How do you respond when told something is impossible?

From Ryan Holiday’s new book Conspiracy:

It is always revealing to see how a person responds to those situations where he’s told: “There’s nothing you can do about it. This is the way of the world.” Peter Thiel’s friend, the mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high-agency person.” How do you respond when told something is impossible? Is that the end of the conversation or the start of one? What’s the reaction to being told you can’t—that no one can? One type accepts it, wallows in it even. The other questions it, fights it, rejects it.

As an engineer, my first response is always to deconstruct the problem. Empathy is important too. Some questions I like to ask:

  • Why does this person believe it is impossible?
  • What do they know that I don’t or vice versa?
  • What are the limiting factors of the outcome that is supposedly impossible?
  • What are the actual dynamics of the system that is supposedly impossible to change?
  • How do the dynamics of the system differ at other timescales? (Over months, decades, lifetimes…)
  • What does everyone believe about the system? What if the opposite is true?

The wound consists precisely in claiming to… –

The wound consists precisely in claiming to discover and to master meaning, in claiming to suture or to saturate, to fill this emptiness, to close the mouth. Imagine that someone claimed to have said everything that needed to be said on the subject of this poem or that line of Celan, that someone claimed to have exhausted the subject. That would be terrifying; it would be the destruction of the poem. In order not to destroy the poem, one must–and this is what I would like to do–try to speak of it in such a way, as Celan himself says, that the poem still speaks. It still speaks. One must speak in such a way as to give it the chance to speak. We are talking about this in reference to interpretive reading and the hermeneutics of the poem, but this also holds for life in general. One speaks, trying to listen to the other. One should speak while leaving to the other the chance to speak, while giving the floor to the other. It is a question of rhythm, of time: not to speak too much, thereby imposing silence on the other, and not to remain too silent. All this has to be negotiated.
Jacques Derrida, “The Truth that Wounds,” Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan

via tabulasar

The Castle by Kafka

Everything is detached in this book, alienated. Even the third person narration gives a sense of alienation. K. is a strange person in a strange land, he cannot quite fit into any scene of the story. And yet the events are all told as from K.’s perspective, which gives a warped view of the world. It’s like an Escher drawing, or something.

The flow between dialogue and narration is rather brilliant and accentuates the alienation. I don’t always feel like I’m watching a play when I read The Castle, rather, sometimes it’s as if I’m watching a scene play out in the distance and someone is standing beside me narrating what is happening way over there. It’s a very strange feeling that I’ve never gotten from a book before.

It took me 200 pages, but I realized the word that perfectly describes this book: insufferable. (No doubt some of the insufferability is due to the translation from German, but that’s beside the point.) Every character is insufferable, concerned only with the most minute trivialities of the bureaucratic maze that is the Castle. What amazes me is how Kafka is able to convey this feeling of insufferability so well that I can’t stop reading. It’s like watching a slow motion car crash: extremely difficult to watch and yet you can’t bring yourself to look away. Kafka was writing in I believe 1920-1930, at the height of the totalitarian bureaucracy of the Nazi government, and I can’t help but draw parallels.

As for the characters, it is as if each character’s internal struggle is this: they are trying to claw their way out of the uncanny valley, but they just can’t quite figure out what it takes to get over that last ledge. They kind of remind me of Westworld characters. They are definitely functioning individuals, but they aren’t quite all there. They don’t reason for themselves, or take any active role in their lives: instead they are all purely reactive to the events and happenings of the Castle. They all seem to have an incredible ability to talk at great length about nothing at all, perhaps this is what makes them bureaucrats.

The ethical situation with Amalia’s secret is, by my estimation, a fantastic depiction of Nietzsche’s slave morality. Amalia is the only respectable character in the whole story, besides. Her father says, “I’ll restore Amalia’s honor, it won’t take long now,” but says it sheepishly, in a low voice. He has no idea what honor is, or why it is important. Only that the society and the Castle say that some thing called honor is important, and the man of the house should uphold it, and in attempting to do so his life is drained from him and he is left old and withered. This is a propping-up of an arbitrary morality by the Castle: institutionalized morality. Its absurd, of course. But this is how society works, and this is what Nietzsche taught us. Meanwhile, Amalia is vibrant, bearing all responsibility for the household. She already established her honor as one that doesn’t conform to the very strange moral norms of the Castle. In denying Sortini, against the wishes of her family but congruent with her own conception of honor and morality, she made the single active movement in the entire plot. She is Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

Most striking is the way the Castle constructs a world that encourages slave morality in the Village. It is evident in every character, especially K., who starts the book energized and assertive with getting to his work, but by the end he is pulled in every direction by the insanity of the different Villagers and Castle workers. Each character, by the way, that has a long monologue contradicts themself multiple times: this adds to their insufferability.

At any moment in the book, K. could have just walked away as easily as he had walked into the Village. But he never cuts any interaction short, never even thinks about leaving. He gets caught up in the social strata of the Castle, believes he needs to attain social status, and throughout the story increasingly suffers because of it. I guess he is the bearer of the insufferability of the rest of the characters.

Plays and movies

It took me a while to get into The Castle by Kafka. It can definitely be a boring book, but it doesn’t have to be. What finally got me into the book was this: I stopped imagining the scenery of the story as if it were a movie or a television show: an entire world playing out in front of a camera. Instead, I now imagine it as a theatrical production, as if I’m watching a play of The Castle, with a limited set and props, actors in the background doing whatever, the spotlight following the current thread of the narrative. Imagining K.’s world in this way helps me understand the story being told, I guess because The Castle is a “theatrical” novel?

I recently read The Name of the Wind, a modern fantasy novel which was very much written like a movie, and not like a play. It was easier to imagine Kvothe’s world as a series of movie scenes, with the camera focusing on different things for effect, cut scenes to explain a back story, and so on.

Maybe I’m becoming a better reader? Maybe I have an over-active imagination?

The Principle of Charity

First off, there is really only one thing to keep in mind when reading a philosophical text, and it’s the thing that seems to be the most lacking in new readers: The Principle of Charity. It asks that you read a text in the strongest, most persuasive way possible, regardless of whether you agree with the content. This is extremely important for reading philosophical texts, because many of them will challenge your ideals. Some might even say that is the entire point of reading philosophy, so if you fail in the Principle of Charity, you fail at reading philosophy entirely.
How to study philosophy as an amateur – Existential Comics

SQL Database Design with Yesod and Persistent

If you’ve ever designed a database from scratch, or worked with a database migrations, then you know how important it is to get the data schema right the first time. If you get them wrong, then when you (inevitably) have to fix it, you must do a major overhaul of your code just to fit the updated schema. In Rails, this means re-implementing potentially dozens of objects. In Haskell, it’s not as bad because the compiler handles most error checking (with Persistent, anyhow), but it’s still not a trivial exercise.

So how do you design a database with Persistent? You begin with database normalization (DN) in mind.

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