June 2018: Incorrigibly Plural

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.


World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

Louis MacNeice – ‘Snow’

This has been a pretty disjointed sort of month. I went to Vienna at the beginning of it for the workshop with Carlo Rovelli, which was really fun, but I never really did get to the point of understanding Rovelli’s relational quantum mechanics, so I can’t talk about that. After that my internet ban ran out and I spent a while binging random internet crap, and then I had an annoying week of multiple migraines where I got nothing done, and then I’ve spent a lot of the last part of the month mucking around with SVG browser inconsistencies for a website I’m making. Fun! I haven’t really done a lot of physics, or read as much interesting stuff as normal, so I’m not particularly feeling it this month, and have mostly procrastinated on this until the last day.

Still, once I started writing it wasn’t too bad. I’m going to talk about a kids’ puzzle, and para-academia, and Heidegger. I feel like I should talk about something more directly connected to my Vienna trip, because that’s easily the most interesting thing I did this month, but somehow every time I think of doing that it brings up a kind of ‘what I did on my holidays’ school homework feel, and I’m trying to keep this experiment far away from ‘shoulds’ and any kind of sense of tedious duty. The only cool thing I do want to mention is that somehow out of the six people who signed up for this newsletter, one of them was a postdoc in Vienna going to the same workshop as me. I knew filter bubbles were strong, but I didn’t know they were that strong! Anyway it was really fun to meet Bob Peterson and talk about some of this stuff in real life for once.

Apples and sheep

I’ve grudgingly realised that the Matthew Crawford book I was grumbling about last time has actually helped me think more clearly about a few things. Here’s one (kind of silly) example. I visited my family earlier in the month, and I came across this wooden puzzle my aunt made:


I had a phase when I was ten or so where I was completely obsessed with this puzzle. Looking back it’s not obvious why – it’s pretty simple and looks like the kind of thing that would briefly entertain much younger children. I was a weird kid and also didn’t have a Playstation – maybe that’s explanation enough? But I didn’t have some kind of Victorian childhood where I was happy with an orange and a wooden toy at Christmas. I had access to plenty of plastic and electronic nineties tat that was more obviously fun.

I sat down for half an hour to play with this thing and try and understand what the appeal was. The main thing is that it turns out to be way more controllable than you might expect. The basic aim of the puzzle is just to get the ball bearings in the holes in any old order. This is the game that stops being particularly rewarding once you’re over the age of seven. But it’s actually possible to learn to isolate individual ball bearings by bashing them against the sides until one separates off, and then tilt the thing very carefully to steer one individually into a specific hole. That gives you a lot more options for variants on the basic game – for example, you can fill in the holes in a spiral pattern starting from the middle. Or construct a ‘fence’ of outer apples with a single missing ‘gate’ apple, steer two apples into the central pen (these apples are now sheep), and then close the gate with the last one.

The other interesting feature is that because this is a homemade game, the holes are not uniformly deep. The one in the top right is noticeably shallower than the others, and the ball bearing in this slot can be dislodged fairly easily while keeping the other nine in their place. This gives the potential for quite complicated dynamics of knocking down specific apples, and then steering other ones back in.

Still an odd way to have spent my time! But I can at least roughly understand why – the game can reward a surprisingly high level of skill.

Last time I talked about a toy for toddlers that Crawford discusses in his book:

The Leap Frog Learning Table is designed to take very complicated data from the environment – toddlers bashing the thing any old how, at any old speed or angle – and funnel this mess into a very small number of possible outcomes…

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a real violin… There are a large number of degrees of freedom – the movement of every finger, including those on the bow hand, contributes to the final sound – and almost all of them are continuous – there are no keys or frets to accommodate small mistakes in positioning.

Crawford argues that although tools and instruments that transmit this kind of rich information about the world can be very frustrating in the short term, they also have enormous potential for satisfaction in the long term as you come to master them. Whereas objects like the Leap Frog Learning Table have comparatively little to offer if you’re not two years old…

The apple puzzle is less like the Leap Frog Learning Table than you might expect, and has potential for some very rich dynamics. Part of this is from the continuous degrees of freedom you have in tilting the game, but the cool thing is that a lot of it comes from unintentional parts of the physical design. My aunt made the basic puzzle for small children, and the more complicated puzzles happened to be hidden within it.

The ability to dislodge the top right apple is not ‘supposed’ to be part of the game at all – an abstract version you might code up would have identical holes. This is where the MacNeice quote at the top comes in. The world is going about its business of being incorrigibly plural, and there is just way more of it than any one abstract ruleset needs. The variation in the holes allows some of that complexity to accidentally leak in, breaking the simple game out into a richer one.

Maybe this analysis is overkill for a simple puzzle! But going through examples in detail like this is how I learn.


I learned a new word while digging through Twitter seeing what I’d missed:


(Copying this out I notice that it’s an old tweet, that must have got resurrected.)

It’s a good word, and I’m also interested in this thing. I’m mostly involved with this group of people, who run a yearly workshop along with various other experiments like the Vienna workshop and a self-organising summer school. We’re not a true para-academia – we’re more like parasites on normal academia. Most people are still PhD students or doing postdocs, and we rely on scavenging bits of funding from various institutions, and organising workshops by getting a local student to book some university rooms.

I love universities, even in their current state. The wonderful thing about them is that you can still do things like this – they are still semi-permeable to all sorts of casual improvised activity. Presumably you can’t run a workshop on the Google campus by just emailing a bunch of people with no connection to the company, and letting them turn up and wander in. You’d need to make an application and sign in and have badges and shit. Also if you are an employee at Google, someone is probably tracking what you’re spending your time on, so you can’t use it to organise some random workshop. There’s still something special about about the way universities are able concentrate together people with time on their hands to muck about with dumb activities (I think that even the dumbest ones have some sort of value) and try new ideas.

Venkatesh Rao talks about cities, and how truly great ones transcend any one temporary economic purpose:

… Cities (and nations, and individual humans) that are defined by their current function are fragile. They die when the economic rationale for their current function dies. If your identity was defined by your job, you never really had a real identity.

No, real cities are their own reasons for existing. If it only exists to serve a function in the broader world, it’s a town, not a city. What real cities do — whether finance, or tech, or energy, or governance — is not who they are. The history of any major city illustrates this. San Francisco was about the gold rush before it was about tech. Seattle was about fur, fish, and lumber before it was about Boeing or Amazon. New York was about textiles before it was about high finance. And all of them are always, first and foremost, about themselves. About their unique psychological identities …

… In fact, it is cities, not nations, that best fit the formula “Make X Great Again.” Great cities are longer-lived than nations and empires. Often they are effectively immortal. When nations experience multiple chapters of greatness, it is usually traceable to chapters of greatness in one or more of their great, immortal cities. Long-lived cities are make-ourselves-great-again engines. They keep finding new ways of continuing the game of being themselves rather than trying to win a particular economic era  …

I think something like this is true of the best universities – they are closer to being cities than to being companies. They seem to be capable of the same long lifespans (Bologna and Oxford for sure), and have the same ability to keep ‘continuing the game of being themselves’ instead of optimising for a narrower goal. Attempting to run a university as a single company just seems like completely the wrong model.

I think this is maybe why I can’t get very excited by talk of ‘disrupting the traditional university’ or whatever. I completely agree that the current model is a disaster. But ‘disruption’ seems like a kind of category error, like trying to ‘disrupt London’ by building Milton Keynes.

I’m not too sure what I want instead! I guess that, following the city analogy, the right metaphor would be ‘renewal’ rather than ‘disruption’. I expect that in the short time a lot of the impetus for this will come from outside academia, in the kind of para-academias that Nielsen is talking about. I’m definitely interested in things like the Recurse Center, and the Ronin Institute, and online communities of researchers. But in the long term I hope that a lot of this work will be done within universities too, and that this will just look like a sort of stupid stage that universities are going through, before we get back to something closer to an older idea of a university with less central control and obsession with narrow metrics.


I bought Dreyfus’s Being-In-The-World a while back, and rapidly decided that although it was somewhat easier than reading Being and Time, it was still pretty hard work and I couldn’t be bothered. This month I picked it up again, and had slightly more success. I opened it in Chapter 6, where there was a helpful table summarising modes of interaction with the world:


The first two, ‘availableness’ and ‘unavailableness’, are the distinctions I’d vaguely picked up from reading popularisations before: transparent absorption in practical activity versus the malfunctions that pull you out of this mode (‘hammering’ versus ‘head comes off hammer’). I’d thought about these before – I have the kind of job where I have to switch between multiple projects and rapidly pick up a lot of tools, so I have plenty of opportunities to notice the feeling of being pulled back into unavailableness. (I’m glad I picked up an interest in this stuff when I did – even really tedious support tasks become a source of interesting material!)

I hadn’t realised that Heidegger also makes a distinction between the second two, ‘occurrentness’ versus ‘pure occurrentness’. I don’t fully grasp this distinction, but as far as I understand it at the moment, ‘pure occurrentness’ includes something like ‘pre-interpreted sense data’, like if you just stare at lines on the page as lines on the page without reconstructing them as a perspective drawing of a box or whatever. This is more like Husserl’s phenomenology, as an uninvolved observer viewing the world. E.g. on p. 84 Dreyfus says:

Dasein can just stare without recontextualising. Such disinterested attention and the isolated entities it reveals gives rise to traditional ontology – a constantly renewed but unsuccessful attempt to account for everything in terms of some type of ultimate substances on the side of both subject and object.

‘Occurrentness’ also involves decontextualisation, seeing things in a disinterested way without trying to use them in ‘everyday practical activity’. But this can also involve recontextualising some of the world as ‘isolable, determinable properties’. This is the category that scientific activity is supposed to fit into:

Dasein can decontextualize its object. Then it reveals context-free features or properties. These can be recontextualized in formal models in scientific theories. The scientist is, however, still an involved skillful subject, not an autonomous, detached subject as in the traditional account of theory. What is revealed is occurrentness.

The distinction between occurrentness and pure occurrentness reminds me of Eddington’s story of the two tables:

I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my chairs to my two tables. Two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me – two tables, two chairs, two pens.

This is not a very profound beginning to a course which ought to reach transcendent levels of scientific philosophy. But we cannot touch bedrock immediately; we must scratch a bit at the surface of things first. And whenever I begin to scratch the first thing I strike is my two tables.

One of them has been familiar to me from earliest years. It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is – Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table. And so we go round in circles. After all if you are a plain commonsense man, not too much worried with scientific scruples, you will be confident that you understand the nature of an ordinary table. I have even heard of plain men who had the idea that they could better understand the mystery of their own nature if scientists would discover a way of explaining it in terms of the easily comprehensible nature of a table.

Table No. 2 is my scientific table. It is a more recent acquaintance and I do not feel so familiar with it. It does not belong to the world previously mentioned, that world which spontaneously appears around me when I open my eyes, though how much of it is objective and how much subjective I do not here consider. It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life. Reviewing their properties one by one, there seems to be nothing to choose between the two tables for ordinary purposes; but when abnormal circumstances befall, then my scientific table shows to advantage. If the house catches fire my scientific table will dissolve quite naturally into scientific smoke, whereas my familiar table undergoes a metamorphosis of its substantial nature which I can only regard as miraculous.

Eddington was some flavour of transcendental idealist, and for him the first table was something like the phenomenal world as it appears to us. The second table has some kind of weird connection to the world-in-itself, I think – I never understood exactly what, given that that was supposed to be inaccessible.

(I’m not sure what flavour of idealist he was. I keep mentioning him because he fascinates me. He was one of the great popularisers of his time, and had a distinctive and vivid writing style that I love. After a while of reading him you realise that you’re not actually reading normal pop science, but getting an introduction into his bizarre metaphysics, where the ideal world-in-itself persists in doing whatever it wants, but the wonders of tensor calculus readjust the world-as-you-perceive it to be in its standard form. He also thought the fine structure constant had to be 1/136 on pure a priori grounds, which I think had something to do with a tensor decomposition; when it turned out to be closer to 1/137 he came up with a new reason, giving him the nickname Sir Arthur Addingone.)

This is the unsatisfying thing about idealism, that you lose all connection between the tables. I do have a soft spot for the idealists, though. I think it’s because in physics these days you mostly encounter people with more positivist-derived worldviews, who don’t seem to think much at all about how the formalisms they describe ground out in human experience. When I encountered Eddington I was happy to find someone who took the experiential side of things seriously, even if he was a total weirdo.

(This is only true of modern physicists. In the twenties and thirties there were still plenty of people around who were more inspired by Kant than the new positivist tradition. My philosophy of physics lecturer, Michela Massimi, was some kind of neo-Kantian herself, and she lent me The Reign of Relativity by Thomas Ryckman, a book on how people like Weyl and Eddington connected relativity to Husserl and the phenomenological tradition. It was mostly over my head at the time, but I might get hold of it again.)

Now, it sounds like Heidegger has four tables! Eddington’s two match up quite well to pure occurrentness and occurrentness, respectively. But neither of them have much to do with absorption in practical table use. I think that these extra two tables are supposed to be the key for getting out of this idealist bind of the completely detached subject-object split.

There’s something interesting going on in Chapter 8 connected to this, where Dreyfus compares Heidegger’s view to Husserl’s:

We have seen that “Dasein, in its familiarity with significance, is the ontical condition for the possibility of discovering entities”, i.e. that all entities can show up directly or indirectly by virtue of an entity’s i.e., Dasein’s, readiness to cope with them. This is clearly a rejection of Husserl’s attempt to ground all forms of intentionality in the meaning-giving activity of a detached transcendental subject, but it still has a decidedly Husserlian ring. It is as if Heidegger has substituted one absolute source of another, replacing the constituting activity of detached transcendental consciousness with the constituting activity of involved existential Dasein.

First, Dreyfus points out that this is a very big substitution. Heidegger’s version of ‘constituting activity’ is:

  • Not ‘analyzable in terms of intentional content’
  • Not intelligible separately from the world
  • Not capable of being made fully explicit, as it doesn’t involve conscious or unconscious beliefs or rules

Dreyfus goes on to make the case that this is what moves us from idealist separateness to ‘the disclosure of one shared world’. Unfortunately I don’t understand the argument at all. There’s all kinds of stuff about ‘shared social activity’ that I have no context for. This is probably the point where I want to read the earlier chapters! At least I now have some motivation for continuing.

Next month

No very definite plans. Hopefully I’ll finish this browser inconsistency bullshit soon, and then maybe write up some physics. I’ve given up making claims about what I’m going to read next, because it always ends up being something completely different!

Cheers, and thanks for reading,