Songs I Can’t Translate

There’s a few songs I can’t translate. This is one, and this is another. I’ve tried, and I just can’t do it.

It’s partly the language. It’s one thing to speak Hebrew, but I don’t speak it poetically.

Poetic fluency seems like a thing. That is, some people seem to be able to speak fluent poetry by nature, like it’s a different language  – one of the really difficult ones, like Basque, that no one who isn’t a native can do naturally. Read Tolkien writing conversational prose, it still ends up as poetry. The best the rest of us can do is fumble and pretend, holding onto a rhyming dictionary like a tourist with a book of common phrases. We make manufactured poetry – often very good poetry that flows out almost naturally, but still manufactured. That kind of stuff  I can translate.

(Well, usually. Sometimes the rhyming scheme is just too awkward – I haven’t managed to translate Till we have built Jerusalem, because Jerusalem has five syllables in Hebrew and the three I have left aren’t enough to make a good line).

This all bothers me, because I want to translate them. They say something important that I want to say and don’t know how, and it’s how I process things.

Well, without being able to do that, I guess this is the best I can do: Sometimes you can’t say things, and the best you can do is say you can’t say them. At least it’s enough to draw them on the map, if not actually show the territory.

 

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Does suicide imply consciousness is divisible?

Epistemic Status: Armchair Philosophy. Content warning: Considers pro-suicide arguments.

Consider two models of consciousness (defined here as the ability to experience qualia).

First, we have the discrete model: Consciousness is caused by a discrete soul, which is an emergent property of sufficiently complicated computation/life. By this model, some things (definitely people who talk about qualia) are conscious, and others (probably rocks) aren’t. There’s a lot of debate on where to draw the line, but it can in principle be settled.

Second, we can model consciousness as divisible. There’s a lot of ways to do this – maybe all humanity has a shared soul and each individual is an iteration of it (so if someone dies, their part of the soul is gone, but the general form still exists). Maybe souls are distributed by similarity of information (so creating an exact replica of someone means they share most of their soul until they diverge). Maybe “soul” is just some kind of mystic goo that’s spread around all over the place, concentrates in people’s minds when they’re alive, and just kinda dissipates into the surrounding air or into other people (the Philip Pullman model). The common factor in any of these models is that when someone dies, their soul isn’t exactly lost (in a binary sense), it’s just folded back/dissipates into a more general state.

Now, let’s talk about suicide.

First, assume consciousness doesn’t exist, and people are purely self-replicating automata trying to tile the universe with copies of themselves (or at least something substantially similar to themselves, since automata that can change are more durable than ones that can’t).

In this scenario, suicide can make sense: If you don’t see a path towards achieving your goals (or creating sustainable copies of yourself), or come to the belief that you’re doing more harm than good to the cause of spreading humanity (by a sufficiently large margin to overwhelm your preference for yourself over humanity in general), it can be a reasonable choice to stop consuming resources and get out of the way. (This argument also works if you’re trying to optimize some other goal).

But in practice, we generally assume that we do have consciousness. And if you assume an indivisible soul, then suicide means removing an unrecoverable ability to experience qualia from the world. Unless this suicide is done in order to save lives (most suicides aren’t), this is completely unjustifiable. Removing the ability to experience things is always worse than having it, because existence in itself has value, and nonexistence doesn’t1.

If we assume consciousness is divisible, we don’t run into this problem – suicide doesn’t cause your consciousness to vanish forever, it just redistributes it in some complicated way. And an explanation for why suicide happens that assumes no consciousness can easily be extended to the case of divisible consciousness.

 

1. There’s a negative utilitarian counterargument about existence being a net negative pit of despair, at least for suicidal people. I don’t think that’s right – the correlation between misery/depression and suicide isn’t as strong as we’d expect based on that (and richer countries tend to have more suicide). Suicide being a resort of people thinking they’re a negative contributor to their own/society’s goals is more consistent with that.

 

The Dragon Ephraim (translation)

[Original (Hebrew)]

Once in a land that was far, far away
In a cave buried under a mountain of clay
lived a terrible dragon that no man could slay
His name was… Ephraim.

Ephraim had an armour of scales,
enormous wings as big as sails,
a heavy belly, a giant tail…
when Ephraim laughed, the ground would quail.
And just to reinforce the dread:
The dragon Ephraim had seven heads.
That’s right. Seven heads.

One day on that high mountain course,
along came a knight on a great white horse.
He drew his sword and called: “You knave!
Come out, Ephraim! crawl out of your cave!”
For I, the knight Isaschar goldenheart,
Have come to challenge you dragon, to fight!

Ephraim’s seven heads laughed out loud,
They all seven laughed in a terrible crowd.
“Oh you small insignificant foolish young knight,
You dare to challenge the dragon to fight?
The powerful dragon, with armour like lead,
Whose nostrils breathe flame and who has seven heads?!
Run away, little knight, run as fast as you can,
before I get mad and the shit hits the fan!”

But the knight Isaschar, who was noble and brave,
Did not fear, didn’t flinch, His resolve did not wave.
“Come on out, dragon! fight me, you craven!
I don’t have all day, so you’d better hasten!
And if you stay in like a scared little shrew,
Then I, as a knight, will come in to fight you!”

And because a knight’s threat is not lightly spoken,
And because a knight’s word must never be broken,
And as Ephraim stayed deep in his cavern,
The knight Isaschar had to go fight the dragon,
He walked into the cave and let go of his horse.
Did he have a choice?

The cave was dark, and it was deep,
The path was rocky, it was steep.
The knight Isaschar marched on through it all,
with many a stumble and many a fall,
But he always got up and went on with his stuff,
A knight doesn’t quit when the going gets tough.

And when he finally arrived,
somewhat sweaty and sleep deprived,
He swung his sword and called: “Listen to me!
I’m giving you till the count of three!
One… Two…
Ephraim said “Just a moment there, you!
My good sir knight, take a moment to sit,
Would you like to eat, drink, and rest for a bit?
You must be exhausted, your journey was long
And fighting on an empty stomach’s just wrong.
It’s just 9AM, it’s a little too early
For swordfights and duels and all that hurly-burly.
That’s not polite sir, in fact it’s just rude,
Won’t you just have a coffee, and maybe some food?

The knight examined the dragon’s form,
From the terrible tail to the heads like a swarm,
He looked at the belly, the scales, and the back,
and quietly asked, “could you please make it black?”

So Ephraim made coffee, a full cup of black,
And added some sugar he had in a sack,
And served out some cookies and other baked goods,
And joined the meal like all good hosts should.

The knight Isaschar, of the noble spirit
Took his one cup of coffee and slowly drank it.
One cup for the knight, and as for the dragon-
It’s easy to guess his number of flagons.
Because how many cups must a table feature
To satisfy a seven-headed creature?

And if you should ask, as is perfectly right,
What happened to duelling? And where is the fight?
I must lower my head and sadly confess,
that nowadays stories of dames in distress,
Have an unfortunate habit to end out.. not great:
The lady gets left to the mercies of fate,
So that’s how we lost all our tales of brave men,
Who ride in to rescue a princess or ten,
Because though, by and large, all these knights may be bold,
You can never trust men when there’s coffee involved.

 

Why I translate poetry

Sometimes I translate poems (examples 1,2,3,4). Occasionally from English to Hebrew, but usually from Hebrew to English. There are two reasons for this.

First, it’s a way to get things through my system. Really good songs, when they’re about something I really feel, have a way of choking me up and filling me up with context I can’t get out. They make me want to say something to express the feeling they put in me, so I can get it out again, but the reason they’re so good in the first place is that they say it better than I ever could. So I’m reduced to just saying “yeah, that!”. Which isn’t really communication and doesn’t signal anything, I could say it about anything.

Translation helps with that. It’s the closest I can get to saying the exact same thing someone else just said while still being original. And because I’m translating to a different language, the audience will generally be new and unaware of the original, so the hypothetical expected response is “you showed me something new and exciting” rather than “yes I know, we all know this song already, the only information we get is that you’re the kind of person who would like it”. Which is a nonzero level of communication, but doesn’t always help created a shared experience (and can actively hurt, if the person I’m telling it to doesn’t like the song).

Group singing nights and (sometimes) karaoke are also good outlets for this.

The second reason is that my internal monologue is generally in English, and it saves me having to switch languages internally when I want to sing. Ironically, when I actually do sing in semi-public I prefer Hebrew, as it’s a way to show my feelings without actually being totally open to everyone around me (in Israel I use English, but it’s far less reliable).

As for why my internal monologue is in English in the first place… I guess it’s about fitting in. There have been times it was something I actively maintained, even when I lived in Israel.

This seems paradoxical, but makes sense in a roundabout way. I’ve never quite fit in as a true-patriot, non-English-speaker type Israeli. And I’ve been told I have a bit of an accent, though people generally have no idea what type of accent it is. This applies to most places with their own deep-baked culture (and often their own distinctive accent) – I often really like them, but I’m not part of the community, and can’t accept it unreservedly on my part, either.

It’s why I like living in globalist cities or college towns, despite their many problems. I may not really belong there. But that’s okay, because nobody else really does either.

Modeling Society as a Damped Harmonic Oscillator

Epistemic status: Oversimplification of complex things, but I think the basic idea is sound.

Consider a damped harmonic oscillator. This behavior of the system depends on the constant {\displaystyle \zeta ={\frac {c}{2{\sqrt {mk}}}}}, where is the damping coefficient, and mk is the product of the mass and force constant. There are three scenarios for this system1:

  • Overdamped (ζ > 1): The system returns (exponentially decays) to steady state without oscillating. Larger values of the damping ratio ζ return to equilibrium more slowly.
  • Critically damped (ζ = 1): The system returns to steady state as quickly as possible without oscillating.
  • Underdamped (ζ < 1): The system oscillates, with the amplitude gradually decreasing to zero.

Let’s now model society as a damped harmonic oscillator. Assume society has two forces: a progressive force (corresponding to the km), that pushes society towards what it thinks is the right way to go2. And a conservative force, corresponding to c, that acts as a damping mechanism.

Our goal as a society is to reach the steady state as quickly as possible, which suggests we want exact critical damping – that is, we ζ to be as close as possible to 1. If ζ is larger (too much conservative sentiment in society), we overdamp and take too long to reach equilibrium (It’s hard to think of a obvious example for reasons explained later, but gay marriage seems like a good one). If ζ is too small we can overshoot, with disastrous consequences (the obvious example being communism – and note that since the fall of the USSR, Russia swung wildly towards overt oligarchy again, exactly like we’d expect from an insufficiently damped oscillator).

What’s the periodicity of critical damping? This is a huge abstraction with a lot of assumptions, but society has a lot of momentum, and at least one major component of social change is the older generation dying off and being replaced by a newer generation. This suggests that the natural periodicity for critical damping is somewhere on the order of decades.

So from the outside view, a functioning society should always look like There’s a huge conservative faction holding back obviously-needed progress. From the inside view, I still think California’s policies on housing and scooters are an awful example of status quo bias. But from the outside view, I guess it’s pretty inevitable that I’d feel like that.

Another thing we learn from this is that society doesn’t have a good way to deal with rapidly changing needs. California dealt with its sudden demographic shift and urban population surge pretty terribly, but that’s pretty much inevitable – it takes decades to adjust society to something like this, and California didn’t have decades.

If there’s a lesson on how to fix it, it’s that the best way to deal with society changing too slowly relative to what it should isn’t to be more progressive, it’s to be less conservative (in the mathematical sense), so that we don’t overshoot. It seems true that we need this – technology and demographics are changing much faster than they used to, so society probably should too. In practice, this probably means that it’s better to try to convince people around you to be more flexibly minded, instead of trying to convince them you’re right on the object level.

(There’s another possible interpretation of this, which is that with society needing change faster we need to be more conservative, since it increases the progressive force. At this point I have no idea which side to take – from the inside view more progress seems obviously necessary, but from the outside view that’s what I’d inevitably think. I’ll take solace in the fact that on the object-level issues of housing and climate change, at least, there seems to be obvious evidence that we should be moving faster).

1. Taken from Wikipedia

2. I’m implicitly assuming the progressive force will push society in the right direction. I’ll avoid justifying this assumption here, since my thoughts on that get complicated pretty fast and I don’t have them organized in writable form, so if you disagree just take this as our double crux and move on.

Translation of the song about Snow White

Original song (in hebrew), lyrics.

Now the snow has fallen in the mountains, up here,
So we sing and march here in our scarves
We are waiting in this forest darkness, and we’re
Snow White and all seven of the dwarves.

Seven winters we awaited you,
you called not and still we answered you,
and in blasphemy we built for you,
towers rising to the skies above.
Jewelery and rings we forged for you,
silently we serenaded you,
and we still have failed to say to you,
all the ways you have our love

Now the leaves have yellowed at the top of the trees
fall has come to our faraway land,
And it’s coloured apples pink with warm autumn breeze
And even brought colour to your hand.

Seven winters we awaited you…

Now the snow has melted in the mountains, it’s true
You forgot what happened long ago.
And the townsfolk say your heart is icy and blue,
and that why your mother named you snow

Seven winters we awaited you…

Status Quo Bias is The Worst Thing.

Epistemic status: grumpy

California failed to get SB827 out of committee today, which is depressing. The state has the worst housing crisis in history, and they can’t even get it together to pass mild pro-housing legislation. As far as I can tell, this is mostly because of status quo bias.

And once you look for it, status quo bias seems everywhere, for anything that would be a net good but might have negative side effects. San Francisco banned electric scooters today because they might clutter up sidewalks and didn’t have all the permits. Meanwhile, no one’s talking about banning cars – which are at least ten times as inconvenient (in terms of space taken up, convenience of use, traffic jams, land use, parking, pollution…). Because we’re used to them.

We can’t use scooters. We can’t upzone density (we just keep downzoning). We can’t reduce car use, or switch to renewable energy. All those things would have obvious positive effects that outweigh the negatives even without their crises (carless lifestyle is better for most people, renewable energy reduces smog, dense cities are nicer places to live). And the crises, like climate change or housing, aren’t things we can just take our time on, they’re emergencies we need to start putting all our resources towards solving, starting about twenty years ago. But we don’t. Mild inconvenience for a few people plus status quo bias wins every time.

This happened with electric cars (the mild inconvenience of figuring out recharging and having a hard time with long-distance road trips outweighed all their benefits for most people). Elon Musk kinda got around it, but only by putting in an insane amount of effort and expense to get around the minor negatives.

How bad is status quo bias? Bombing or burning cities is generally good for them in the long run. But instead of learning from that we introduce rent control, the most destructive thing you can possibly do to a city. It’s that bad.

I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t even know how we fell into it. It seems like we used to be able to do new things, in the post-war generation. Maybe the first world’s just become too settled and comfortable to ever change anything again. Destructive climate change will force us to, eventually, but it’s so back-loaded by the time that happens we’re probably doomed no matter what we do.