Month: March 2022

Like the Da Vinci of Hot Takes

I only have myself to blame. I was the one who clicked subscribe on the Substack. I’m trying not to write a rebuttal; I’m not a fan of the “debate me” style of writing. And if you dunk on someone on Twitter and no one is around to like it, have you really dunked on them? If my current commitment to writing blog posts serves any purpose (and the consensus is that I am a decade too late to have a personal blog) then it is to organize my thoughts into something coherent, and maybe adorn it all with an appealing turn of phrase. I’d like to explain why what I read was so utterly disagreeable.

Erik Hoel is a neuroscientist, neuro-philisopher, and fiction writer. Recently, he wrote an impassioned Substack post addressing the “decline of genius”. Because, first of all, Erik Hoel believes in genius. Personally, I believe in “genius”, with the scare quotes, but I don’t want to derail my outline of Hoel’s argument this early. Erik Hoel believes, and asserts there is evidence, that the number of geniuses is in decline. This is despite an expanded education system and technological conveniences like powerful personal computers that we can carry about in our pockets. The golden age of human flourishing has not arrived, despite ostensibly perfect conditions. The cause, Erik Hoel believes, is that an old style of education — which he terms “aristocratic tutoring” — is the only reliable system that produces true genius, while the classrooms of today consistently fail to give their students that certain something. And with one weird trick, that is to say replacing classroom education with the one-on-one individual tutoring, we might yet reach a golden age, with a bounteous and reliable crop of little Einsteins, von Neumanns, and Newtons.

Hoel doesn’t simply want smaller class sizes or more resources. He advocates for intensive, rigorous, and engaging tutoring, done one-on-one. There is no compromise (or indeed much civic spirit) on the path to reliably producing geniuses. The education of John Stuart Mill is cited approvingly — Mill’s childhood was was a weird Benthamite experiment, designed to cram the classical canon into a child by the age of twelve, for no less a goal than to raise the future leader of a radical movement. Hoel neglects to mention Mill’s intensive education led to a psychological breakdown at the age of twenty.

There is no hiding the scorn Hoel seems to have for the efforts of the educators we do in fact have. The fact that there might be virtues to a public education system are not taken remotely seriously. But as frustrating as that is, I can merely dismiss it as wrong-headed and distasteful.

It is the genius stuff that really bothers me. The term “genius” is itself is so awfully weighted with elitist and reactionary agendas. Genius is more like a PR stunt than a genuine appreciation of human achievement. It is the convenient idea that Apple used to brand their computers — and not a serious was to engage with the history of science and ideas. You can say Einstein was a genius with absolute conviction and with little understanding of his theory of relativity.

It’s not that I don’t think that there are individuals whose talents and contributions rise above their peers. Your average tenured mathematician certainly deserves respect for their achievements, but for better or worse, there really are people who produce work on entirely another level. After roughly a decade in research mathematics, I can say that whether it be through nature or nurture, God’s gifts have been distributed quite unequally. (Appropriately enough, I appeal here to Einstein’s God).

And I simply don’t buy the idea that we have a shortage of geniuses. I think some people prefer to spout declinist narratives, tell educators that they are doing it all wrong, and dismiss contemporary art and culture and literature as being utterly non-genius. They prefer doing all that to appreciating the successes of today, simply because they don’t conform to some presumed ideal of genius.

It gets my goat because as I read the piece I can think of examples. To take what seems to me to be the example that should settle the debate: Grigori Perelman. Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture in the early 2000s was a momentous moment in mathematics. Not in recent mathematics. In mathematics, full stop. His proofs arrived online without fanfare or warning. While it took time for mathematicians to process what he had written and conclude that a complete proof had been presented, they understood very quickly that it was a serious contribution. It is rather vulgar to say it out loud, and actually a disservice to the entire field of differential geometry, but you can rank it up there with any other seminal mathematical advance. It would be be bizarre to suggest that modern mathematics is impoverished when such work like is being produced.

That is just one example. How long a list would you like? Should I mention the resolution of Fermat’s Last Theorem? Big math prizes handed out reasonably regularly, and I don’t believe there are any shortages of candidates. But maybe their contributions haven’t transformed the world in the way people might imagine “proper” geniuses might. Maybe the problem is that they never read their way through the canon before adolescence. Am I actually expected to entertain this line of thought while I have the privilege of such fine specimens of achievement at my disposal. But I sense that Hoel will simply explain that Perelman and the rest were lucky enough to receive some variation on aristocratic tutoring. Exceptions that prove the rule, and all that.

The whole business annoys me because instead of reading something that is interested in the human achievements that the essay claims to valorize, it wants to stack them up like shiny Pokemon cards to be measured by the inch. It aggravates me because I could be reading a New Yorker profile of someone who might not be a genius, but who is at least interesting. I could be reading the Simons’-funded math propaganda outlet Quanta which has the benefit of believing that there is great mathematics being done and that it is worth writing about. And most of all, for all the “geniuses” have done for the world, I’m still on team non-genius, and we still bring more than enough to the table.

I hate the video-essay

Patricia Lockwood’s Booker nominated No One Is Talking About This is now out in paperback. I know because I went out, bought it, and read it. In real life. It is one of the most widely reviewed novels of 2021, in part because Lockwood is unquestionably an exciting writer with a clear voice and real style, but also because this book was a potential candidate for carrying home the title of “The Great Internet Novel”.

The events of NOITAT track the contours and trajectory, both broadly and in many details, of Lockwood’s own life, starting with becoming internet famous. The protagonist, who we assume is half-Lockwood, is brought to the center of the online stage for asking “can a dog be twins?”. Because we are to understand that virality really can hinge on something so slight. Actual-Lockwood achieved some kind of Twitter fame for retweeting the Paris Review, asking “So is Paris any good or not”, although I believe her trajectory involved more than that one tweet. A dog can in fact be twins, although very rarely in the sense of actually being identical twins (or so Google tells me). Half-Lockwood’s joke is funny in the same way that slant rhyme rhymes. It is also pretty dumb, and I have to wonder if there is some commentary in Lockwood’s part on the disproportionate accolade such a dumb joke can receive online. People write about her Paris Review tweet as if it was the height of wit, but really it just flatters a reader for knowing what the Paris Review even is.

Written in the manner of oblique fragments, NOITAT might evoke for some the fragmentary, non-linear nature of social media — or “the portal” as it is referred to. But my own reading left me recalling Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer with her flashcuts jumping in and out of scenes, with the typical literary constructions and table setting eschewed, leaving you to carefully to follow the thread of each sentence so you can hopefully make it to the eventual destination. Fortunately, I have a better grasp on memes than I did on Central American politics in the seventies. But God help you if you are not on some basic level online.

Lockwood has an almost Talismanic status in the world of young and hip American lit. She does not have an MFA and did not attend college. Here is the immaculately conceived American poet, free from the sin of credentialism, the careerism, and the workshopping. Evidence that perhaps free verse isn’t just bullshit you have to attend grad school to “appreciate”. There is a wonderful passage in Priestdaddy where she describes the depth of texture and connotation words have for her, and reading it you too can begin to believe.

I am a great fan of her writing, especially the memoir. And also especially in the context of a certain popular idea of what constitutes good writing. The suggestion that dialogue tags would perhaps be best restricted to the inoffensive “said”, “asked”, and “told”, has become a stupefying dictum, so it is a pleasure to be reading a writer who is not afraid to have their speech “yelled”, “yelped”, “hissed”, and even “peeped” when the occasion arises. But that is to under-represent Lockwood’s qualities as a prose stylist. Even after the critics have had their pickings you can still find “the unstoppable jigsaw roll of tanks”, and now I too am one of those critics, unfortunately.

If the first half of the novel sees the half-Lockwood protagonist being submerged, and possibly drowned in the online, the second half finds her abruptly washed up on shore to deal with Real Life — not only in the world of flesh and blood, a life-threatening pregnancy, and a rare and terminal genetic disorder, but also Real as in we are still following events that actually transpired. What does it mean about very online life, that it served half-Lockwood very badly in these circumstances? What does it mean that online life is not well suited to these truths?

If I had a dollar for every time I made a friend laugh… Well, at best this would be a strange side hustle. But I don’t get a dollar for making casual quips. Nor for the hot takes or deeper thoughts I impart to those about me. Actual humour writing, as with all writing, is a harder, more laboured, and quite deliberate practice when it has to be done consistently and in quantity. Yet a lot of the internet seems to offer up the possible promise getting all those likes and subscribes for basically turning up and being you. Twitter, Youtube, and podcasts can give you the impression that sometimes it is simply a matter of typing it into your phone, or just setting the tape rolling. But after a while some of that back and forth between the hosts, and quite a lot of that laughter, feels more laboured than it should. Do I really believe that the Youtuber really captured the unpracticed vitality of their own genuine laughter?

Obviously not. It was all — or at least most of it — utterly scripted. Which in general is fine. There should be some mediation between our personal and public lives. A kind of negotiation and consideration. What is captured in NOITAT is an experience from the small class of people (workers? writers? creators?), mostly very young, who have been able to put a relatively unmediated portion of themselves out onto the web for the viewing benefit of the rest of us. Who have committed themselves to being “very online”. Because most people are not “very online”. For most of us there is a line, and although we may occasionally find ourselves on the wrong side of it, we get to enjoy the separation.

I think when critics were scouring the Earth for the “Great Internet Novel” they were hoping for all the sordid vicarious thrills that you might expect from a medium that has offered us strange new breeds of humour and fed our prurient desire for the salacious. Half-Lockwood’s “very online” quickly seems very exhausting. The contradictions and hypocrisy and inconsistency was already self diagnosed on the portal itself before it even arrived on the printed page. But all this is the point, I suspect.

Retrograde Motion

Before Newton there was Copernicus, and before Copernicus there was Ptolemy. Living in the second century AD, Ptolemy produced what would become the definitive work in astronomy for the next millennium. It was a geocentric system: the Earth, quite sensibly, set at the center of the solar system. While geocentricism was ultimately to suffer the ignominy of being synonymous with backward thinking, Ptolemy certainly didn’t lack in mathematical sophistication.

Keeping the Earth at the center of the solar system required a great deal creative invention. It was taken as axioms that the planets should travel at constant speeds, and adhere to the perfect forms of geometry (that is to say circles and spheres). But the planets that appeared in the night sky did not conform to these expectation. Unlike the sun and moon, which flattered us earthlings with their regular appearance and disappearance, the planets would sometimes slow down and reverse direction — what they called “retrograde motion”. The solution that Ptolemy and his predecessors developed was a whole Spirograph set of celestial structures called deferents and epicycles. This essentially involved imagining that the other planets were not set upon a wheel revolving about the Earth, but set on a wheel on a wheel in motion about the earth. And, if necessary, perhaps some greater sequence of nested wheels.

Copernicus, the Catholic canon and Polish polymath of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, had, like every other astronomer of his day read Ptolemy. Yet after carefully studying the night sky and much thought, he developed a heliocentric map of the solar system. That is to say, with the Sun at the center. While he managed to free himself from geocentric difficulties, and dramatically simplify the situation in many respects, he still adhered to a belief in constant speed and circular orbits. It would take Keplar and ultimately Newton to settle the matter with elliptic orbit determined by the force of gravity.

The heliocentric theory was controversial for two reasons. The first, and quite reactionary, objection was based on readings of a handful of bible verses. For example, when Joshua led the Israelite in battle against an alliance of five Amorite kings he ordered the sun to halt its motion across the sky, thus prolonging the day, and with it the slaughter of the opposing army. The point is that Joshua ordered the sun to stop, and not the earth. This might seem like pedantry, but that was precisely the point. The Catholic church hoped to hold a monopoly on biblical interpretation, and someone lower down the ecclesiastical hierarchy conducting their own paradigm shift equipped with nothing more than astronomical data and mathematics could set a dangerous precedent. At a time when many such precedents already being set.

The second, and quite serious objection, was that it created a whole new set of scientific questions. Why don’t we feel like we are moving through space? Not only about the sun, but when we make the Earth rotates daily about its own axis? The numbers required to calculate the implied velocity were known. And on top of that, if we were moving at such great speed, they why did we not observe a parallax effect between the stars? As the apparent distance between two buildings appears to change as we move past them, why couldn’t we observe a similar shift in the stars as we moved? Copernicus’ answer was that the stars were much farther away from earth than had ever been imagined before. It was a correct deduction that didn’t do much to convince anyone.

Both Copernicus and Newton were reluctant to publish their ideas. In Newton’s case he was satisfied to have developed his Calculus and did not care to suffer the scrutiny that others would subject his theory of gravity to. His experience justify his thinking to other scientists of his had soured his relationship with the wider scientific community of his day. It was only when it became clear that Leibniz had independently developed the tools of Calculus that he finally set about writing up, formalizing, and getting his hands on data in order to present his Principia.

Copernicus had gathered his data and written his book, yet for many years did not publish it. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium would only arrive in print as he lay on his death bed. While Copernicus had friends who supported his astronomical pursuits, it seems to have been the arrival of a young Lutheran mathematician Georg Joahim Rheticus, who was the key instigator in bringing the manuscript to print.

No one had invited him or even suspected his arrival. Had he sent advance notice of his visit he doubtless would have been advised to stay far away from Varmia. Bishop Dantiscus’ most recent anti-heresy pronouncement, issued in March, reiterated the exclusion of all Lutherans from the province — and twenty-five-year-old Georg Joachim Rheticus was not only Lutheran but a professor at Luther’s own university in Wittenberg. He had lectured there about a new direction for the ancient art of astrology, which he hoped to establish as a respected science. Ruing mundane abuses of astrology, such as selecting a good time for business transactions, Rheticus believed the stars spoke only of the gravest matters: A horoscope signaled an individual’s place in the world and his ultimate fate, not the minutiae of his daily life. If properly understood, heavenly signed would predict the emergence of religious prophets and the rise or fall of secular empires.

A More Perfect Heaven — Dava Sobel

I suspect that we may undervalue the weight that the belief in astrology may have carried in some (but not all) quarters. Many looked back to the Great Conjunction of 1524 as heralding the rise and spread of Lutheranism — an ideological shift with profound and widespread implications that might only be matched by Communism. We live in an age of scientific prediction, taking for granted the reliable weather forecast on our phone in the morning. We (at least most of us) accept the deep implications of the climate data for our future, while also paying heed to the sociology and political science can help us understand our lack of collective action. If we accept the astrology as being a kind of forebear to our own understanding, you can perhaps appreciate why Rheticus might have been willing to take such risks to pursue a better understanding of the stars.

We can only imagine what Rheticus must have said to Copernicus that led him to finally prepare his manuscript for publication. And that is what Dava Sobel has done, writing a biography of Copernicus, A More Perfect Heaven, which contains within it a two act play dramatizing how she imagines the conversation might have gone. It presents a Rheticus shocked to discover that Copernicus literally believes that the Earth orbits about the Sun, a Copernicus perplexed that the young man takes astronomy seriously, but who is won over by the prospect of taking on such a capable young mathematician as his student.

Rheticus’ principal legacy is in the précis of Copernicus’ theory that he wrote and had distributed as a means of preparing the way for the ultimate text. His contributions would ultimately be overshadowed by the later accusation, conviction, and banishment for raping the son of a merchant. While Sobel presents Rheticus in her play as pursuing/grooming a fourteen year old boy, it does not feel like she knows exactly where to take this dramatically. By way of contrast, John Banville in his novel Doctor Copernicus gleefully transitions to a Nabokovian narrative upon Rheticus’ arrival.

There is an interesting dramatic irony in the way Copernicus’ ideas were initially received. There was a ruse, by certain parties, to present Copernicus’ heliocentric theory as simply a means of computation. It could be tolerated if it was understood that one was not supposed to actually believe that the Sun was at the center of the solar system. Which struck some as a reasonable compromise. The Catholic church was drawing up what would become the Gregorian calender, and Copernicus’ made important contributions to calculating a more accurate average for the length of a year.

Yet now the situation has been reversed. While Copernicus’ techniques were rendered obsolete with the arrival of calculus, the conceptual understanding carries on in popular understanding. Meanwhile, as Terence Tao and Tanya Klowden have noted Ptolemy’s deferents and epicycles live on in the mathematics of Fourier analysis — a means of approximating arbitrary periodic functions using trigonometry.

Even within a field as definitive as mathematics and science it is interesting how even defunct and obsolete thinking can both be revealing and even persist with strange second lives. Why someone believed something can become more important than the truth of the thing. Eratosthenes deduced an impressive approximation for the Earth’s circumference after hearing a story about a well that would reflect the light of the sun at noon. We posses a more accurate figure now, but technique never grows old.

Sanderson and I

I have never read a Brandon Sanderson novel. Plenty of people haven’t, so that doesn’t make me special, even among avid readers. But a great many people do read Sanderson. So many, in fact, that even among high profile writers, Sanderson certainly is special. And this week Sanderson’s readership went from buying Sanderson’s books, to buying into Sanderson and his books; they put down an accumulated and unholy twenty million dollars (and growing) on his kickstarter to publish four “surprise” novels in 2023.

But perhaps I should feel a little bit special, because while I haven’t read any Sanderson, he has read me. Or at least he has, on one occasion, in interview, indicated that he had read the web-comic that I drew as a teenager.

Thog Infinitron, written by Riel Langlois, a Canadian I met on a web-comic forum, and drawn by me, Daniel Woodhouse, is the story of a cyborg caveman and his various adventures. After his body is crushed during a Rhino stampede, the titular Thog is rebuilt with all manner of enhancements by a pair of alien visitors. I uploaded a page a week, and the story ran for a grand total of 129 pages before I unceremoniously lost interest and ditched the project somewhere in the middle of my second year of undergraduate mathematics. I had other things going on. Thog’s story was left at a haunting cliffhanger, with story-lines left open and characters stuck forever mid-arc.

I do not even have to look back over my work to recognize that I was a callow and unsophisticated artist. My potential was frustratingly underdeveloped. In retrospect, I cringe at my own haste to produce a popular webcomic that would bring in wealth and recognition, and how that haste led me to neglect my craft. I lacked influence and serious guidance. Or maybe I was simply too stubborn in my ambition. I do wonder how I would have fared if I had been that same teenager today, able to discover the wealth of material and advice that is now available online. You can literally watch over the shoulder of accomplished artists as they draw.

Nevertheless, when I revisited Thog, I was impressed by the comic as a body of work. Langlois’ writing was truly fantastic — in an completely different league to my art. And as rough as the art is to my eye, I have to appreciate the sheer cumulative achievement.

(Please do not go looking for my webcomics. Aside from Thog Infinitron I sincerely hope that my teenage juvenalia has disappeared from the internet, and for the most part this wish seems to have come true through a combination of defunct image hosting and link-rot. Thog is still out there and readable thanks to a surviving free webcomic hosting site, although I’m not sure your browser will forgive you for navigating into those waters.)

At the time, Thog, with it’s regular update schedule, was a major feature in my life. Now it feels like a distant and minor chapter. Years later I would occasionally do a web search to see if people still mentioned it , if Thog was still being discovered, or if the comic had any kind of legacy at all. It was during one of those web searches that I discovered a passing reference to Thog by Sanderson in an interview on Goodreads.

It is a strange an unusual writer who does not want to be read. And indeed it is a strange and gratifying to discover that you have been read. It is an experience that Sanderson enjoys to a singular degree, but that I too have enjoyed to a thoroughly modest degree. At some point during Thog’s run we even gave permission to some particularly keen readers to translate it into Romanian. I have never received a dime for my web-comics, and at the time I didn’t take much note at the time, but in retrospect I’m in awe that I should have received such an honor. Sanderson’s works have been translated into 35 different languages.

The money that is being amassed on Kickstarter for Sanderson’s project is no small thing. The way the arts and literature are funded have profound effects on the culture. The proceeds of bestsellers have traditionally been reinvested by published houses in new writers (or so it has been claimed), and I imagine that more than a few people will look at Sanderson’s foray into self-publishing (or working outside a major publishing house) and wonder how different the future might be. But it is at least, for now, worth appreciating the sheer spectacle of a truly devoted readership.