Web Notes: December 2023

December 18, 2023 [bookmarks] #from-the-interwebs

Article: Gandhi and Liberal Modernity

Great essay on Gandhi, which positions his stance on caste as not mere sentimentality or conservatism, but deeply thought response to liberal capitalism.

We then considered whether allowing for the very notion of economy as an independent sector of human life that filled Gandhi with anxiety would offer an alternative and more ‘progressive’ way of addressing these social hierarchies of caste, as is on offer in the standard accounts of primitive accumulation owing to Marx? With the aid of a counterfactual, we concluded that Gandhi’s instincts were that quite apart from his normative recoil from these developments of capitalist modernity, these accounts were not theoretical accounts but local observations of an extended moment in one continent of the globe, inapplicable to large agrarian economies of the colonies of the south. Whatever we thought of his own normative stances, they anyway would not and could not, according to Gandhi, address the hierarchies of caste that defined Indian society.

Article: What is ChatGPT doing?

A good introduction to ChatGPT and how it does what it does. How can a next word predictor be so good at making sense?

From its training ChatGPT has effectively “pieced together” a certain (rather impressive) quantity of what amounts to semantic grammar. But its very success gives us a reason to think that it’s going to be feasible to construct something more complete in computational language form. And, unlike what we’ve so far figured out about the innards of ChatGPT, we can expect to design the computational language so that it’s readily understandable to humans.

Article: Robert Gottlieb's Obituary

Gottlieb, who died on Wednesday, at the age of ninety-two, may have been the most important book editor of his time. Caro was just one of hundreds of authors he ministered to. Gottlieb had passions––among them literature, ballet, music, and the movies––and those passions were reflected in his long list of authors, which included John Cheever, Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Doris Lessing, Jessica Mitford, Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie; Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and Lincoln Kirstein; Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul Simon; Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, Elia Kazan, Katharine Hepburn, and Irene Selznick.

Article: Idols and what they mean in Hinduism

the multiple Hindu worlds are shaped by an ongoing conversation over the coherence of the claim that the divine has form (rūpa); while many of these religious strands have highly visual cultures, many others are staunchly aniconic. Thus, Hindu worlds combine vividly sensuous iconographic representations of the deity with cautionary reminders not to conflate the signifier with the signified. Some Hindus may “see” traces of the divine in rivers (such as the Ganges), lakes, mountains, roadside trees, sacred groves, and sites of pilgrimage while being cautioned by others that these traces are penultimate pointers to, and do not exhaustively embody, the cognitively ungraspable reality.

Podcast: Andy Matuschak on Dwarakesh Patel's podcast

Maybe this is a good time to talk about what memorization is or what it's for. We could use that word to refer to the practice of learning more trivia. For instance, a thing that I and some people I know have done is, we’ve gone through a book called Cell Biology by the Numbers, which says all of these things like, how big exactly is a nucleotide? Like how much volume does it take up? It's kind of helpful occasionally to know that it's about a nanoliter. And that can help you model things. So you can just commit all of those things to memory, right? That's one kind of memorization. And we could talk about how LLMs affect that. But I just want to make the case that so much of what you do and experience day to day is memory bound, or is memory influenced in important ways. For instance, your ability to understand a difficult argument, even in the course of a text, is memory bound. Some of that's working memory. But your ability to understand an argument that has many steps in it, more steps than you can keep in your working memory, depends on your ability to think of some of those steps in terms of some stuff that you already know, so that you can kind of reduce it or abstract it.

Article: Understanding BJP's rise

The author does a very good job charting the rise of the party currently in power in India, and is far more interested in the truth than what you would read in Washington Post or New York Times.

Because Hindu radicalism in the 20th century was the province of nostalgic Brahmins, many analysts have assumed the BJP was a party of upper-caste elites. We now know better. Of the 303 BJP members in the Parliament’s lower house now, 63% belong either to scheduled castes and tribes, or to the group of Other Backward Castes that includes Modi’s. As the political scientist Nalin Mehta has argued in his indispensable recent work, The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party (2022), this caste revolution is an undiscussed key to the BJP’s rise. The party can wage its campaign to unravel the special constitutional rights of Muslims only because it has the backing of voters who want the social revolution it is waging on behalf of Hindus of lower caste.

The problem of respecting the decisions of majorities while defending the rights of minorities is an anthropological one, not a moral one. We like to pretend that, when it comes to balancing majority and minority interests, there is a knowable “right thing to do.” Often there isn’t. We also like to pretend that protecting minorities always means protecting them against abuse and persecution by majorities. Sometimes it does. But just as often it means claiming prerogatives for minorities against the innocent preferences of democratic majorities. When progressive change is about protecting minorities from majorities, it can become not just undemocratic but anti-democratic. It may be for the people, but it will not be of the people or by the people. Eventually it draws the people directly into the political fight, to unpredictable effect.

Article: Morgan Housel's Reading Strategy

Every smart person I know is a voracious reader who also says “every smart person I know is a voracious reader.” There are so few exceptions to this rule it’s astounding. College tuition at $25,000 a year comes out to roughly $100 per lecture. Good books – sometimes written by the same professor – can be purchased for fifteen bucks and can offer multiple times as much life-changing insight.

The conflict between these two – most books don’t need to be read to the end, but some books can change your life – means you need two things to get a lot out of reading: Lots of inputs and a strong filter.

It should be ruthless, taking no prisoners and offering no mercy. Similar to dating, a book you’re not into after 10 minutes of attention has little chance of a happy ending. Slam it shut and move on. You’re not a failure if you quit a book after three pages anymore than if you reject the proposition of a 10-hour date with someone you just met who annoys you. Lots of fish in the sea.

Article: Venkatesh Rao on The Resourceful Life

What interests me a lot more is people who are relentlessly resourceful in the larger game of ordinary life, outside of hero’s journeys. People for whom resourcefulness is not just a way of life but the very definition of it, with anything short of an of-course-it’s-worth-it attitude being some degree of deadness. As the world gets ever-more complex, it’s the resourceful who increasingly inherit the future. Anyone who wonders too long whether life is worth living is increasingly likely to conclude that it is not due to the sheer difficulty of thinking about the question honestly. Only those who don’t bother to ask the question will ever choose life at all.

Blog: The dangers of high status, low wage jobs

Really, an essay on journalism as a career.

Makowsky’s law of career planning: never bet your entire future on doing something other people will happily do for free.

Review: Biography of Ian Fleming

So well written.

Anthony Powell, two and a half years older than Ian Fleming, remembered him as ‘one of the few persons I have met to announce that he was going to make a lot of money out of writing novels, and actually contrive to do so’. Fleming and his older brother, Peter, turn up in Faces in My Time (1980), the third volume of Powell’s memoirs, in connection with the short-lived 1930s magazine Night and Day, with Peter filing editorial notes and Ian raising money for the magazine in the City. Coming across a bound volume half a century later, Powell was immediately struck by what he called the ‘Fleming impact’. One of the signature marks of Nicholas Shakespeare’s new biography is its terrific sense of clannishness. Rarely has there been a collective unit whose members looked out for, supported, interfered with and privately disparaged each other with such unrelenting tenacity.

Review: Skewring a new Aurangazeb biography

Yes, that infamous one by a very online academic.

"Bridging the chasm between the historical Aurangzeb and this reimagined (and largely imaginary) Aurangzeb is a daunting task, but Truschke makes her case with the chirpy enthusiasm of an Aurangzeb fangirl writing a puff piece in People magazine on her idol. The received historiography on Aurangzeb is riddled with outlandish hoaxes that have gone unchallenged for decades. Truschke’s book is a worthy addition to this genre since it refreshes our memories of these hoaxes while enthusiastically manufacturing new ones."

In short, the M.A. describes the destruction of the Mathura temple as a wonderful and difficult accomplishment, and says that the Hindu rajahs were humiliated, the idols of the Hindu gods were buried under the steps of a mosque for Muslims to step on, and a grand mosque was built at great expense over the ruins of the great Mathura temple. Truschke gives you a mistranslation of a small fragment of this passage, and assures you that the passage suggests temple destructions under Aurangzeb were “rare” and “unusual.”

Article: You can't fact check propaganda

I learnt a few things here, such as the best propaganda, in the words of it's expert practitioners and theoreticians, includes more truth than falsehood.

On the contrary, at least since World War II, the most effective propagandists have insisted that propaganda should tell the truth. In his Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, French sociologist Jacques Ellul observed that propagandists on either side of World War II were as truthful as they could be. The manual for the American and British expeditionary forces warned that “when the listener catches you in a lie, your power diminishes.… For this reason, never tell a lie which can be discovered.” Joseph Goebbels, Ellul found, “never stopped battling for propaganda to be as accurate as possible.”

Facts are just what you see—look! But facts are rarely just that. Rather, they come in the form of statements, which are not bare observations but descriptions of some state of affairs. In other words, there are no “pure” facts available, as Karl Popper pointed out. All descriptions entail selections, implicit theorizing, and are attended by subjective factors such as interests, expectations, and wishes.

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