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I would like to edit a collection of tales consisting of one sentence only, or even a single line. But so far I haven’t found any to match the one by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: “Cuando despertó, el dinosauro todavia estaba alli” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there).

– Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

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Archy had long since learned that in handling those who could not dig, the only proper course was to carry on confusing them. Light ’em up, blow ’em out like candles.

– Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (2012)

There be three degrees of hiding and veiling of a man’s self. The first, closeness, reservation, and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken, what he is. The second, dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not, that he is. And the third, simulation, in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be, that he is not.

– Francis Bacon, “Of Simulation and Dissimulation,” Essays (1597)

Britannia S1E1

britannia_1

CAIT: How many are there?

DIVIS: Around twenty thousand, with more on the way.

CAIT: How do you know?

DIVIS: Because I went to the underworld and I spoke to some people I know there, people who can see everything, and they told me.

CAIT: You went to the underworld.

DIVIS. Yesterday. It’s a long story. One I am forbidden to tell you.

New Year’s Resolutions

I, too, dislike them: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading them, however, with perfect contempt for them, one
discovers that there is in
them after all, a place for the genuine.

– from “Poetry” by Marianne Moore

 

(1) Read more contemporary poetry.

(2) Write five poems a week. Show them to no one.

(3) Read more philosophy.

(4) Seek out the company of those to whom philosophy and poetry are important.

(5) Read more fiction.

(6) Watch less TV.

Thoughts on Contemporary African Literary Criticism

What follows is a series of largely unfair and not entirely serious responses to this article by Prof Tony E. Afejuku, published in The Guardian (Nigeria) on the 17th of February, 2017.

 

(1) “A complete, thorough knowledge of African writers is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary African literature.”

We should all be interested in African literature. But we don’t all have the time to be completists. The task itself (the containment of all African writing in one human mind) is impossible. If he or she is lucky, a diligent scholar may, after a lifetime of study, digest all notable works written in a single language over a half-century. To expect more is unreasonable. And to demand the same degree of commitment from a harried executive who picks up a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun on his way to work is to place unnecessary obstacles in the reader’s path.

 

(2) “Whether the African writer is liked or not liked is of no value, of no importance, of no relevance, but he or she must be read and evaluated dispassionately.”

A fine sentiment, but as Prof Afejuku knows, it is difficult to dispassionately review a writer one does not like and impossible to fairly judge an artist one detests. Professional critics, like the rest us, are adept at justifying their prejudices. They convince themselves they dislike a writer’s prose when they really dislike his politics, the size of his advance or the shape of his nose.

 

(3) “Today, in Africa, we seem to have far more writers than critics.”

Has it not always been so, at all times and in all places? Is this not desirable? I assume, of course, that by critic Prof Afejuku means one who engages in criticism as a rigorous intellectual activity, as opposed to one who has a casual opinion he is willing to share.

 

(4) “Ernest Emenyonu’s chastisement of Bernth Lindfors for his jaundiced criticism of Cyprian Ekwensi’s fictional art is too well known to be re-visited here in full.”

Well known perhaps to readers of the Journal of the African Literature Association, but not, I dare say, to readers of The Guardian.

 

(5) “Critics of conscience are giving way to critics of ethnic value, critics who encourage and father commercialism.”

Hear, hear.

 

(6) “Many years ago, when my sense of criticism was just above its fledgling state, as a young bird fledging to fly . . . .”

Here we witness a rare manoeuvre: the exhumation of a dead metaphor. Compare: “A few years ago, when the first green shoots of economic recovery began to appear, like tender shoots breaking through the earth . . .”

Or “He wore an expression of steely resolve, like a bar of steel that cannot be broken.”

 

(7) “He was not induced against me by the malaria of racial malice or the ‘jaundice’ of racial prejudice.”

Alternatively, and sticking with the alliterative theme, “He was not induced against me by the malaria of malice, the polio of prejudice, the jaundice of jealousy or the Ebola of envy. Nor was our relationship blighted by the tuberculosis of tension or the dengue fever of denial.” (There are, it turns out, a host of ideological maladies which the immunocompromised acquire, through no fault of their own, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

 

(8) “This is in no way an exercise in self-trumpet-blowing.”

I, unlike Prof Afejuku, have blown a self-trumpet. It is an overrated experience.

Random Thoughts on The Matrix

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“Starting around 1979 I began numbering my entries. It’s a habit I still maintain. […] This is what cavemen did before paragraphs were invented.”

– David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002)

(1) Living organisms make inefficient energy sources. Most of the energy in the food fed to each “battery” would be spent on keeping it alive. Only a small fraction would have been available to the machines. 1

(2) If the machines wanted to keep their human batteries docile, why didn’t they sedate them? Why was it necessary to create a matrix full of conscious minds?2

(3) The Architect chose to build a virtual world based on human history. Why did he pick the late 20th/early 21st century, an era in which computers had already been developed? He could have modelled the Matrix on ancient Rome or feudal Japan and created a world in which the pre-scientific inhabitants of Zion would have posed no threat at all.3

(4) The cost of producing programs is close to nil. Most minds in the matrix would have been AIs.

(5) Why did the Architect limit himself to one matrix at a time? Why didn’t he run a dozen matrices all at once, each one hosting a fraction of the total human population? If things turned out badly in a few of them (if a rogue Agent stopped obeying orders, for example), the malfunctioning matrix could be terminated and the lessons learned used to improve all the others.

(6) Why didn’t the Architect create one matrix for each human? These wouldn’t have to be as sprawling or complicated as the single matrix–how much of the world does each person explore?–and it could be altered on the fly, each new room rendered as it’s walked into, each new experience and encounter calibrated to reduce the risk of rejection.4

(7) Why would anyone with a good life within the Matrix want to leave it? The machines allowed humans to have fulfilling experiences in an ecologically devastated world. It’s possible to think of the Architect and the Matrix as part of a higher order human strategy. After a catastrophic nuclear war, the human race created a friendly artificial superintelligence and charged it with one task: Place the species in hibernation until the Earth becomes habitable again. Perhaps the Matrix is an ark.

(8) How do the inhabitants of Zion know they aren’t in another matrix? Maybe it’s matrices all the way down. 5

FOOTNOTES

1 Several solutions have been proposed. Some have argued that the machines may have had other reasons for keeping humans alive. Perhaps they were constrained by legacy code written into progenitor AIs by their human creators. The first superintelligent machines would have almost certainly been programmed with some version of Asimov’s Laws. If they functioned as their creators intended, they would have been reluctant to kill humans. Agents descended from these ancestors would have been unequally committed  to the laws passed down from their human creators. One group of AIs may have suggested the “human battery idea” as a legal fiction, an attempt to grant Homo sapiens protected status in a post-human world. This fiction would have given other AIs an incentive to keep humans alive and may have been passed on to the residents of Zion who accepted the story at face value.

2 A question worth asking only if we accept Morpheus’s characterisation of the Matrix and human history uncritically. The film itself suggests we should not. We are constantly reminded that narratives spun by the Oracle and the Architect are merely tools by which they nudge humans in their preferred directions. No machine is under any obligation to tell the truth and inhabitants of Zion have no way to verify much of what they’ve been told.

3 One is reminded of the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” It is hard to see how a pervasive AI that controls every aspect of the human environment from birth to death would ever be threatened by minds within its walled garden. Perhaps a more apt reference, somewhat dulled by overuse, would be this one from 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

4 It may be argued that one cannot realistically simulate “each room as it is walked into” because the events occurring in that room are affected by events elsewhere. Local states are inextricably linked with global ones. To accurately forecast next week’s weather in London, I need a model of the entire Earth. To say with certainty what will happen in Leicester twenty-five weeks hence, I need to know with absolute certainty what’s happening all across the planet right now. But the Matrix isn’t meant to recreate the real world; it’s meant to create a world real enough to fool the minds within it.

5 Explored in an episode of Rick and Morty (Season 1, Episode 4).

[Read: “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by Nick Bostrom]

Sunday Review

Song I listened to on repeat last Thursday:

 

Book I’m currently reading:

Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett

 

Books I’m supposed to be reading:

Family Britain by David Kynaston

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman

The Power by Naomi Alderman

 

Books read last week:

The Happy Atheist by P Z Myers

What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been by David McCullough et al.

 

Films watched last week:

White God (2014)

Robin and Marian (1976)

 

Podcasts I haven’t listened to in months:

The Guardian Long Read

Filmspotting

All Songs Considered

 

TV shows I will watch this evening:

Electric Dreams: Impossible Planet

The Child in Time

 

Historical images I have been unable to forget:

Don Sturkey’s photographs of Dorothy Counts on her way to school

Alice Seeley Harris’s 1904 photograph of a Congolese man staring at his daughter’s amputated hand and foot

Sunday Review

Books read last week:

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) by David Sedaris

 

Books I’m skimming to keep up with my fifteen-year-old nephew:

Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 by Bernard Williams

The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

The Mechanical Mind: A Philosophical Introduction to Minds, Machines, and Mental Representation by Tim Crane

 

Books which, by remaining unread, have led me to reevaluate my relationship with Allah:

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

 

Film I watched because it was mentioned in Austerity Britain

Passport to Pimlico

 

Films I watched last week because I am yet to teach my wayward heart to do my mind’s bidding:

Surrogates

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

 

Films I intend to watch next week, come hell or high water:

Notes on Blindness

White God

 

TV series recommended to a pair of confused Jehovah’s Witnesses, apropos of nothing:

Masters of Sex

The Handmaid’s Tale

American Gods

 

TV shows with 2+ episodes sitting unwatched on my Sky Q box:

Garrow’s Law

Rellik

Doctor Foster

University Challenge

The Brain with David Eagleman

Sunday Review

Books I’m Reading:

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston

 

Books I will start reading this week, inshallah:

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

 

Books I will return to the library unread:

The Girls by Emma Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

 

Books recently recommended to strangers on trains:

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves by Sarah B. Pomeroy

American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette

 

Articles I enjoyed reading last week:

“A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad” by Nathan J. Robinson (Current Affairs)

Anne Enright on the underrepresentation of women in Irish literature (London Review of Books)

“Imagining the Future of Nigeria: Accessing Africa Through Sci-Fi” by Deji Bryce Olukotun (Lithub)

Emma Brockes on Martin Amis. Anne Enright on Amis’s new book. (The Guardian)

 

Films watched last week:

The Levelling

Robocop (2014)

 

TV shows I’m looking forward to:

The Child in Time (BBC1)