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Journal of No. 118

May 28th, 2018

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov @ 08:18 pm

 The Master and Margarita  is considered by some critics "to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, as well as the foremost of Soviet satires."

This does not speak well of Soviet satires, and I would like to leave a flaming bag of poo on the doorstep of 'some critics'.

This came up as a selection in the Resistance Book Club, but sadly there is more meat for discussion in Bulgakov's Wikipedia page than the novel. The censorship he faced in life, and the fact that the novel circulated in samizdat and was only published years after the author's death, have much more to do with authoritarianism than the book itself.

To be sure, one element of the book is that a novel about Pontius Pilate is suppressed by the Soviet literary establishment for being too religious, but that's about an end of the criticism of the Soviet state (per se) other than some small-time humor about bribes, cliques and the chicanery required to land a decent apartment in Moscow.

Bits of the Pilate novel are also interpolated into The Master and Margarita, and are in fact the best written parts of it, since the remainder is a mostly tedious slapstick farce of Satan and his minions visiting Moscow and wreaking havoc. The historical scenes are a serious and sympathetic literary take on Pilate, grounded in the gospel narrative, but adding to it dramatically.

A highpoint of the modern era story is a Satanic Ball, because who can argue with that?

It's possible I chose a poor translation. Well, no, it's not possible, it's certain. I'm just not very sure that my opinion would have risen much with a better translation. I'm gonna pull my Hipness Through Erudition card, and note that when Pontius Pilate is described as a 'rider', what was meant was that he was of an equestrian family.

Favorite 'joke': one of the demons takes the form of a huge black tomcat, walking about on his hindlegs. He gets on a Moscow streetcar. The other locals might not have objected to this so much, had he not attempted to pay for his passage. Rimsky-shot.


May 18th, 2018

Educated & Far Cry 5 @ 04:36 pm

 Educated , by Tara Westover, is another book pick of the NYT/PBS Now Read This book club.

Westover grew up in Idaho in a strict Mormon family that stands out even among Mormon families in Idaho. Her father was not merely religious, but mistrustful of the government, doctors, vaccinations, medicine, education. Tara (after the fact) diagnoses him with bipolar disorder, but it's hard to separate mental illness from the extremes of conspiratorial antigovernment survivalist thinking. At any rate, while some of her older siblings had some schooling, Tara as the youngest grew up during the most extreme era of dad's thinking. She didn't go to school at all, and it would be charitable to call her home life 'unschooling'.  Not only that, but she didn't have a birth certificate until she was 9.

Mom makes herbal remedies and gets training as a midwife. Dad makes a living at scrap dealing. Much of her childhood reminiscences are of horrible industrial accidents caused by willful negligence on her father's part, usually with her or her siblings as the victims. One brother somehow studies enough to go to college, and form a role model for her. She studies enough to get a decent ACT score and get admitted to BYU, where she is soon a fish out of water, even moreso than you or I would be at BYU, but for different reasons.

One significant event is a lecture class where she has to ask what the word "Holocaust" means. That's how profound her ignorance was. And although her ignorance was 'honest', being ignorant of the Holocaust was probably too close to Holocaust-denial, so she faced a certain amount of moral censure from the class.

I wish there were more details like this included, that track the change from ignorance to knowledge, or from false knowledge to true knowledge (as when she slowly comes to understand that aspirin and antibiotics are not, in fact, poisons.)

But while her life story is certainly one of gaining degrees at BYU and Cambridge and Harvard, there is not enough insight (to satisfy me) about how her worldview changes. The actual story she's telling is more about the increasing distance between her and her parents (and the shifting alliances among siblings and other relations). 

Perfect segue into Far Cry 5, set in the Mountain West, where a religious cult with doomsday prepper attitudes takes over a county. It's not much of a stretch to cast Tara's family as the bad guys. As a rookie law enforcement agent, you get sent in to arrest the head of the cult. Let's just say it doesn't go well, and pretty soon, you're in Far Cry mode. Hiding in the bushes with a bow and arrow, slowly taking out the bad guys and liberating territory for decent folk.

Now coming from a series which has been justly criticized for regressive attitudes, this entry sends some subliminal prosocial attitudes. Sure, it's violent as fuck as you kill bad guys with bigger and larger explody things (although the bow and arrow combat system is still extremely satisfying). But the bad guys are anti-government forces. And you slowly gather allies among the good honest folk. When you take over an outpost, you literally put up an American flag. Now, if this were set in the Middle East or Africa, it would be jingoistic colonialism (and most of the rest of the Far Cry series has been set in remote parts of the world where it's been easy to see it as white dude versus nonwhite dudes.) But here they've twisted it around, and made the treasonous rebel scum the enemy. America, Fuck Yeah!

Lots of good stuff to flesh out the game. Some good creepy music from the cult. A few hilarious characters ("I've been shot!... In the wiener!"). Recreating the stunts of daredevil Clutch Nixon. And the simple joy of slinking around a compound with Peaches the mountain lion, slaughtering cultists.

May 7th, 2018

The Perpetual Now, by Michael Lemonick @ 04:50 pm

Tags: , ,

 A nonfiction book on an unusual case (not sure there are any usual cases) of severe amnesia.

Lonni Sue Johnson developed severe amnesia after a terrible bout of encephalitis. It took out her hippocampus and although she regained motor and speech functions, most of her episodic memory of the past was gone, and she was unable to form new memories.

The book explores her case, her life, and what researchers have discovered about brain function through studying her case. The book also provides a shorter, similar presentation on "H.M.", a previous case that allowed scientists their first good look at the connection between brain and memory. 

Lonni Sue was distinguished in a number of ways. She was a professional artist, an accomplished violist, and a trained pilot. Some of the more interesting experiments established that her procedural memory was in some ways intact, even in cases where she wasn't consciously aware of it. The experimenters had 3 viola pieces composed of roughly equal difficulty. After she was exposed to them all and sight read them, some were chopped up into pieces for her to 'practice'. Although the piece of music was always new to her each time she saw it, she was better able to perform the ones she had 'practiced'.

The book spends a bit too much time fleshing out the biographical details of Lonni Sue and her family members (and H.M.) but at least in her case it develops a very sympathetic portrait of a person. And while her cheerful personality exists, it's clearly trying for her friends and family. Her friends she largely doesn't know at all, while her sister has to remind her of the (long past) death of their father over and over again. 

Another interesting detail is that she was introduced to word search puzzles, and somehow this fired off something in her creative brain and it's become something of a monomania for her. She creates, yet never quite completes, word search puzzle presentations over and over again. Typically with a theme and decorated with her artwork. In some way, it seems these have become a new way for her to organize and understand the world. All the words are there on the page... no need to try juggling them in memory. 

Interesting stuff.

May 5th, 2018

Dispatches from east of the 5 @ 09:36 am

 California's social politics are pretty divided between the coast and the inland areas.

My Google Alert on 'atheism' dragged up some editorial feedback from

A relatively tame editorial cartoon poking at the cognitive dissonance of the Trump Evangelical produced some pretty angry feedback from a couple folks.

TBC has really crossed the line on this absolutely defamatory cartoon. You are totally undeserving of the protection afforded you under the First Amendment. TBC has without a doubt totally embraced itself with the rest of the liberal scum media in this country. It is too bad the entire community of subscribers and advertisers can't boycott your despicable publication.

Your Last Supper cartoon was a totally blasphemous piece of (expletive), even for TBC.

The editor handled it all with aplomb.

Lower down, there is perhaps the more surprising feedback on the moral evils of interracial marriage:

Mr. Price goes on about how the Warren Court and equally liberal Burger Court forced Bob Jones University, a private very fundamentalist Christian college, to submit their longstanding Christian beliefs to the will of the court to desecrate and allow interracial marriages among their students by the taxing authority of the IRS. Thus precluding their exercising of their Creator's gift of free will to operate as they see fit. 

They were forced to comply or shut down. Judicial activism today is a euphemism of social engineering throughout the entire judicial system that enslaves everyone under its jurisdiction to a hell of moral bankruptcy and hopeless, fearful resignation of big brother (government) knows best racketeering.

Hard to believe people will equate moral bankruptcy with interracial marriage, but that's how some folks are 'east of the 5' (in Jason B's phrase).

I would also note there are some factual differences between apparently what the paper wrote and the angry reader. Although BJU did lose its tax exempt status, it was clearly not 'forced to comply or shut down'. Or forced to submit to anything by the court. I suppose the reader would be happy to know that the school did the 'principled' thing and continued to ban interracial couples on campus, although it cost them the tax exempt status in 1983. It was only after candidate George W Bush spoke there in 2000 that the dating ban got catapulted into the national news, and the school changed its policy of its own accord.

But don't worry, they didn't really let standards slip at BJU. As a Post story notes of the change in 2000:

Jones did not back off of the school's anti-Catholic position, and he said his university would not keep a gay student in school, just as it would not keep an adulterer or thief. And he said students are not allowed to read plays by Tennessee Williams. "Garbage in, garbage out," Jones said.


May 3rd, 2018

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler @ 04:11 pm


Parable of the Sower.

A re-read, since it came up in a book club -- we had a good discussion last night.

In the distant future (2025!), civilization has fallen apart. The hows and whys are a bit vague, but the social fabric has fallen apart. The rich, we assume, are doing just fine (they always do), but even the just-getting-by struggle in walled enclaves to avoid the predation of the squalid criminal rabble. About the only remnants of government are police and fire departments, and both are equally useless, if not crooked. In some ways, I see it as the libertarian paradise that would actually occur if libertarians had their way. More likely, it was Butler's extrapolation of Reagan-Bush efforts to let a thousand points of light provide mental health care and other social services rather than paying for it through taxes.

Our heroine survives the dangers of her era, while developing her humanistic religion of Earthseed. Slowly, she gathers likeminded individuals. Some are amenable to her ideas, others less so. This, I take, is the direct translation of the eponymous parable:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Just as with Jesus' message, some people are poor ground for the ideas of Earthseed, while in others it flourishes.

Ultimately, the ragtag Earthseed cult works toward founding their cult headquarters. There's a powerful description of them being pursued by a wildfire -- it struck me on this re-read that this is a parallel to Moses being led by a pillar of fire to the promised land.

Another detail of the novel is that the protagonist has intense empathy, so much so that she feels physical pain at the pain of others. In terms of plot, it's really kind of a minor detail, but in terms of theme, I think this epitomizes the people who are good ground for Earthseed - those who have empathy for others.

It's an engaging read, and the sequel won the Nebula (since it's even more depressing).


April 26th, 2018

Killer in the Rain, by Raymond Chandler @ 04:11 pm

Kind of a neat anthology of some of Chandler's original stories from the pulps. These were largely suppressed by Chandler for anthologization, because these were reworked into his novels. So obviously, in some ways these stories are old (well, if you've read the novels), but lots of details are different, and some of them come to different endings than the interpolated versions.

So, it's interesting to meet Carmen from the Big Sleep, but her dad isn't General Sternwood, but a Serbian steelworker by the name of Dravec who works as cheap muscle.

And of course, I can't help enjoying reading about bits of Los Angeles I know well.

Chandler: "We were in the day captain's room at the West los Angeles Police Station, just off Santa Monica Boulevard, near Sawtelle."

The police station is on Butler.

Chandler: Near Sawtelle.

Also a nice introduction, which had a bit that struck me, though it may read a bit different with a modern context than it did in 1964:

"The thematic difference between what Chandler called the standard detective story and his own stories is that his hero was motivated less by the desire to solve the mystery of a murder than by the compelling necessity to right social wrongs. There is murder in these stories, to be sure, but the detective risked his life and reputation to correct social injustices of any nature: to protect the weak, to establish ethical standards, to ease pain, or to salvage whatever might be left in fragile human beings."


April 22nd, 2018

California Primary Season Yuks @ 10:38 am

 Just got the phonebook for the June primary.

Before I bore you, a lot of the candidate statements for US Senate and Governor are sad/hilarious/scary. Let's take the four candidates on page 38-39:

"Constitutionalist" [complete text apart from URL]
"Atrocity of abortion-on-demand must end." [complete text]
"I am a follower of Jesus Christ."
"There is no such thing as 'transgender'"" [This one comes with a long rant on the same topic, and a link to TheyAreAttackingTheChildren.org (see also)]

'We are allowing the industry controlled FCC to microwave poison our children, families, homes and workplace" [emphasis in original]

So please read your guides cover to cover and make informed choices. And chuckle from time to time.

All 5 props were put on there by the legislature, but that's no guarantee of quality (though it is largely a guarantee of sanity). My quick takes:

Prop 68: $4B bond for parks and environment. Lean yes. It's only a wafer-thin bond measure, and has a $725M carve out to create parks in neighborhoods with few parks. On the minus side, it *is* a bond, and the state already spends about $5B annually on 'natural resources' of the type covered under this prop, so it's not that big a funding boost long-term.

Prop 69: requires transportation taxes to be spent on transportation projects. Lean no. Although it seems 'fair,' a lot of our problems in CA is that the legislature's hands are tied on so many things. There is less room for flexibility on spending where the spending is needed.

Prop 70: requires 2/3 vote to spend money in the cap-and-trade fund. No. I don't really see the reasoning. If it was going into a rainy-day fund that could be used flexibly (see above) that would be one thing, but the fund can only be spent on GHG mitigation type activities, and I don't see why the current majority vote spending rules are inadequate.

Prop 71: Props take effect 5 days after the SecState certifies the election results (as opposed to retroactive to day after election). Yes, I guess. To the extent that this may minimize confusion statewide about issues that may hang in the balance before official results are due, I can see how this will help. On the minus side, if some of your rights are restored by the ballot, you will have to wait. On the plus side, if some of your rights are taken away, you have a few days to consider what to do. 

Prop 72: Allows people to do something good for everyone without being penalized. Yes.

April 16th, 2018

The Lady and her Monsters, by Roseanne Montillo @ 02:46 pm


A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece

Montillo traces some of the scientific antecedents of the tale -- Galvani and Volta, etc. The heyday of the resurrection men. And the tangled web of Shelleys Wollestonecrafts Byrons Polidoris and others that went into the creation of Frankenstein. On the whole, I found it a bit disappointing in that it doesn't strongly connect the scientific threads with what Mary Shelley was writing about. In general terms, yes, but nothing direct and concrete, no doubt because Shelley didn't leave any concrete details of the sort behind. But at least there was enough bed-hopping among husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, to keep things interesting.

April 4th, 2018

Dr. Tepring Piquado @ 07:46 am

She didn't win, but I got to vote for Dr. Tepring Piquado for State Assembly. Not only is she a neuroscientist and former science/math teacher, but her parents named her after T'Pring, Spock's coldly calculating Vulcan fiancee. Not a particularly auspicious choice, but still awesome. Latter article has a nice rundown of other scientists running in the local area.

Jess Phoenix, a geologist who studies volcanoes, is one of the Democrats challenging Rep. Steve Knight, a Republican from Palmdale, in the June 5 primary in L.A. County’s most-watched congressional race. She says she’d bring to Washington, D.C., a scientific approach to problem-solving and “Star Trek values,” the latter a reference to the science-fiction franchise’s civil-rights themes and racial diversity.

My people!


April 1st, 2018

Ninefox Gambit & The Righteous Mind @ 05:34 pm

 Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, is the first of a series (Machineries of Empire - two of three written) of SF set in a distinct and weird universe. It shares with Archivist Wasp some mixing of fantasy and SF (at least as I see it). The milieu is of a spacefaring humanity, but one of the bizarre notions is that society is organized by a calendar. And the not-us make use of 'heretical' calendars. And these calendars have real-world effects... certain activities are more successful or auspicious depending on the date. Although the details are not described, the tastily bizarre feel of a religion (or astrology) tied to calendrical minutiae is interesting.

There are also multiple (well six) families or castes in the Hexarchy, each with its own stereotyped strengths, though many of the characters we see are more of the exception to the rule variety. Our heroine is a soldier-like Kel, known for having a 'formation instinct' that compels them to obey and to align into geometric formations (again that have connections to the calendar for when they are most effective). She is breveted well beyond her experience in order to, well, take on the ghost of an imprisoned genius-general and notorious war criminal. With his know-how, she/they lead a force to defeat some heretics. 

I found it absorbing and the lunacy of some of the world building enchanting. But setting up an ending of you and me against the world left me a little cold. Not sure I'll keep on with the series, but certainly well worthy of a Locus Award for Best First Novel.


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

A moral psychologist pulls apart the motivations that divide people on the issue of right and wrong. I found the first half of the book solid and enlightening, but it lost me a bit in the turn, and then regained some ground in the home stretch.

The first quarter does a good job establishing that Hume was closest to the truth when he said that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions [emotions]". In contrast to the uber-rational Plato and the shared (almost non-overlapping magisteria) angle that Haidt ascribes to Jefferson, quoting some tasty correspondence to a dalliance:

Respect for myself [the heart] now obliges me to recall you [the head] into the proper limits of your office. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it. In like manner, in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.

Haidt's own analogy is the rider and the elephant. The elephant is the emotions... lots of inertia and willfulness. The rider [rationality] in the howdah has limited control over the path of the elephant as it makes its moral judgments.

Next, he explores the roots of morality, and based on extensive testing, finds that they are related to [at least] six separate 'tastes' in explicit parallel to the four (or five) tastes of, er, taste. The moral sense combines our instincts regarding:


Although everyone probably rates each of these at a nonzero importance, the results of the studies shows an interesting political divide. American liberals care about the first three much more than the other three. American libertarians care primarily about the liberty/oppression taste. And American conservatives are much more balanced in considering all six tastes.

And here is the reason for so much mutual misunderstanding. With different moral axioms, naturally different conclusions come out. Haidt further describes that conservatives have an advantage, since they have more notes to play on (and liberals are somewhat blind to some of these notes).

While I think there's a lot of validity in what Haidt has built up in to Moral Foundations Theory, his next step goes amiss: his desire to tie this to evolutionary psychology. 

As he says earlier, "For example, in the past fifty years people in many Western societies have come to feel compassion in response to many more kinds of animal suffering, and they've come to feel disgust in response to many fewer kinds of sexual activity. The current triggers can change in a single generation, even though it would take many generations for genetic evolution to alter the design of the module and its original triggers."

Haidt talks about triggers of our evolved instincts, but I can't follow him here. He talks about our snake aversion instinct. It can be triggered by sticks or other objects. But in these cases, this is just a mistaken snake. But people of yesteryear were presumably not mistaken by being triggered by homosexuality. They didn't laugh at themselves (as one might, after jumping at a stick) when they saw it was just some tribadism, and there was no need to be disgusted. So, although Haidt tries to make the point that evolution can be fast. We know it can't be so fast it happens in a single living generation. Cultural evolution can be much faster.

Haidt is probably right that group selection got the short end of the stick for much of the 20th century, but I don't see the need to inject it into the development of these moral senses. Probably this is the genetic (so to speak) fallacy, but when he brings up the idea that Tibetans evolved rapidly to handle low oxygen environments, this brings up the idea that isolated groups of humans have evolved moralities that are inaccessible to the rest of us (any more than we can climb Everest unassisted, before we've had the chance to interbreed with the Sherpas). I don't see how this can be right. No doubt I'm more attuned to the rider than the elephant, but seeing how far moral opinion has changed over decades, it's hard to see a strong genetic component to that change. Riders can influence the elephants that much, anyway. And without looking a thousand years down the line, the influence of the riders will continue to be relevant for discussions we have today.

I"m boring myself at this point, so I'll bring it to a close, but I really did enjoy the insights of the first half as to what motivates people different from myself. With luck, this can be a bridge to communication.


Journal of No. 118