I Don't Know, What's The Content?
I made a small tweet a few weeks ago (before the last newsletter, actually, I think) that I want to revisit, where I said that it would be interesting to have a field of systems design (more than that is already a field, that is). This was in response to a (really good!) article making a metaphor between United States congressional procedures and programming language interpreters. I found this interesting because something I’ve been thinking about on and off a lot is how technology has politics and culture, of course, but a lot of what we all technology could also rightfully be considered technology as well, such as, well, the US Congress. More generally, though, I wonder if there’s a lot of value in considering related “systems” fields together, like (parts of) computer science, biology, economics, and political science.
This came to mind in part because of Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison’s call for a discipline of Progress Studies, which was thoroughly (though not entirely fairly, to my mind) lambasted. In particular I really liked the response by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, especially when he says “Collison and Cowen probably haven’t thought seriously about what it means to be a discipline. Here is a clue: the word discipline ought to be taken rather literally, as a way of thinking that “disciplines” inquiry and exploration. … One creates a discipline by specifying a set of tools, methods, or procedures through which to study markets. Samuelson, not Smith, created the modern discipline of economics as we know it.” I really liked this insight, and I think “a set of tools, methods, or procedures” is captured pretty well by “culture” (although clearly there’s more to culture as well!), in that we can pretty coherently talk about the “culture” of mathematics or the “culture” of economics. The point I’m getting at, then, is this: what would the “culture” of systems design (as I’ve incompletely defines it above) be like? What “tools, methods, or procedures” would it adopt? What insights are we missing because topics like distributed systems, evolution, and institutions are all locked up in different disciplines?
Maybe I’m wrong and this all does exist in some subdiscipline somewhere (and if so, I’d love to be corrected!). But this is the kind of thing I like to think about when I’m particularly bored.
What I’m Watching
One of my favourite YouTube channels (okay, maybe my favourite) is Folding Ideas, where the very thoughtful Canadian Dan Olson talks very thoughtfully about the media that we (like, as a society) consume. This week he made a video about accidentally doing a colonialism in Minecraft, which is so good I don’t really have anything to add other than “go watch it, even if you don’t particularly care about Minecraft.”
What I’m Reading
I mentioned the article about US Congress as stack machine but I really do urge you to read it, even if you know nothing about the US Congress—its a really good article.
I finished Going Postal (fantastic) and Small Gods (also fantastic, but somewhat less so) and returned them to the library. Small Gods (the source of the name Ogg Vorbis, fun fact) was a fun ride, especially the consistently sarcastic commentary from the Great God Om (trapped in the body of a tortoise), but I also felt that the plot didn’t quite cohere (too many twists and turns, which I normally enjoy, but just got annoying here) and the satire was perhaps not as sharp as Going Postal (Om has a giant church bureaucracy but nobody actually believes in him! What institution could that be parodying? 🤔). It also wasn’t quite a touching as Going Postal—it has its moments, definitely, but nothing on the level of “man’s not dead while his name’s still spoken.” I think the biggest surprise for me (given how often Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are compared) is that Discworld isn’t really… that funny? I think this is more true of Small Gods than Going Postal, but I’m not sure I’d would primarily categorize either of them as primarily a comedy (unlike, say, Hichhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Not a bad thing, mind, just a surprise. I’ll definitely be checking out further Discworld books at some point in the future, though I’ll be taking a break for a bit at least.
Meanwhile I started on the very long, very complicated horror novel House of Leaves, which was the latest official Russell & Sherry Book Club book. Presented as editorial footnotes on a pseudo-academic text about a movie that may or may not actually exist, it is almost magical—but it does occasionally strain the patience of the reader, with long stream-of-consciousness sections and postmodern litcrit diatribes (which are, admittedly, parodic). It is a shame, because although the more surreal, postmodern elements (like the aforementioned stream-of-consciousness sections or the oft-bizarre layout) do somewhat contribute to the mood of the novel, they also tend to distract from what is, at its core, a simple-but-effective story of human love and relationships set against a deeply unsettling background. I want to love it! I really do! But I’ll see how I feel after a few hundred more pages.
Going on the to-read pile is Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun and Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, who together got the Campbell Award for Best New Writer renamed to the Astounding Award, since John W. Campbell, former doyen of science fiction, was kind of a garbage person?
What I’m Listening To
Did you know John Carpenter (like, the Halloween/The Thing director) has not one but two pretty rad synthwave (slasherwave?) albums, entitled Lost Themes and Lost Themes II? Apparently this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Carpenter actually composed most of the music for his (many, many) films. I wouldn’t call them the best albums ever (they both sit around 70 on Metacritic which, despite whatever misgivings I may have about review aggregation, does sound about right), and they certainly don’t match the evocativeness of, say, Carpenter Brut or NightCrawler, but nevertheless they’re very nice tunes to serve as inspiration for writing horror 🙂
I’ve also been listening to Enigma’s MCMXC a.D., a very 90s album that in some places combines Gregorian chanting with electronica beats (curiously Wikipedia categorizes it as “new age,” which… okay). It’s… definitely very 90s, but it makes good enough working music that I’ve returned to it at least a couple times this week.
Also, on my brother’s recommendation, I listened to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Infest the Rats’ Nest, a thrash metal album with light science fictional themes (… I think. It’s honestly a bit hard to tell). My brother is definitely a metalhead (though he also recommended a shoegaze album this week, so…), so I wasn’t exactly surprised by this recommendation. But then I looked them up and found out that a.) King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard was originally a psychedelic rock band (… I guess) and b.) they’ve released seven (!) studio albums in the past two years, which makes me feel slightly bad about my work output. In any case I have been told Fishing for Fishies and Nonagon Infinity are also fantastic, so let’s say those are on the to-listen list.
On the podcast front, I finally finished You Must Remember Manson, a history of the Manson murders and their far-reaching influences and effects, which I once again want to recommend as one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to recently (the very ending is particularly “oof”). The voice acting is a little cheesy (Roman Polanski and some of the Manson girls suffer particularly from this), but the storytelling is so good it’s easy to overlook. I also listened to Slate’s The Queen, a brief podcast series in support of the host’s recently published book about Linda Taylor, a con artist who was the welfare queen. It’s a little disappointing (mostly because it’s largely a random grab bag of stories in support of the book’s launch, rather than a coherent narrative), but it’s still fascinating precisely because I, for one, didn’t even know there was a ”the welfare queen.” The exploration of her background is also pretty interesting, for reasons I don’t want to spoil. Of course, if it’s not obvious, it really requires an American context to appreciate—I doubt non-American readers even know what a welfare queen (stereotypically) is 😛 But if you do, it’s definitely worth the hour or two to listen to all the episodes.
What I’m Playing
I’ve picked up Dota Underlords, as opposed to any of the other Autochess clones out there, largely because it’s available on iPad and (most of) the others are not. But I also think Valve is doing a good job of shepherding and supporting it, which is… honestly a little surprising these days? In any case, it’s obvious why Autochess-likes have taken off; the feeling of drafting a strong team, with a lot of supporting interrelationships, evokes the satisfaction of a good card game, without any of that nasty card-collecting (much the same reason I like Dominion and similar deckbuilding physical card games, I suspect).
I also picked up Cultist Simulator for iPad, since it was only $5 or so, even though I already picked it up for desktop in a Humble Bundle or something. Having it on iPad (convenient and tactile!) really unlocked it for me—I just spent an hour and a half trying (and, ultimately, failing) to raise up my cult, and I don’t get addicted to games like that anymore. In any case, the writing is really stellar and the almost complete lack of explanation (annoying, in most cases) fits well with the themes and story. It’s the most engrossed I’ve been since 80 Days, or maybe The Norwood Suite.