Happy New Year! This is a fairly run-of-the-mill sort of yearly review post for the most part. But first off I’ve got a few notes on Lark Rise to Candleford.
Lark Rise to Candleford
I was rereading this on the bus this month. It’s a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s upbringing in rural Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the 1880s – Flora Thompson becomes ‘Laura Timmins’, and her home hamlet of Juniper Hill becomes ‘Lark Rise’. I love this book, and probably the best way to explain what’s so good about it is to compare it to the horrible introduction by H. J. Massingham that my copy has been lumbered with. Apparently he was ’a prolific British writer on ruralism’ in the early twentieth century, and he has a Theory to unload:
What Flora Thompson depicts is the utter ruin of a closely knit organic society with a richly interwoven and traditional culture that had defied every change, every aggression, except the one that established the modern world. It is notable that, though husbandry itself plays little part in the trilogy, it is the story of the irreparable calamity of the English fields.
Interpreted through the light of this Theory, the book is about the tragedy of the Inclosure Acts, where land that was previously held in common was taken into private ownership, and rural people lost grazing and farming rights and much of their source of income. This happened at different times in different places, but hit Lark Rise in the 1850s, well within the memory of older residents like Old Sally. As Massingham explains it:
In remembering the Rise when it was common land, Sally was carrying in her mind the England of small properties based on the land, the England whose native land belonged to its own people, not to a State masquerading as such, not even to the manorial lords who exacted services, but not from a landless proletariat.
Now, this Theory contains a lot of truth. Most of the farm labourers in the hamlet of Lark Rise are crushingly poor – they can generally find enough to eat, through growing their own vegetables, killing a pig or two each year, and gleaning in the fields after harvest, but face a constant struggle to afford anything that has to be bought, like clothes, furniture and especially shoes. Old Sally and some of the other elderly villagers really are much better off. Thompson says:
Sally could just remember the Rise when it still stood in a wide expanse of open heath, with juniper bushes and furze thickets and close, springy, rabbit-bitten turf. There were only six houses then and they stood in a ring round an open green, all with large gardens and fruit trees and faggot piles….
Country people had not been so poor when Sally was a girl, or their prospects so hopeless. Sally’s father had kept a cow, geese, poultry, pigs, and a donkey-cart to carry his produce to the market town. He could do this because he had commoners’ rights and could turn his animals out to graze, and cut furze for firing and even turf to make a lawn for one of his customers. Her mother made butter, for themselves and to sell, baked their own bread, and made candles for lighting. Not much of a light, Sally said, but it cost next to nothing, and, of course, they went to bed early.
But this isn’t the whole story. The late nineteenth century – the singularity in our past light cone – is far more complex and disorientating and transitional than any piece of single-issue derping can encompass, and Thompson’s book is wonderful because she isn’t trying to unload a Theory on you. She’s a fantastic close observer of people and situations and the natural world, and you’re constantly being shown something new. The situation with the elderly residents, for example, is more complicated than Massingham’s version. Those who managed to build up some wealth in earlier decades are better off, but those who didn’t are in a very precarious situation, only a few steps away from the workhouse and reliant on the charity of relatives. For them, the modern social safety net will be an enormous relief, and one of the most affecting scenes in the book is a brief aside about the state pensions first coming in:
When, twenty years later, the Old Age Pensions began, life was transformed for such aged cottagers. They were relieved of anxiety. They were suddenly rich. Independent for life! At first when they went to the Post Office to draw it, tears of gratitude would run down the cheeks of some, and they would say as they picked up their money, “God bless that Lord George! [for they could not believe one so powerful and munificent could be a plain ‘Mr.’] and God bless you, miss!” and there were flowers from their gardens and apples from their trees for the girl who merely handed them the money.
Thompson only briefly discusses her own politics, but unsurprisingly it’s a bit more complicated than Massingham’s Theory:
For the rest of her life she was too ready to admire the good and to detest what she thought the bad points in all parties to be able to adhere to any. She loved the Liberals, and afterwards the Socialists, for their efforts to improve the lot of the poor. Stories and poems of hers appeared before the 1914 War in the Daily Citizen, and, after the war, her poems were among the earliest to appear in the Daily Herald under Mr. Gerald Gould’s literary editorship; but, as we know on good authority, “every boy and every girl that’s born into this world alive, Is either a little Liberal, Or else a little Conservative,” and, in spite of her early training, the inborn cast of her mind, with its love of the past and of the English countryside, often drew her in the opposite direction.
For the rest of this I’m just going to pull out some quotes I like, to give a flavour of the book.
‘One foot on the village green, and one in the National School’. Thompson had a hard time as a young child. Her father was a stonemason, somewhat better off and better educated than the farm labourers in the hamlet, which already made her something of an outsider, and by personality she tended to the sensitive and thoughtful side. Which wasn’t a great asset when surrounded by tough farm kids:
To say that a child was as broad as it was long was considered a compliment by the hamlet mothers, and some of those toddlers in their knotted woollen wrappings were as near square as anything human can be. One little girl named Rosie Phillips fascinated Laura. She was plump and hard and as rosy-cheeked as an apple, with the deepest of dimples and hair like bronze wire. No matter how hard the other children bumped into her in the games, she stood four-square, as firm as a little rock. She was a very hard hitter and had little, pointed, white teeth that bit. The two tamer children always came out worst in these conflicts. Then they would make a dash on their long stalky legs for their own garden gate, followed by stones and cries of “Long-shanks! Cowardy, cowardy custards!”
Luckily her younger brother turned out to be good at fighting, which helped with getting accepted and surviving school. Universal primary education has come in, but it’s pretty basic, and the kids aren’t exactly happy about it:
It is easy to imagine the education authorities of that day, when drawing up the scheme for that simple but sound education, saying, “Once teach them to read and they will hold the key to all knowledge.” But the scheme did not work out. If the children, by the time they left school, could read well enough to read the newspaper and perhaps an occasional book for amusement, and write well enough to write their own letters, they had no wish to go farther. Their interest was not in books, but in life, and especially the life that lay immediately about them. At school they worked unwillingly, upon compulsion, and the life of the schoolmistress was a hard one.
Darning socks and fried mice. Laura’s employer, the postmistress Dorcas Lane, is still angry about all the time she wasted darning stockings as a girl:
“It took me a whole winter. Time thrown away, for I never wore it. My mother turned it out from somewhere and gave it me to darn at such times as the men were indoors. It was not thought proper then to do ordinary sewing before men, except men’s shirts, of course; never our own underclothes, or anything of that kind; and as to reading, that would have been thought a waste of time; and one must not sit idle, that would have been setting a bad example; but cutting holes in a stocking foot and darning them up again was considered industrious. Be glad you weren’t born in those days.”
These days she reads The Origin of Species for fun instead. Her maid can darn the stupid socks. Also in the ‘thank Christ we don’t do this any more’ category:
Fried mice were still given to children as a specific for bed-wetting. The children were told the mouse was meat and ate it without protest, but with what result is unknown.
Some things change… The blacksmiths learn to fix motor cars:
Yet, as iron will bend to different uses, so will the workers in iron. Twenty years later the younger of that generation of smiths were painting above their shop doors, Motor Repairs a Speciality, and, greatly daring, taking mechanism to pieces which they had no idea how they were going to put together again. They made many mistakes, which passed undetected because the owners had no more knowledge than they had of the inside of “the dratted thing,” and they soon learned by experiment sufficient to enable them to put on a wise air of authority.
Sounds like web development.
The days of the mass earworm are coming in. This sounds like the Despacito of the 1880s:
Those were the days of Miss Lotty Collins’s all-conquering dance and song, “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!” and the words and tune swept the countryside like an epidemic. The air that summer was alive with its strains. Ploughmen bawled it at the plough-tail, harvesters sang it in the harvest field, workmen in villages painted the outside of houses to its measure, errand boys whistled it and schoolchildren yelled it.
Later, the fashion is for fin-de-siècle cynical posturing:
Laura felt old and battered beside her, a sensation she enjoyed, for that was in the ‘nineties, when youth loved to pose as world-weary and disillusioned, the sophisticated product of a dying century. Laura’s friends away from the hamlet called themselves fin de siècle and their elders called them fast, although the fastness went no further than walking, hatless, over Hindhead at night in a gale, bawling Swinburne and Omar Khayyam to each other above the storm.
…and some things don’t change. People make hilarious jokes at the expense of their neighbours:
There were a few donkeys in the neighbourhood, and they, too, had to be shod; but always by the youngest shoeing smith, for it would have been beneath the dignity of his seniors to become the butt for the wit of the passers-by. “He haw! He-haw!” they would shout. “Somebody tell me now, which is topmost, man or beast, for danged if I can see any difference betwixt ‘em?”
That’s the more harmless end of things. The people who now write anonymous abuse on social media were also around back then, but they had to content themselves with lower bandwidth entertainment:
… what were known as comic valentines were still popular in country districts. These were crude coloured prints on flimsy paper representing hideous forms and faces intended to be more or less applicable to the recipient. A valentine could be obtained suitable to be sent to one of any trade, calling, or tendency, with words, always insulting and often obscene, calculated to wound, and these, usually unstamped, passed through the village post offices in surprising numbers every St. Valentine’s Eve. Laura once took one out of the posting-box addressed to herself, with the picture of a hideous female handing out penny stamps and some printed doggerel which began:
You think yourself so lad-di-da
And get yourself up so grand
and went on to advise her always to wear a thick veil when she went out, or her face would frighten the cows. Underneath the verse was scrawled in pencil: “Wat you reely wants is a mask.”
Year in review crap
This is the usual kind of end-of-year navel gazing about how the blog, newsletter, physicsing etc are going. Not sure this is interesting to anyone else but it’s useful to me to go back over everything and get an idea of what I’ve done.
Midwinter never feels like a very good time of year to do this sort of thing, in the UK at least. It’s dark and grey and I don’t have enough spare energy to think of anything new. Feels more like the time for mindlessly executing on any reasonable idea I managed to lock down in October, and waiting for spring. This year is particularly bad as I’m struggling to adjust to the new job and feel kind of run down. I’ve had a couple of colds and way too many migraines and am not getting much done. I might be better shifting this to the spring equinox, which feels like a much more natural time to make plans (it happens every year just as a byproduct of walking home on light evenings, without needing to put extra effort in).
On the other hand, ‘year in review’ is a standard kind of post and I’m very much in mindless execution mode right now, so here goes.
I’ve been happy enough with the blog this year. No big changes: I’ve been doing pretty much the same as I was in 2018, whereas 2018 was considerably more ambitious than 2017. But I’m still enjoying myself and doing some minor experimentation with post types. Eight posts overall, so similar output to last year. I was particularly happy with these ones:
- Book Review: The World Beyond Your Head. Mainly I was happy with the process for this one. I wrote an early version for a newsletter back in 2018, then ended up having a few more related thoughts the next month, then a few more thoughts in an email conversation months later, then shoved them all into a reedited version together with a couple of bits from the Derrida braindump and a quote from David Chapman’s counting with pebbles piece. And it more-or-less hung together! I mean, it could have done with more editing, but it sort of worked anyway. This is exactly how I would like the blog and newsletter to play together.
- The two negative probability posts. Splitting into no-equations and with-equations was a good idea. I also experimented with writing Twitter threads of both posts. I’m not sure what I think of the results: I found myself writing in this weird breezy ‘science communicator voice’ that I don’t like much, and I got a lot of likes but hardly any substantial comments, so I think it was mostly empty calories. But it was an interesting thing to try.
- The middle distance: This was a straightforward attempt at explaining something I couldn’t find a decent write-up of online. It was quite easy to do and some people seemed to find it helpful, so maybe I should try this sort of thing more as a break from my normal idiosyncratic rambling on about stuff. It also picked up really good comments from people who understand On the Origin of Objects a whole lot better than I do.
The newsletter has been a slog the last three months, since I started the new job. I feel really out of my depth at work and don’t have much spare energy left over, so I’m just shoving some bits and pieces together at the end of the month in an uninspired sort of way. This month is a little better as I have time off for Christmas, but even now I don’t have enough spare brain to make the decision about moving to Substack or whatever. I’m hoping that as I get used to things and maybe shorten my commute it’ll get better, so I want to keep pushing on for now, but if it keeps being a slog I’ll take a break for a few months.
The one thing I do have a lot of at the moment is reading time, thanks to the two hours a day I’m spending on buses. This is good for producing raw material for low-effort stuff like the Lark Rise notes above, where I paste in some Kindle highlights and tack some words between them. But I’m not getting in enough writing time, or enough walking time, which is what I need to digest what I’m reading.
Looking back over the year, I count five ‘good’ newsletters, four dialled-in last-minute ‘bad’ ones, and three ‘meh’ ones. I don’t know how it looks from the outside, but from the inside I count a ‘good’ newsletter as one where I’ve been thinking about what I might write and digesting the ideas throughout the month, and then spend a fair chunk of time writing it down over the second half of the month, starting at least a week before the end. A ‘bad’ newsletter is one where I sit down on the 30th with no notes and think ‘oh shit what can I paste in here this time??’. ‘Meh’ would include this one, for example – I’ve put some effort into it but I’m not excited by the result. I think this ratio is ok, but I wouldn’t want to drop much lower. I need to allow myself to produce ‘bad’ newsletters, or the publish-every-month format would be way too constricting, but if I mostly produce ‘bad’ or ‘meh’ ones then it would be pointless.
The good ones:
- March: Thinking Is Good, Actually. Bricolage and Anki. Forgot I wrote most of this but looking back it’s quite good.
- April: Back to the rough ground! Lots of thoughts on Philosophical Investigations.
- May: Mucking around with negative probabilities. This got reworked as the two blog posts.
- August: The shitpost-to-scholarship pipeline. I still like this idea and want to do something with it.
- September: Flex and Slop. My favourite one this year. Got reworked as the bananaphone and middle distance posts.
- Again, I’ve just kept plugging along without making any radical changes. I still want to keep going with the negative probability thing. I think there is something worthwhile in all that playing around with two-by-two boxes I was doing, decomposing the probabilities in Piponi’s toy model into a series of correction terms. I like the fact I have a very concrete situation to play with, and I might be able to make headway on a more satisfying interpretation of those negative probabilities, using something like the ‘negative events’ in the Abramsky and Brandenburger paper I talked about last month. I have some ideas along this line that I’m fiddling around with at the moment.
- I’m not at all bored of this negative probability/qubit phase space area yet, even though it’s been my main focus for two years now, so I definitely picked my topic well. Previously I’d dissipate my energies learning little fragments of stuff and then rushing off to study something else… this has been a huge improvement.
- Some of my crackpot optimism is wearing off, and I’m starting to have to deal with the reality of trying to do anything interesting outside of academia with sod all time to do it. Venkatesh Rao had two good threads recently on how hard it is to make ‘independent research’ really work as a concept, and how almost all real academic research is still done in academia despite its many problems. I agree with almost everything in there. On the other hand… I keep getting pessimistic, and then I catch sight of another shiny new windmill, and then I happily run after that and forget my pessimism again for a while. So at least I’m still having some fun with it.
- I didn’t go to any BRCP workshops this year – I was hoping to go to the summer school in France but then realised I’d double booked myself for a wedding. So I feel a bit disconnected from the community at the moment and don’t have a clear idea what’s going on. I was on the board this year, so I was hoping to spend more time thinking about the society, but actually the combination of not seeing anyone face-to-face and only dealing with the bureaucratic side of running a society has actually made me feel less connected rather than more. I definitely want to go to an event in 2020.
- I did go to a quantum foundations summer school back in June – this was closer in feel to ‘normal academia’ than the BRCP workshops but still enjoyable. I wrote about it back then and don’t have much else to add. I haven’t spent much time going over the material so it doesn’t feel very integrated with the rest of my year, but I have some notes I could use in the future.
- I want to get better at contacting people in academia working on things I’m interested in and asking questions. I still have some weird aversion to doing this – I guess I think I’m just some weirdo wasting their time, or something. But – particularly if I’m contacting, like, postdocs and PhD students and not big name people – they might actually be pleased someone was interested. And if they aren’t they can just ignore me. I know this intellectually but struggle to actually do it.
- That website I made for physics things has not been a great success. It’s just never become very integrated into my habits like the newsletter and blog, so it doesn’t get updated much. Plus when I do spend time on it, it’s too easy to get sucked into yak shaving with design stuff and not write any physics notes. In retrospect I should have just used a standard wordpress template or something and focussed on the physics. But I did want to play with a static site generator and d3.js, so I suppose I got that out of my system.
This is everything that I can remember reading. I didn’t keep a list. I’ve included both non-fiction and no-brainer fantasy books about dragons.
Tartt – The Secret History
Hartman – Seraphina
Hartman – Shadow Scale
Novik – Temeraire
McGilchrist – The Master and his Emissary
Gendlin – Focusing
Adams – Watership Down (for the nth time)
Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Newport – Deep Work
Smith – On the Origin of Objects
Pullman – La Belle Sauvage
Pullman – The Secret Commonwealth
Pullman – Daemon Voices
Thompson – Lark Rise to Candleford
Plus bits of:
Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations
Dutilh Novaes – Formal Languages in Logic
I keep picking up Proofs and Refutations and my eyes just fall off it. It sounds like the sort of thing I should want to read, but in practice it’s never the thing I actually want to read.
I’m going to be at @ssica3003’s Sense-Maker Workshop in London on Friday 17th January! And probably hanging around for the Saturday as well. I’m hoping to meet some more Internet People, and ramble on about the normal stuff I ramble on about. My tentative plan is to be drafting a version of my ‘Shitpost-to-Scholarship Pipeline’ post idea from a few months back, so I have a default thing to talk about, so maybe I’ll say more about that on Twitter beforehand. Not sure if many of you on this mailing list are around London, but if you do come please say hi!
Also I’ll keep going with the negative probability interpretation thingy I’m investigating at the moment.