Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Mon May 26 23:12:42 2008
Other People's Mirrors

Yesterday: walked around a lot, latelunch at IG, nice reading time on Oakland lawn (reread Neverwhere), hung out at 61c, went home, fed cats, watched two movies, played with cats, went to bed. Today: Much the same except swap lunch for dinner at Aladdin's, and haven't (yet) watched any movies or gone to bed.

One of the films I watched was Woody Allen's Manhattan - while walking around today, thought about how nontraditional the "plot structure" from his movies are - they don't tend to have a strong protagonist/antagonist duality, often lack a plot arc (or at least, they're not about the plot), and feel more like an earthy exploration of humanity. His films feel like a mix between an extended philosophical skit and blogging - in order to really like Woody Allen films, one has to really like Woody Allen and the perspective he has on humanity - too many films, I think, are made with the idea that "coming-of-age" or "learning to have courage" are the only themes in character development worth doing, making films both utterly predictable and demeaning to their audience. Woody Allen's characters struggle with ideals and concepts in a morally complex world, and that's what makes his films beautiful. Since taking that film on Hitchcock, I keep thinking about H's claim that reality in cinema is unimportant and that what's important is management of tension - the truthfulness of that depends on the audience. Tension seems like a broad target for general markets, but it seems that we'd have the equivalent of having all music being pop music if everyone followed those ideals.

Rereading Machiavelli's Discourses - basic idea that with a relatively corrupt (nonvirtuous) people, institutions that worked well for a more virtuous people would fail them - seems sound. Also: with sufficient corruption, no system of government can cope well, and building virtue in society is a slow and difficult process (M's two systems of virtues come into play here - a "good" person is needed to begin the task of reforming society, but this same person must be willing to do things that are "bad" by traditional moralities in order to bring about change - a "good person willing to do bad when needed" (good/bad being defined in this case as traditional individual morality) is what is demanded of a prince. He notes as well that throughly reforming a people usually takes more than a generation - a people must be fortunate enough to have at least two such good leaders in a row to improve in a lasting way.

A central issue with political philosophy - political possibility (and cultural possibility - managing a state and managing society are closely tied tasks) are not obviously constrained fields, and coming up with plausible constraints, qualifiers, or direction that don't feel arbitrary or insufficient. One source of direction - notion that any political philosophy, operating within society, that is not sustainable were it to to dominate society, that could not "explain" historical and actual situations across the world and deal with them sensibly, is not worthy of consideration. Among many other things, this suggests we not consider systems that are absolutely pacifist, and it also tells us that in order to be taken seriously, a political philosophy should be informed by a broad understanding of history, world events, and psychology. Whether it's important to start from ideas inspired by this (e.g. we must be willing to tax people in ways that not every individual consents to, or we must be willing to draft people, etc) or just ensure compliance is another matter - starting from them may result in a system that is much more practical by these measures, although it may also impose enough flavour to the system so as to rule out systems that would be both plausible and worth considering.

Some years ago, I spoke with GerardM about his project WiktionaryZ - it had a lot of goals, starting from providing parallel definitions for a broad variety of words and ending in having semantically realistic translations (or at least explanations) between languages. It is now called OmegaWiki, and appears to have advanced a bit further towards its goals - I particularly like how my chosen test case, cat, has other nicely structured information about the term - I still don't think it's possible to do provably effective things with this kind of structure, but it seems likely that this will both be really useful for learning and be pragmatic for "getting close" to good translations through machines. It's nice how we have words like "strong-AI" and "weak-AI" to describe to what degree we think sentience can be understood/created, but we seem to lack similar terms for thoughts on things beyond that - would people understand what I mean when I say I'm a symbol-skeptic?

As someone who frequents a coffeeshop, I recently realised that there are not too many things the employees do that I would not be willing to do myself, as a chore, were the coffeeshop a collective - I would actually rather prepare my own tea/cereal, and occasionally sweeping/mopping/etc. I think I'd be more willing to keep a shared space in really good condition than my own (while I'm living alone) because it's easier to be motivated improving other people's environment than my own. The important way the 61c differs from my apartment is that there are lots of people there (well, and it's in a central location) - I wonder how hard it would be to work out all the details for a shared space with facilities that would act, among other things, as a coffeeshop/meeting place. I suspect managing money, policing use of resources, and managing responsibilities, all in ways somewhere between traditions of a business and a family, would be the difficult part. This is the kind of thing where having existing, tested societal solutions is a lot easier than attempting to innovate.