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Archive for May 2006


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I am, quite happily, heading far afield from my usual paths of thought and research. Summer-time. Reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which you can read right this very minute via a download from Stross’s personal site.

This free ebook edition is made available by kind consent of my publishers, Ace and Orbit, under a Creative Commons license with certain restrictions attached. In particular, you may not create derivative works or use the work for commercial gain.

That’s putting your CC money where your CC mouth is.

Anyway, it’s a nifty novel, and way thought provoking. And, a bit weirdly, it delves (more deeply than I) into some of the issues that I’ve been tapping at here. Namely this and this

In fact, the epigraph of the second section comes from John Von Neurmann, of the Von Neumann bottleneck below…

Life is a process which may be abstracted from other media.

– John Von Neumann

Anyway, I’m through the first section of the novel and will try to report a bit more as I get further in. But for now, a paragraph or two from wikipedia on Von Neumann’s economic work, and the minimax concept:

His first significant contribution was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain so-called zero sum games (games in which the winnings of one player are equal and contrary to the losses of his opponent) involving perfect information (in which, that is, each player knows a priori both the strategies of their opponent as well as their consequences), there exists one strategy which allows both players to minimize their maximum losses (hence the name minimax). In particular, for every possible strategy of his own, a player must consider all the possible responses of his adversary and the maximum loss that he could derive. He then plays out the strategy which will result in the minimization of this maximum loss. Such a strategy, which minimizes the maximum loss, is called optimal for both players just in case their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). If the common value is zero, the game becomes pointless.

Von Neumann eventually improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players. This work culminated in the 1944 classic The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (written with Oskar Morgenstern).

Sounds almost like a materialist ethics, a morality of realism.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 15, 2006 at 2:08 am

though capable of transmitting shocks in China

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There’s got to be something to say about this. I’m going to save it away for future use, but it’s certainly a symptom of something, no?

What needs to be thought through, perhaps, is not so much the idea of some sort of collective consciousness, some sort of transindividual noosphere, as they have it, which surely exists on some level interesting or utterly banal, but what is at stake in materializing it? Why do we need it to exist “out there,” “in the air,” measurable at times of affect and panic like 9/11. What is it that we don’t or can’t believe about ourselves that he need nodes collecting data, mining out the possibility that we are all in it together?

In the worst case, perhaps it comes out like this:

The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way–to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves–should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey?–ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.

The GCP people have a page on the “Poetic History” of their project (links funny – go look around. Or don’t.) And they totally miss all the good (complicating?) stuff like this…

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 13, 2006 at 12:23 am

Posted in consciousness, woolf

not architecture

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From an interview (not as yet online) with Oscar Niemeyer in this month’s Metropolis:

You built you personal driver’s house in a favela here in Rio. Is it a good example of architecture helping those who are excluded?

Yes, but we are talking here about my driver – my dear friend for more than half a century. He is a Brazilian man, a poor man, one who was born poor and will die poor. Of course his life is improved with his new house, but this is an exception. Housing is always the beginning of any change in someone’s life. One needs to have a worthy place to live, and the state should provide it to everybody. But I insist that the answer to this change is not architecture. It is revolution.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

May 12, 2006 at 11:38 pm

Posted in architecture, socialism

where everything is possible

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Usually the Times reserves this sort of obnoxiousness for Latin American leftists who, say, spend oil money on schools for poor children, rather than what oil money is supposed to be spent on: bunker-busting nukes, hummers, and mexicans to tend to the gardens.

The problem with French universities, it seems, is that:

1) they lack the landscaping budget of Harvard or Stanford

2) Unlike in America, where we educate the whole student, and there is a bountiful basket of extracurricular activities to participate in, the French leave their students to their own devices after class is over.

There are 32,000 students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, but no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no freshman orientation, no corporate recruiting system.

3) the f’ing soixiante-huitards made it so everyone can attend.

“Universities are factories,” said Christine le Forestier, 24, a 2005 graduate of Nanterre with a master’s degree who has not found a stable job. “They are machines to turn out thousands and thousands of students who have learned all about theory but nothing practical. A diploma is worth nothing in the real world.”

The problems stem in part from the student revolts of May 1968, which grew out of an unexceptional event at Nanterre the year before. One March evening, male students protesting the sexual segregation of the dormitories occupied the women’s dormitory and were evicted by the police.

A year later, Nanterre students protesting the war in Vietnam occupied the administration building, the first such action by students at a French university. The student revolt spread, turning into a mass movement aimed at transforming the authoritarian, elitist French system of governance. Ultimately 10 million workers left their jobs in a strike that came close to forcing de Gaulle from power.

One result was that the country’s university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalauréat exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor’s degree plummeted..

4) The university system is defined by a distinction between good schools and all the rest.

Compounding the problem, France is caught between its official promotion of the republican notion of equality and its commitment to the nurturing of an elite cadre of future leaders and entrepreneurs.

Only 4 percent of French students make it into the most competitive French universities — the public “grandes écoles.” But the grandes écoles, along with a swath of semiprivate preparatory schools, absorb 30 percent of the public budget.

Thank god we don’t have anything like that over here. Just ask my students last year – 12 a semester, who benefited from more than a page of comments on 8 separate writing assignments and several hours of individual meetings with me to discuss their writing. Or my students this year, at the state university (a rather “good,” if underfunded one), whose upper-level English class featured an enrollment of 45, no teaching assistants, and who received the all feedback on their work that it was possible for me to give… Not very much. No grandes écoles over here, praise be.

In America, educational resources are rationally distributed by the market so that each and every deserving student receives exactly the same slice of the pie, from Harvard down to the lowliest community college. What a country!

5) The students are morons, who fail to understand the glorious liberation that comes with a tiny bit of flexibilté

At Nanterre, Alexandre Frydlender, 19, a second-year student in law and history, complained about the lack of courses in English for students of international law. But asked whether he would be willing to pay a higher fee for better services, he replied: “The university is a public service. The state must pay.”

A poster that hangs throughout the campus halls echoed that sentiment: “To study is a right, not a privilege.”

6) The nation as a whole has failed to understand just how great things are going over here

But flexibility is not at all the tradition in France, where students are put on fixed career tracks at an early age.

“We are caught in a world of limits where there’s no such thing as the self-made man,” said Claire de la Vigne, a graduate of Nanterre who is now doing graduate work at the much more prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. “We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible. Our guide is fear.”

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May 12, 2006 at 1:23 am

marx’s translation of bovary

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Was just answering a question about my favorite novel for a grad student who’s writing on it, and had to check something in the text, and noticed something a little bit amazing.

The English edition of Madame Bovary hosted by Gutenberg was translated by none other than Eleanor Marx… Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. I had no idea. I probably should have known, but I didn’t…

Here’s an interesting bit by E.P. Thompson on her.

And here’s Beatrice Potter (later, Beatrice Webb) on a meeting with her in 1883.

Went in the afternoon to British Museum and met Miss Marx in the refreshment rooms. Daughter of Karl Marx, socialist writer and refugee. Gains her livelihood by teaching literature, and writing for socialist newspapers. In person she is comely, dressed in a slovenly picturesque way with curly hair flying about in all directions. Fine eyes full of life and sympathy, otherwise ugly features and expression with complexion showing the signs of an unhealthy excited life, kept up with stimulants and tempered by narcotics. Lives alone, is much connected with Bradlaugh set, evidently peculiar views on love, etc., and I should think has somewhat ‘Natural’ relations with men! Should fear that the chances were against her remaining long within the pale of “respectable” society.


An excellent collection of her writings, including the Flaubert and some Ibsen plays…

Nice! Barnes and Noble gave me a coupon for a free book from their in-house line of “classics” – apparently, I’m an “educator” and they think I could be switched from my beloved Penguins. It’s been sitting in my wallet for months. Finally have something to spend it on.

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May 10, 2006 at 12:53 am

Posted in flaubert, socialism


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From Wikipedia:

Von Neumann bottleneck

The separation between the CPU and memory leads to what is known as the von Neumann bottleneck. The throughput (data transfer rate) between the CPU and memory is very small in comparison with the amount of memory. In modern machines, throughput is very small in comparison with the rate at which the CPU itself can work. Under some circumstances (when the CPU is required to perform minimal processing on large amounts of data), this gives rise to a serious limitation in overall effective processing speed. The CPU is continuously forced to wait for vital data to be transferred to or from memory. As CPU speed and memory size have increased much faster than the throughput between the two, the bottleneck has become more and more of a problem.

The term “von Neumann bottleneck” was coined by John Backus in his 1977 ACM Turing award lecture. According to Backus:

“Surely there must be a less primitive way of making big changes in the store than by pushing vast numbers of words back and forth through the von Neumann bottleneck. Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand. Thus programming is basically planning and detailing the enormous traffic of words through the von Neumann bottleneck, and much of that traffic concerns not significant data itself, but where to find it.”

And now Woolf in To the Lighthouse:

How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.

Thinking about literary modernism – “stream of consciousness” narration and the like – as a problem of bandwidth or “data transfer rate,” just as, in a sense, consciousness itself is during this period, for Freud and Bergson and others, an issue that boils down to how many sense impressions / repressed memories can fit through the very narrow pipe. Woolf struggles in To the Lighthouse to get it all down, chokes the text with data, so that across (despite) all the abundance of detail we feel all that is being left out, all that can’t make it into the text.

(I’m not going to bring it all into this post, but searching for the word “word” in the text is, well, very revealing…)

And something else – thinking about this bit from the quote above:

Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand.

And this, from Lukács:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

The novel – or really, literature in general – now as the materialization of the human inability to think/say/write more than one word at a time. Only now, with machines that promise/threaten/already do “think” or “process” everything all at once, once and for all, can we see the secret pathos that lives within the form.

As of now, the computer retains its romanesque form, its all too human handicap (from Wikipedia again):

Cache between CPU and main memory helps to alleviate some of the performance issues of the von Neumann bottleneck. Additionally, the developement of branch prediction algorithms has helped to mitigate this problem. It is less clear whether the intellectual bottleneck that Backus criticized has changed much since 1977. Backus’s proposed solution has not had a major influence. Modern functional programming and object-oriented programming are much less geared towards pushing vast numbers of words back and forth than earlier languages like Fortran, but internally, that is still what computers spend much of their time doing.

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May 5, 2006 at 12:17 am