking from an opium dream, is a vision of the architecture of Xanadu.

2 The game Monument Valley has a very similar feeling. It was apparently made by somebody who had never heard of Escher, yet created a world which feels like navigating an Escher drawing.

Ways of Curating

Last night Patricia Hurducas ran an ii discussion about curation. Between pangs of longing for visiting a physical place, I realized that I have a semi-conscious idealized conception of the Curator.

That is a capitalized Platonic-ideal Curator, at the same remove from reality as “The Artist” is from any actually existing painter. My ideal curator also has a lot in common with my ideal critic. Both are broad-spectrum receivers in human form, resonating to an unusually wide range of artistic input.

More prosaically, they need to be able find the value in whatever piece of art is thrown at them, and guide their audience along the easiest route to access it themselves. They also need an unusual amount of empathy for that audience, being able to imagine what a creation will look like through other people’s eyes.

The difference is that the curator can also take more of a creative role, assembling art to match their own vision. An exhibition can be something like an essay, beating its own path through some domain. It tells some stories and ignores others, makes things look different by adjusting their context.

Any actually existing curator, though, is forced to do this within constraints of budge, institutional boundaries and the availability of works. That’s why I get so much joy out of playing fantasy curator: I ignore practical limits to design impossible shows with selections from all the collections in all the world.

Where I get Covid News

Somebody asked where I get my Covid news for Germany, so I figured I would do a link-dump here.

Outside of Germany, you can’t do better than Zvi’s weekly roundup. Not only does he cover all the important news, but it is cathartic to read his howls of bewildered rage at the incompetence of everybody in power.

Inside Germany, nobody has quote the same combination of facts and righteous indignation. I therefore end up mostly following official data sources, and quietly fuming to myself.

The basic figures come from the Robert Koch Institute, in particular the situation report which they put out each day around 6pm. Completionists might also care about their vaccination updates and case dashboard, for slightly timelier and more complete data. As for vaccine deliveries from the manufacturers, the information is split messily between the health ministry website and their vaccination dashboard.

Each state also provides its own data. I only ever check Berlin, where the status report is updated at about 1630 each day.

Some of the numbers in these reports need a health warning. Calculations of r, in particular, are mostly bogus. In spring 2000 they began calculating it averaged over 4 days. It soon became obvious that day-of-week effects made this number misleading. But by then it had become an expected part of the reporting, and nobody has managed to change it yet. My cynical side suspects this is because a number which oscillates on a weekly basis lets everybody quote a high or a low number by picking the day which supports their prejudices.

The RKI does report a 7-day r value. Even this, though, is a bit of a mess. In particular, and by the RKI’s own admission, it has been systematically too low. They calculate it based on estimated day of infection, not of reporting.

Newton’s Apple

The story of Newton and the apple feels comfortable – until you think about it. The great man watches an apple fall to the ground, has a flash of inspiration, and comes up with the theory of gravity.

Newton, though, isn’t really explaining what happens with the apple. He is dreaming up a theory which is consistent with things falling to the ground, but also has other, less intuitive implications. The latter are just hidden from us because they don’t make any difference on a human scale – we exist in one little corner of physics, out of the way of most of the implications of gravity.

So, just as the earth pulls the apple down, the apple pulls the earth upwards. We just don’t see it, because the apple is too small. And as the apple gets closer to the earth, the force of gravity increases, and the apple accelerates. We just don’t see it, because the height of the tree is nothing compared to the distance to the center of the earth.

Even with 300 years of hindsight, I find it hard to get my head round how you can look at something falling and imagine gravity. I assume Newton only managed it because half his mind was on celestial mechanics, where gravity’s non-intuitive predictions become more relevant.

It’s nonetheless a comforting story for the more straightforward-minded among us, and one Newton presumably told as such. As a bible crank he presumably also had an eye on Genesis – though as a bible crank he also knew that the forbidden fruit only became an apple because of a Latin pun. But discovering one of the hidden forces on the universe is the best opportunity you could ever get to insert yourself into a cosmic narrative of forbidden knowledge, so why let a good story go to waste?

Democratic Socialism Simulator

Wish fulfillment is more fun when you have to work for it. That’s why fans can delight in imagining gay relationships through against-the-grain interpretations of pop culture. If a showrunner provides this as pre-packaged fanservice, though, the fun is gone. That’s the problem with Deocratic Socialism Simulator, a game which puts you in the role of the first socialist president of the United States.

The setup is straightforward enough. Your advisers provide you with a series of policies. Tighten gun control? Improve public housing? Scrap defense programs? Swipe right to enact, swipe left to trash. Your objective is to push through as much eco-socialism as possible, measiured by gauges of pollution and of people power. And you must do it all without being thrown out, losing control of Congress, or running out of money.

But: it is too easy. Any activist knows the wading-through-treacle experience of trying to push through even the slightest reform. Here, it is just a matter of saying yes to left-sounding policies. The game mechanics, heavily rigged in your favour, will take care of the rest. Almost any reform you enact will have an astonishingly fast payoff, rewarding you even within the short time horizon of American electoral politics. And near-infinite money is available, provided you are willing to shut down military spending.

The socialist president does need to make a few compromises, but only in the most superficial way. You’re mostly fine if you tack to the right on symbolic gestures, and to the left on material reality. In my first run I could achieve socialism at the cost of postponing gun control and attending some events with billionaires. As a measure of compromising your ideals, that barely moves the dial.

A game of Democratic Socialism Simulator lasts half an hour or less, and my experience is that replaying brings little variety. Then again, maybe that is long enough for wish fulfillment.