Sveinbjörn Þórðarson


“Across the pale parabola of joy...”

Listamenn á hægri væng

16.9.2018 kl. 23:15 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Í gegnum tíðina hafa öll bestu skáld, tónsmiðir og listamenn yfirleitt verið á vinstri væng stjórnmála. Og það ætti svosem ekki að koma neinum á óvart. Fólk með ímyndunarafl og sköpunarkraft, sem leyfir sér að dreyma um eitthvað annað, eitthvað betra, er ekki líklegt til þess að styðja íhaldið.

Hins vegar hef ég tekið eftir því að ef maður rekst á annað borð á listamann á hægri vængnum þá er sagan nær alltaf sú sama. Viðkomandi hefur fallið fyrir nítjándu aldar rómantísku goðsögninni um snillinginn, skaparann, ofurmennið, sterka einstaklinginn sem vill ekki láta aumingjana og meðalmennin, hjörðina, draga sig niður í svaðið.

En kapítalismi okkar daga, a.m.k. eins og hann birtist mér, samræmist ekkert þessari ofurmennishugsjón. Það er faktískt nokkuð sem ég gat aldrei fengið til þess að stemma þegar ég las The Fountainhead eftir Ayn Rand í gamla daga (ekki að hún sé gott dæmi um hægri-skáld). Bókin fjallar um arkítekt og snilling, Howard Roark, sem neitar að beygja sig undir smekkleysi samtímans. Hann fer sínar eigin leiðir, skapar eftir eigin höfði, og gefur skít í plebbana hvað sem það kostar. Sönn objektivistahetja lifir ekki fyrir annað fólk, eins og Rand útskýrir í löngu máli við hvert tækifæri.

En vandinn er sá að Roark er klárlega *gjörsamlega* mislukkaður kapítalisti. Það eru kollegar hans sem mæta „þörfum markaðarins“ (lesist: þörfum plebbanna, hjarðarinnar) og maka krókinn. Eru það ekki þeir, smámennin hötuðu, sem eru góðir kapítalistar, og Roark sérvitringur sem ekki skilur lögmál markaðarins? Þetta gengur engan veginn upp hjá kerlingunni.


Masterful harpsichord concerto

16.9.2018 kl. 19:54 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

All those hipsters love the Glenn Gould stuff, but I like my Bach on harpsichord. Absolutely stunning performance.


Nature has no end which is pre-established

9.9.2018 kl. 20:30 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

The Ethica of Baruch Spinoza, written in the 1660s, is, to my mind, undoubtedly one of the most significant and iconoclastic works of philosophy in European intellectual history. As I discussed in my (now long-abandoned) doctoral thesis, Spinoza was the first modern European thinker to attempt a fundamental, systematic naturalisation of the natural world. While the Ethics are admittedly a difficult work, the Appendix to the first book puts it quite bluntly: There are no ends (or "final causes") in nature. The following is an absolutely astounding and brilliant analysis:

Men commonly suppose that all natural things act on account of an end, as they themselves do. Indeed they think it certain that God himself directs all things towards a certain end, for they say that God has made everything on account of man, and man in order that he might worship God... It will be sufficient if I take as a basis here something, which everyone must admit: namely, that all human beings are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that all have an appetite for seeking what is useful to them, and that they are conscious of this. It follows ... that human beings do everything on account of an end; namely on account of something that is useful, which they seek. From this it comes about that they always seek to know only the final causes of things that have been done, and when they have heard these they are satisfied, because they have no cause for future doubt. But if they cannot learn these final causes from another, nothing remains for them but to turn to themselves and to reflect on the ends by which they themselves are usually determined to similar things, and so they necessarily judge the mind of another from their own mind. Further, since they find, both inside and outside themselves, many means which contribute greatly to the procurement of what is useful to them – for example, eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, vegetables and animals for food, the sun for light, the sea for breeding fish – it has come about that they consider all natural things as if they were means to what is useful to them. And since they know that these means were discovered and not made by them, they had reason to believe that there is someone else who made these means for their use. For after they had considered things as means, they could not believe that they themselves had made these things, but they had to infer, from the means that they themselves commonly made for themselves, that there exists some governor or governors of Nature... who have taken care of everything for them, and have made everything for their use. And since they had never heard anything about the mind of these beings, they had to judge it from their own, and so they asserted that the gods arrange everything for the use of men, in order that they might bind men to them and be held by them in the highest honour. From this it came about that each person, in accordance with his own way of thinking, thought out different ways of worshipping God, so that God might love them above the rest, and direct the whole of Nature to the advantage of their blind desire and insatiable avarice. So this prejudice turned into a superstition, and put down deep roots in the mind, which was the cause of the fact that each person endeavoured mightily to understand and to explain the final causes of all things. But whilst they tried to show that Nature does nothing in vain ... they seem to have shown simply that Nature and the gods are as mad as men. For just look at the way in which things have finally turned out! Among so many things in Nature which are advantageous they were bound to find many which are not, such as storms, earthquakes, disease, etc., and they judged that these occurred because the gods were angry on account of the injuries that men had done to them, or, on account of faults that they had committed in worshipping them. And although experience cried out daily, and showed with an infinity of examples that advantages and disadvantages happen indiscriminately to the pious and the impious alike, they did not on this account cease from their inveterate prejudice. For it was easier for them to place this among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and so to retain their present and inborn state of ignorance, rather than destroy that whole fabric and devise a new one. So they thought it certain that the judgements of the gods vastly surpass human comprehension; which would of itself have been sufficient to cause truth to be hidden from the human race for eternity, had not mathematics, which is concerned not with ends but solely with the essences and properties of figures, shown to human beings another standard of truth... Nature has no end which is pre-established for it, and ... all final causes are nothing but human inventions.

(Parkinson translation)

This is heady and deeply radical stuff by 17th century standards. Gotta love Spinoza.


Calculated and incessant propaganda actually works

14.8.2018 kl. 10:31 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

The following passage from William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich made me think of FOX News and the obstinate lunacy of the American right.

I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.


The decline of generations

12.8.2018 kl. 20:45 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

There's a famous American saying: The first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, and the third generation blows it. Often true.

Earlier tonight I was pondering why this might be the case and developed a theory perhaps worth sharing: In reference to my earlier post, I think it may have something to do with increased abstraction, growing distance from the concerns being managed, the shadow-on-the-wall phenomenon.

The first generation, the founder and his kin, starts with next to nothing and builds something enormous, experiencing and learning along the way.

The second generation - the founder's progeny - is raised with some awareness of the family business, brought to work, taught the basics first hand from someone who knows how it's done. Perhaps they acquire, at least partially, the work ethic that lead to the creation of the business in the first place. Never the less, they live their adult lives in luxury.

But the third generation, knowing only luxury and indolence from birth, has no interest in how the family business actually works and is content to merely reap the rewards, thereby squandering the fortune painstakingly accumulated by the previous two generations.

Anyway, just a thought.


Meritocracy and metrics from a comfortable skyrise office

11.8.2018 kl. 22:10 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

When I moved to London in 2006 to study philosophy, I audited several additional courses at the university during the first weeks to ascertain which ones were worth taking. One of them was a new, experimental course called "Philosophy and Social Policy", taught by a respected philosopher of science. During the first session, we students drew lots to determine the order of presentations during the semester. Unfortunately, I was first in line.

Although by no means sure I would take the course, I never the less ended up doing the presentation, which involved reading several journal articles on the subject of "meritocracy." As I went through the readings, I found myself strangely in agreement with F. A. Hayek, although I had long ago given up on his classical liberalism, or libertarianism, as a sterile and sloppy political philosophy.

A week later I gave a critical presentation where I argued that, practically speaking, any formal public indicator of "merit" would be useless for public policy-making. It would only end up as an arbitrary and poisonously selective aggregation of other indicators easily gamed by the elite. If it were ever put to use, people would simply adapt their behaviour to the criterion, just as some US students receive expensive private tutoring when they prepare for the eminently "gameable" SAT.

My central argument was that public indices based on ambiguous and unavoidably moral concepts such as "merit" were a terrible idea since they neither would nor could capture what they were supposed to represent. The paradox of measuring and evaluating in the social sciences is that it changes us, the very things being measured and evaluated. This is seldom understood by people making decisions at the top.

The professor did not respond at all well to my presentation and, as I recall, delivered a long and unfocused harangue on how I had a typical "analytic philosophy" outlook. She also questioned me in front of the whole class about the nature of my undergraduate education and on some points of Bayesian probability theory, a topic I did not understand well. I was offended and humiliated by the experience and decided not to take her course.

Now, many years later, I'm reading a wonderful book, Two Cheers for Anarchism (2014) by James C. Scott, the finest thing I have read in ages. Much to my satisfaction, it makes many of the same points as I did in that presentation back in the day, albeit much more intelligently and eloquently.

Scott is absolutely right. One of the true evils of our times is that the people in charge of important decisions live in a fantasy world of statistics, indices and Excel spreadsheets. We humans have become so numerous, and our our social organisation so complicated and hierarchical, that we have to gather data in order to attempt to understand how it all works. But data has no intrinsic meaning and cannot inform without accurate interpretation, without context and experience, without at least some inkling of the underlying social reality.

Still administrative and economic professionals are invariably trained to focus only on the numbers, at the expense of complex, messy, qualitative social context. Most of them don't even have a birds-eye view. They have a shadow-on-the-wall view. Say what you will about the industrialists of the early 19th century, they at least understood many aspects of their business, from the factory floor to the high offices of finance. Our contemporary technocrats and business managers see only partial, Plato-cave-metaphor shadows on the wall from the comfort of their skyrise offices - abstract numbers, statistics, indices, charts, many of which poorly reflect the world of humans. This is the source of many of our troubles.


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

5.8.2018 kl. 22:19 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Ég las The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich eftir William Shirer fyrst þegar ég var 15 ára gamall að byrja í menntaskóla. Bókin stóð alltaf uppi í hillu í safni pabba frá því að ég var yngri, tætt og marglesin með stórum hakakrossi á hliðinni. Á þessum tíma hafði ég sérlegan áhuga á Þýskalandi nasismans og lét vaða, ákvað loksins að lesa þetta fræga verk. Ef ég man rétt þá tók meira en mánuð að klára allar 1400 blaðsíður, en efni bókarinnar hefur setið í mér alla tíð síðan. Frekar brútal, heilsteypt og vel skrifuð lexía um hatur, heimsku og heilalausa búrókrasíu mannskepnunnar, svona eftir á að hyggja.

Nú, mörgum, mörgum árum seinna, með langa sagnfræðimenntun og fjölmargar aðrar bækur að baki, hlusta ég á þetta verk sem hljóðbók, og það er linnulaust déjà vu í gangi. Ég virðist muna bókina nokkurn veginn kafla fyrir kafla. Ég heyri byrjun á setningu og get oft klárað í huganum áður en hún er lesin. Rosalegt hvernig þetta situr í minninu. Ansi hræddur um að þeir tímar séu liðnir þar sem ég tók bækur svona djúpt inn á mig og varanlega.

rise and fall third reich

Faktískt frekar margir

31.7.2018 kl. 18:09 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

„Hvor mange udlændinge har Island i øvrigt taget imod?“ spyr Pia Kjærsgaard.

The population of Iceland at the end of the second quarter of 2018 was 353,070... Foreign citizens were 41,280, or 11.7% of the total population, at the end of the quarter. (Statistics Iceland)


Óttaslegnir, nafnlausir hægrimenn, gungur og aumingjar

29.7.2018 kl. 01:05 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Þeir sem skrifa nafnlausar háðsgreinar um opinber mál á Íslandi eru mestmegnis gungur og aumingjar, og ekki þess virði að lesa. Andríki, AMX, Morgunblaðsleiðararar eru það sem kemur upp í hugann.

Það er hins vegar merkilegt að fólk sem gerir hvað mest af þessu er yfirleitt lengst til hægri í pólitíkinni, fólk með valdið á bak við sig, fólk úr Sjálfstæðisflokknum, fólk sem hefur hvað allra minnst að óttast þótt það væli ad nauseam um meinta kúgun ríkisvaldsins.

En þetta fólk er nógu óttaslegið til þess að skrifa ekki undir nafni. Það óttast eitthvað, en þetta eitthvað er ekki ríkisvaldið. Það óttast réttilega vanþóknun þeirra sem það deilir samfélagi og náumhverfi með, óttast að vera dæmt fyrir sínar ömurlegu skoðanir af nágrönnum, samstarfsmönnum, vinum, fjölskyldu. Kannski einhver von í því.


Sýslumaðurinn í Kópavogi

26.7.2018 kl. 10:35 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Þegar ég fór að kjósa í sveitarstjórnarkosningunum í sendiráðinu í Berlín um daginn stílaði ég óvart umslagið á Sýslumanninn í Reykjavík. Daman í sendiráðinu leiðrétti þetta hjá mér. Sýslumaðurinn á höfuðborgarsvæðinu var það víst. Í tvöhundruð og fokkíng einum. Tvöhundruð og einum í fokkíng Kópavogi.

Ég spurði hana af hverju Reykjavík hefði ekki lengur sitt eigið sýslumannsembætti. "Sennilega vegna sparnaðar," svaraði hún. "Þeir sameinuðu þessi embætti."

"Reykjavík er stærsta sveitarfélagið og þar búa flestir. Af hverju spöruðu þeir ekki með því að láta Kópavogsbúa fara til Reykjavíkur, frekar en að senda Reykvíkinga í Kópavoginn?" spurði ég.

Við þessu hafði hún ekkert svar.

En þetta er góð spurning. Allt þetta úthverfapakk í Kópavogi keyrir um á bílum, enda hverfið bókstaflega hannað fyrir hinn heittelskaða einkabíl stolta Sjálfstæðismannsins. Af hverju keyra þeir ekki til Reykjavíkur, frekar en að bíllausir Reykvíkingar séu píndir til þess að taka strætó í þetta sálarlausa, guðsvolaða Smárahverfi?

Sýslumannsembættið er farið, pósthúsið er að fara, allt krökt í lundabúðum og okurverslunum, og ferðamenn bókstaflega kúka í görðunum okkar. Og svo erum við með verstu áfengisverslun á höfuðborgarsvæðinu, með ömurlegu úrvali og hræðilegum opnunartímum. Hart þykir mér vegið að okkur miðborgarfólki!


Úrkynjun tungumálsins

24.7.2018 kl. 12:47 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Sú tilhneyging að nota „passive mode“ í töluðu og rituðu máli er mesta meinsemd íslensku okkar tíma, verri en sletturnar, verri en málvillurnar.

Í vinnunni sé ég þessa úrkynjun alls staðar í íslensku samfélagi: í fréttum, fréttatilkynningum og opinberum skjölum, í viðtölum við talsmenn stofnana og fyrirtækja, hreinlega alls staðar. Enginn virðist nokkurn tímann gera neitt eða ætla að gera eitthvað. Hlutir eru bara „gerðir“ eða „unnið verður“ að einhverju. Mjög þægilegt að enginn sé gerandi því þá ber enginn ábyrgð.

Heilu fréttirnar eru jafnvel skrifaðar í passífum stíl.

„Greint hefur verið frá því að til standi að endurskoða innheimtu veiðigjalda.“ (RÚV)

Hver greindi frá því? Hvenær stendur það til? Hvers eðlis er endurskoðunin? Af hverju er verið að gera þetta? Hver ber ábyrgð á þessu?

Það veit ég ekki. Hlutir „gerast“ bara í kerfinu ógurlega og órannsakanlega, og síðan er „greint frá því.“ Guð forði okkur frá því að benda á embættismennina, pólitíkusana, lögfræðingana, banksterana og Excel-glæponana sem öllu stjórna og ráða og stela. Neinei, hitt og þetta „stendur til“ eða „hefur verið gert.“ Og það „hefur verið greint frá því.“ Þetta er andstyggileg úrkynjun hugsunar og tjáningar.

Orwell hafði heilmikið til síns máls í ritgerðinni frægu um stjórnmál og enska tungu:

„If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient... a continuous temptation.“


Bjóðumst til þess að taka við handritunum

18.7.2018 kl. 16:36 - Sveinbjörn Þórðarson

Nú þegar KPMG-PricewaterhouseCoopers töflureikniliðið hefur í allri sinni óþrjótandi visku ályktað að best sé að leggja niður fornnorræn tungumál og fræði við Kaupmannahafnarháskóla, hví stökkvum við Íslendingar ekki á tækifærið? Bjóðumst til þess að taka við Den Arnamagnæanske Håndskriftsamling í heild sinni, reddum Excel-bókhaldinu hjá gamla nýlenduveldinu.

Annað hvort verður þetta svo niðurlægjandi fyrir okkar fyrrum lénsherra að þeir hugsa sinn gang, eða Ísland fær allar þessar gersemar í hendurnar og verður langbesta setur fornnorrænna fræða um ókomna tíð. Win-win!


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