Titillating curves

Today, esteemed friends and colleagues, presents us with the opportunity to revisit an old favorite. I am confident you are all familiar with the Laffer curve, which states that taxes can only be raised so high before the amount of money flowing in actually decreases. I mention this to ensure we are all on board when I say there is a problem with it. You see, its simplicity has caused many an economist – and many more wannabe economists – to employ it freely and with great alacrity. In fact, they use it so often the whole thing is starting to become a buzzword. The curve is recursive, referring to itself as much as anything else, and we are far beyond the point of diminishing returns; the Lafferlaffer curve strongly suggests we stop using this term, and come up with something different. Perhaps – and I know this is controversial – we ought to transition into something which has slightly more empirical backing – –

Excerpt from an introductory lecture

Hello all, and welcome!

This is the first lecture of the semester, and – I suspect – for some of you the first university lecture altogether. Those of you who have been here before know what to expect, but it’s good to hear these things anew, to refresh one’s memory and make sure things are still as they used to be. Certainty and reassurance being in short supply these days. Sometimes, stating the obvious serves to ensure we’re all facing in the same direction

As you know, this is a university, and at universities we seek to expand knowledge. Both on a large scale, with experiments and suchlike, and on a smaller scale, one head at a time. The heads, in this case, belong to you, and what you are about to experience is an opening up of possible lines of thinking. You all have a certain range to your thinking, and by the end of this semester that range will be larger than it is now. It does not matter how big it is at the moment – you will all walk out of this with bigger heads than you had walking in

I say this to ensure that you at all times know why you are doing the things we ask you to do. Why read this book? Because it lets you think larger thoughts. Why write this assignment? To have done it, and know in your souls you can do it again, should need be. Why do you need to know this or that? To ensure that the bigger picture emerges afterwards, allowing you to stride forth with renewed confidence

Ideally, you should approach upcoming lectures with trembling knees, apprehensive of the new vistas of thought that will reveal themselves. The person you are now is a mere precursor to the person you will become, the contours of which you can only vaguely glimpse at the present. The future is arriving, and it will collide with you head on

And yes, personal growth will be on the exam. That is one of the few things you can be sure of

Retroactive authorship

The first thing the time travelers learnt was that it is very to mess up and destroy your timeline. Not in the way most commonly depicted in fiction, where the protagonists return to the present only to discover that the circumstances under which they and they families live have altered dramatically (a concession to the real-world fact that fictional time travel is a great excuse to put actors in new costumes), but in the slightly more brutal way of you and everyone you’ve ever known have been preemptively eliminated from history. It is a specific kind of bummer to find that the new timeline caused by your interference does not (and never will) include you in any way whatsoever

This lesson was learnt by messing up the timeline, and then having said messing of up prevented by someone from an upcoming timeline interfering and stopping it outright. It was hinted that this interloper arrived from a place hundreds of timeline alterations upstreams, but alas, we will never know for sure, no matter how many times we ask

The second thing the time travelers learnt was that timelines are strangely robust when it comes to alterations of routine events with high probabilities. An extra face at a large sporting event makes no difference to or fro. The same goes for any kind of large scale social gathering with a semblance of anonymity – as long as the travelers are part of the crowd and only intervenes in ways heavily scripted by the social situation, their impact is negligible to nonexistent. If something was likely to happen at one particular such gathering, it would happen the next time, had it been prevented somehow

Thus it came to pass that one of the main uses of time travel was to gather contextual information about already known events. In particular, literary scholars sent themselves back in time to attend university lectures and seminars on important (and contemporary) works of fiction. Ironically, authorial intent is a lively business

The 100% televised revolution

The revolution was over. The neo-neoliberals had won. Thus began the comprehensive project of dismantling any and all remnants of the Old Regime, in the name of increasing efficiency and cutting costs

At first, popular support for this was overwhelming. Finally, here was the chance to get revenge on the former powers that be and their seats of power – the universities, the hospitals, the insurance offices, the institutions of unclear but over-funded potentates. It was all swept away, in a procession half celebration half demolition. Everything must go, nothing shall remain

Then, it kept going. Maintaining and renovating public monuments turned out to be an expensive endeavor, so those too had to go. The White House was the first to go – it would be cheaper to run the new government from a low-rent office complex. Then went the Statue of Liberty, overburdened by history as it is. Inevitably, the demolition crews made it to Mount Rushmore – it simply would not do to have this reminder of the now abolished position of presidency around. They were not even fiscally prudent presidents, at that

One might imagine that this creative destruction would lead to a counter-revolution, but it didn’t. Most people were so used to seeing major national monuments destroyed in popular culture that the formality of it actually happening was functionally indistinguishable from its representation. Surprisingly, loyalty to the old regime was a non-starter for the counterrevolution

What got people up in arms was a very small thing. Small, but inevitable. In a chain of events lost to history, Oprah was either killed or executed, alongside the host of some reality show or other. It is very possible that the neo-neoliberal revolution would have remained successful had it but stuck to destroying real monuments instead of representational ones, but alas

One cannot have taxation without representation

All the king’s horses

The book rewarded rereading. In fact, it managed to become an entirely new story upon every subsequent reread, each time from a new point of view. Or, sometimes, from a point of view so thoroughly redefined as to become a new character, for all intents and purposes

Most stopped at their fifth or sixth reread, not because of a sense of having understood it all, but because things ended in a nice place this way. Some, however, had pushed the boundaries and were now at their nineteenth successful redefinition of the narrative, each reread as dramatic as the last one. When asked, however, their responses were either vague or incomprehensible; it is unclear whether this stems from a fear of spoilers, or the impossibility of communicating their understanding to those not already in the know

In an interview, a daring journalist once asked the author how he managed to accomplish this feat of literary polysemy. The author had only shrugged and replied that he only wanted to write a story about someone walking their dog, with some strange happenings along the way. The response from the fanbase was immediate and surprisingly coherent:

The dog? The dog! The dog! The dog? The dog!

Glaucon’s lament

Glaucon was late. Later than fashionably late. It was way past time to get a move on, and high time to embody the notion that everything is change. Given enough velocity, it would be so, regardless of the presence or absence of arguments either way

Making his way downtown, he suddenly found himself in the midst of a crowd of philosophers, arguing. For some seemingly random but probably important reason, they suddenly decided to include him in their argument du jour. Caught between being in a hurry and knowing that any counterargument would be met by increasingly refined and subtle counter-counterarguments, he decided on the spot to apply the one foolproof strategy to get out of this situation

He was going to agree until they caved in and let him go. Surely, even philosophers have limitations to their inquisitive perseverance

The arrival of History

It all sounded very prim and proper. He had went into the Archives, diving deep into the Realm of History. Phrased that way, it sounded like an adventure, the ideal of academic pursuit. The mention of the difficulties in opening the Archival Locks – made all the grander for the unwarranted capital letters – completed the Indiana Jones image to a T. This was the Archive, where History dwells

In reality, the Archive consisted of little more than a heap of papers – only ‘documents’ by feat of retroactive efforts – stuffed into a series of filing cabinets, without any sense of order or organization. Worse, this lack of consistency was apparent in the documents as well, the bureaucratic whims going this way and that seemingly depending on the mood of the person holding the pen at the moment. The same went for spelling, even when taking into consideration the fact that it all took place before spelling conventions became standardized

History, it would seem, was something best seen from a distance, lest it became a mere collection of ordinary everyday things. Up close, History became history, documents became papers, and the ancient sages gradually morphed into old fools likely to blurt out the darnedest things at the least opportune times, repeatedly

But it all sounded good. After the fact was polished for a while


It was too late

A few weeks earlier, there might have been a chance to save the intrepid explorer. Alas, the environment had overpowered him and broken through all of his protective gear. The goggles, the standardized dictionaries, the regularly scheduled communal low-stakes domestic activities – they did nothing. Not even the makeshift metaphorical tying himself to the mast had helped. He had heard the siren call, and succumbed. He ventured too deep into the memetoxic environment, and did not return. Only a husk of his former self remained

To think that, back in the old days, they let young academics go alone into these territories, without even so much as a supportive conversation to back them up. A simple introduction to methodology, some theory, and then off they went. Alone, unprotected, at times also unfunded. Sacrifices to the optimism of early digital humanities

The broken man murmured, the only phrase he knew how:

Sonic, and Knuckles, and Knuckles, and Knuckles, and

In the beginning was the Bird

One day, new birds started appearing. Most folks, not attuned to the comings and goings of birds, did not notice, but it did not take long until birdwatchers and ornithologists were on the case. A new bird was a big deal – for birdwatchers, to be able to say that they did indeed saw them; for ornithologists, whole conferences could be arranged based on confirmed sightings of new species in territories where they previously were not. Conferences meant funding, publicity and publications, all good things. Thus, the appearance of a whole host of new species of birds was a Big Deal, worthy of extensive note

Soon, it was discovered that these new birds were not related to the birds we all know and love, and that they probably were not descended from dinosaurs either. Scientists were baffled, and rightly so. The new birds came in all shapes and sizes, big, small, loud, sneaky – whatever your thoughts about birds are, there was one of those. They were, in a word, many

Little did the baffled scientific community know that there is only one rule in this world, one organizing principle from which everything else follows:

The amount of bird in the world is constant

The bottom line

They were, unequivocally, backed into a corner. Some would equivocate and say a more apt metaphor was that they were about to go careening of a cliff, but that implied the possibility of stopping. Which, after today’s announcement, was the one thing they could not do. They had explicitly promised not to do it, ever

Thing is. Being a massive global social network imposes certain limits to growth. There are only so many people in the world, and the recent proclamation to become ever larger and expand forever – well, the maths didn’t check out. Eventually, the world would run out of people, and then the company – solely and completely geared towards eternal expansion – would fall apart


Thus, the discovery of an alien civilization with the capacity to communicate with humanity came as a big boon. To be sure, it was a momentous occasion in the grand history of humanity and its place in the universe, but – more importantly – it also meant that the company could keep expanding, and would thus survive

Which was the most important thing. No two ways about it