We broke up in February. I’m currently travelling around France at great expense—an attempt to cheer myself up. I think it’s working.
This week I stayed at the Ancien Couvent de Monsac, near Bergerac. Véro is a very good Yoga teacher. Her library has hundreds of books on Iyengar, anatomy, psychology, physiology.
Last night I checked into the Château de Freschines, former residence of Antoine Lavoisier, chemist and fixer for King Louis XV. The house and grounds have suffered decades of neglect, to the point of grave decay. The Viennese proprietor is of noble, but ambiguous ancestry. She seems overwhelmed, a little crazy, and short on funds. And she’s overcharging for rooms that lack basic amenities. On the plus side, they serve coffee in gold-rimmed cups and saucers, and the ageing terrier is called Signor Bentley.
I’ll stay here for a week. Hopefully the plaster above my bed will hold out.
After that I’ll continue making my way back to England. With any luck the quarantine requirement will be scrapped before my obligations in late August.
Health-authorities permitting, I’ll be in Reykjavík for a month from mid-September, and then probably back to Penne d’Agenais for the winter.
Morning run, Lavoisier loop.
Shower, shirt, breakfast. Jessica, Brazilian architect, and X, French sculptor. A couple who have run out of things to say? Maybe it’s just a morning thing. We get talking, Jessica lights up, X too, after his third coffee. My best joke was quite good, but I’ve forgotten it. Their dream: buy a château and lose money running a chambre d’hôte. This trip is research. X goes for a smoke and a shower, Jessica wants to keep talking. There are too many architects, she is considering a bootcamp. She is good at UX design. Yes, Gmail is so far short of perfection.
It’s nearly midday: time for a call.
Topic: an application for philanthropic funds. I am surprised to hear myself saying helpful-sounding things.
Then Leopold on Burkean Longtermism—phew. Glad to see more people taking Tyler Cowen seriously.
Call with Aron. Social epistemology, post-liberalism, Leopold’s essay, the pipeline problem, disagreements with Bostrom. It’s amazing how much more ready-to-hand my thoughts are, after just a few months of nearly full-time study. I sense the beginnings of a fluency that I have long aspired to, yet feared might be out of reach. Yes!! Keep going!
I finish off the Bostrom reader draft, a grind of corrections and formatting, some last minute deletions. Posted.
And now it’s 7pm, and two Huel bars (different flavours) for lunch was not enough. I am very hungry.
I change into t-shirt and jeans. Ulli is greeting new arrivals: “Good evening Madame, Monsieur. Can I help you?”. In the car, I check Tinder. Nothing doing. Drive to Blois. This Twingo is much faster than the other one. Burger and a beer and... Holden on digital minds. He thinks they’re due in the next decades. Jeez.
Breakfast again. Ulli makes the same jokes. Two out of three couples are muttering not-all-that-quietly about the state of the place and the price they paid. The other pair seem perfectly content. One end of the breakfast table is in danger of collapse, a problem that could be “easily fixed” according to the Irishman who has lived in France for 17 years.
Madame serves the coffee. She speaks French carefully. Austrian accent, small mistakes. Quick, anxious movements—she is braced for complaints. An exchange in German, I get the gist. The word “schade” is repeated—a complaint, delivered as suggestion, forced smile.
I’m catching up on the Effective Altruism Forum. Low double-digit upvotes for my Bostrom piece. An ego-protection subroutine wonders if people—even EAs—have other things to do on Saturday nights. It seems unlikely. Holden’s latest “cold take” echos on the edge of my mind. Am I really going to have to start taking his timelines seriously? I submit a bug report, and finish my tea.
The Irishman is speaking too loudly. It’s time to call my parents.
I haven’t tried this kind of writing for ages. It is getting me out of my head. Perhaps I will inflict a week of it on the II Discord.
Vogue cigarette in a floor-standing ash tray. I think of Sophie.
Amazon Locker, coffee at the local McDonalds. The cafes will be serving lunch.
I will reply to V, then A.
Leopold on fertility rates. Big if true. But not if digital minds are coming soon.
What would it take to make having children 10x, or 100x, easier?
The McDonalds play house has several clients.
Maybe digital children come with volume controls.
“Shut up and multiply.”
Looks like my plan to sit on this terrace without listening to a credulous German explaining his crypto investment thesis to his correctly-dubious Tinder date isn’t working out.
@V Wish you were here.
A motive for rationalism: at least at some levels, what matters and what we care about can come apart, in a big way.
I drive back to the house. Madame and Ulli are concluding their weekly meeting with Pierre, the amateur historian, who is working on a book about Lavoisier. Pierre says I should read [Rabelais](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Rabelais), who apparently wrote with concern about where science was going, back in the early 16th century.
Sunday Bridge on the terrace. We play reasonably, but lose.
I venture into the kitchen, seeking a bottle opener. Madame—Elisabeth—and Ulli are there, chain-smoking and waiting to serve dessert.
Four hours later, it is 1am, and my bottle, and one of theirs, is empty.
Ulli’s research has taken him back to the 12th century. He thinks that Guyart des Moulins did some of his translations on this land. And later, connections to the Medicis. I must ask for his sources.
Mick Jagger lives down the road. Elisabeth is too shy to call him.
“Oh Sheiße!” exclaims Elisabeth, throwing down her cigarette. “Ich habe das heiße Wasser vergessen!”
Ulli looks up. “Das heiße Wasser?”
A guest requested a kettle to fill their hot water bottle. Elisabeth has forgotten. “Sheiße, Sheiße, Sheiße!” She crosses the kitchen at speed, grabs a small kettle, wipes off the dirt.
How long ago? Asks Ulli.
“Zwei Stunden!” she replies.
Ulli groans, and puts his head in his hands. That couple already seemed unhappy.
He goes with her.
Elisabeth wants to die in Cape Town. But first—rennovation at Freschines, perhaps a members club. A library, a Bridge room, salons.
She needs a team. Ulli is her first recruit—her chef, concierge, handyman, therapist. He came here from London, ticket paid by a friend. Her daughter is in Dubai.
She is, indeed, lacking funds.
Things seem a little desperate. But she believes in serendipity.
I wonder if Anna would like her.
It is August already. Thank you David.
“Good morning! How did you sleep?”
A guest reports a plumbing problem. Ulli blames a ghost. But the guest insists. There is water on the floor.
Éric and X, from Antwerp, will stay for the week. He has a metal hip, so he’s a fan of transhumanism. She thinks that meditation should be taught in schools. Éric arrived in London the day that Elvis died. “One night, one pound” repeated the hoteliers, greeting passengers at Victoria.
Signor Bentley shuffles past.
It takes me a while to “get into it” today.
I listen to an interview with the author of All Hell Breaking Loose, a book about climate change, as understood by the Pentagon. I feel disturbed and sad as I park my car in Blois, by the Loire. Time for a walk.
I sip an obscure Belgian beer, re-reading Falkovich on The Path to Reason.
Flashback to February 2020, that last pint in London, surrounded by the oblivious.
This is my third night in a row. The waiter welcomes me as a regular. Brings a parasol when the drizzle starts—for my iPad. The girls behind want one for their hair.
ADS sub-posting 80K, and quoting Agnes on aspiration. Good.
One characteristic of someone motivated by these complex reasons… is some form of embarrassment or dissatisfaction with oneself. She is pained to admit, to herself or others, that she can “get herself” to listen to music only through those various stratagems. She sees her own motivational condition as in some way imperfectly responsive to the reasons that are out there. Nonetheless, her self-acknowledged rational imperfection does not amount to akrasia, wrongdoing, error, or, more generally, any form of irrationality. Something can be imperfect in virtue of being undeveloped or immature, as distinct from wrong or bad or erroneous. (There is something wrong with a lion that cannot run fast, but there is nothing wrong with a baby lion that cannot run fast.)
….Thus I will defend the view that you can act rationally even if your antecedent conception of the good for the sake of which you act is not quite on target—and you know that. In these cases, you do not demand that the end result of your agency match a preconceived schema, for you hope, eventually, to get more out of what you are doing than you can yet conceive of. I call this kind of rationality “proleptic.”
How do you know when you’re out of the valley of bad rationality?
Ben wants people to come up with longtermist projects that could spend $100m / year. How much does it cost to run a castle?
Lunchtime loop. I run alongside a startled cockerel for 20 meters. Later a deer, for half a kilometre. 100 push ups. The young gardener looks at me.
The loathesome task of planning.
Some guests are making small talk on the terrace, English with a Dutch accent. A man knows some things about castles.
This place was La Clinique Psychiatrique de Freschines from the early 70s until 2013. Of course.
Pamela seems to approve of my plans. Less excited about my latest theory of value, but she’s at least considering it. Time to write to Jérôme.
I will ask Elisabeth if I can extend my stay, at half the price. Perhaps she wants a website.
Sandberg: the rate of selection matters, but also the primary unit of selection. Shifts from one primary unit to another are usually a big deal. E.g. prokaryote to eukaryote, genes to memes.
I head out in search of Thai food. I find it. I follow the waitresses’ recommendation and regret it. I do some life admin. I’m tired. Due for an early night.
I bump into Ulli at the reception. We shake hands—huh, that feeling again.
He looks more tired than usual. I ask. He just threw out some guests. Their infractions are not fully specified. One of them said something rude about the furniture.
I tell Ulli he reminds me of Eric Cantona. He laughs. “Oh yes, I like him”.
Breakfast. Elisabeth has put me by the window again.
She brings the coffee. She brings milk and sugar on auto-pilot, forgotting for the third time that I don’t take either. I accept them without comment.
She brings the saucer for my tea cup, that I have left on the buffet table, like a savage. I apologise. “Oh no, no problem!” she replies, a hint of anxiety in her voice. “It’s just, for the...”, and she makes the gesture of stroking a crease out of a table cloth.
Formidable ! Jérôme confirms for the autumn. Details later.
Virtual coworking with the lads. Very nice to be back in regular contact with Aron.
For the room, my charm seems to be working. For the rental car, not so much.
Team dinner at Freschines. Alex, Anne-Sophie, Annaise, Alan, and Beatrice. Ulli and Elisabeth, unexpectedly, nowhere to be found.
The team members in attendance are all “work away” volunteers—arrived this weekend, here for a month. 25 hours of work each week, in exchange for food and lodging. Alex, 22, engineer-entrepreneur on summer vacation. Anne-Sophie, linguist and illustrator, soon to finish her formation. Annaise, university drop out, due to start a degree in biology this autumn. The Golden Retriever—Yoko—belongs to her. Beatrice, Portuguese job-seeker, in France to improve her French and do interviews. Wants to do comms for a fashion brand. I tell her about Isodope, she is interested enough to Google her. Alan—late 50s or early 60s, situation unclear, but lives nearby, a repeat volunteer here.
Ulli and Elisabeth show up around 10pm. Their meeting with the chocolatier took longer than expected. They both seem tired, but Elisabeth is keen to join for a drink. She explains her “Lavoisier Chocolat” idea: a Mozart, reinterpreted. She sips a glass of orange juice and smokes several cigarettes. Then—bonne nuit.
As the volunteers clear the table, I exchange a few words with Ulli. Turns out “busy tomorrow morning" actually means "major dental surgery”. He was assaulted on a London bus nearly 20 years ago, and his teeth and jaw have been giving him grief, intermittently, ever since. He finally has the means—and a dentist he trusts—to take care of it. Step 1 is remove all the teeth in his lower jaw.
He is driving himself there, and seems to think he’ll be able to drive back and then welcome guests in the afternoon. I am not so sure.
Telling the story of the London assault leads to his general philosophy of violence. This was shaped by an unfortunate evening in his late teens, when, after being provoked into a rage, he beat another teenager nearly to death. He remembers calling an ambulance, and being scared of himself. And so—he never starts fights, and he does everything he can to avoid that rage.
I ask him what is his favourite soup.
My Salon is up on YouTube. I send it to some people.
I help my mother edit a PDF.
Freyr WhatsApp-s me the latest Dominic Cummings interview, this time with The Spectator. I subscribe to read it. I am not disappointed.
From my bedroom window, I see Ulli heading off to his appointment. Apparently the white Ford Transit is their only roadworthy vehicle. Or perhaps he is multi-tasking.
Breakfast. It is still not entirely clear whether I have a job, or indeed a room, for Friday. I will have to press the issue.
Douglas Murray surprises me with a moving column that is not about the culture war. I already had the general impression that he is good, and more interesting than his “boring” stuff might suggest. The piece reinforces that.
Éric and X are on good form. X is teacher—religious studies, ages 11-15. Before that, she was in marketing. Before that, art history. She hasn’t seen The Young Pope, or Mad Men. I recommend.
She tells me about their visit to “The Foundation of Doubt", in Blois. Something something "Fluxus" something something "John Cage”. I should probably know what Fluxus is.
Ah, now it’s Elisabeth in the Transit. Side door open, a jumble of furniture inside. I guess that’s a good sign. Where is Herr Ulli, though?
The sun is out, so I move onto the terrace. After a few minutes of writing, the postlady arrives, her yellow van modified with a big green sticker that explains the eco-credentials of La Poste.
And—Ulli is here to greet her. He walks as usual, cheerful and talkative, seemingly untouched.
I wonder if the operation was cancelled.
“No no. There was a change of plans, the bottom ones are better than he thought, so he took some of the top.”
Me: “But... your speech is fine... I thought you’d be having trouble walking. You seem almost untouched...?”
“Ja. He was a good dentist! He deserves to live.”
He laughs, takes the package inside, then heads off for the next job.
Austro-German negotiations conclude gracefully. I will stay until the 18th. A smaller bedroom—in case of more demanding guests—but the music room as my office. Great.
The local go kart track is pretty good, and very local. It might be my nearest reliably-open café.
I drive a couple rounds, then check-in with Aron. Agnes Callard on persuasion.
Constant, the track safety quad bike guy, races with me for the final round. I’m only a second or so down, but I doubt he was going flat out.
They invite me to join the sprint race next weekend. I agree, of course.
A nap in the Twingo, then Carrefour for driving license photo and groceries for the workaways.
Several restaraunts are inexplicably full, so I end up with surprisingly good pizza in a surprisingly loud Italian place.
Retreat to a terrace for a catch up with Amy. It’s been 5 years! She’s in the bath. Child free, dating an “age-appropriate” Italian. He has not yet made her a carbonara.
Drive home with the Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd.
The workawayers are on the staff terrace. Ulli drinks his “syrup” (?), Elisabeth sends emails and smokes. Wine is poured. They spent the afternoon polishing chandeliers.
Ulli is on good form, gets another syrup. Bea is tall, especially by Portuguese standards. She describes her troubles living “as a giant”. A dull conversation about differences between languages. I retire.
Breakfast. Éric and Geert are leaving.
Éric is an engineer. He trains the staff at a bus factory in Antwerp. He forgets his sweater on the back of his chair, just as he did on Wednesday. We say our goodbyes.
Ulli shows me to my new room. Smaller, but good. An American family was supposed to check-in last night, but they left within minutes, insisting that the place is not safe for children. Ulli doesn’t get it.
I bump into Geert, who has forgotton something. Surprising myself, I ask to take her portrait. She agrees. Víkingur plays Bach as she sits.
Coworking with the lads, but I get nothing done besides moving rooms and other logistics. I send Layrac Karting my review of the Circuit de Blois. Candy seems happy to hear from me.
Cello Suites. The wallpaper in Room 8 is even more cracked and peeling than the wallpaper in Room 6. The floor needs a vacuum. The paintings are better, though. So is the WiFi.
I head out for coffee, resisting the urge to go straight back to the track.
More logistics. Train tickets, hotel rooms, social arrangements. Interactions with the French administrative state, via Elena, thankfully. Comment on some drafts.
Holden interview, rough cut. He wants us to reset our priors, to expect the truth to be weird. If you zoom out on history, looking on a million or billion year timescale, developments in the last few centuries look very weird, very exceptional. A lot is happening in the current pixel. So we should expect more weird stuff to go down.
“Avant-garde" thinking involves developing a higher weirdness threshold, a bit like mainstream vs avante-garde jazz. It’s not "anything goes” but it is: much greater caution about dismissing something on the grounds of weirdness.
New Pope, episode 4.
Ulli clears the breakfast table. To my surprise, he begins collecting crumbs with a battery-powered handheld vacuum. It is palm-sized, shaped like a Roomba. A concession to modernity?
It’s a Christmas present he gave to Elisabeth. She has never used it. He found it in a drawer recently.
The table cleared, he lays the next setting with great care. The Roomba goes back in its box, and back in a drawer.
Signor Bentley observes.
Seventeen guests last night! Several last-minute bookings. One couple complained about the pillows (they are indeed terrible). Ulli explains how the last-minute guests rarely read the description properly, so expectation management on arrival is key. I’m part of the team now, it seems.
A bit of storytelling and charm can change a 5 to 7 out of 10, he estimates. Ulli’s a smart guy.
That reminds me: it’s time I wrote a review.
Is that Fred Astaire playing in the function room? There’s a Bluetooth speaker in there. Every now and then it starts playing without warning—a ghost, or a sign that Herr Direktor is in range?
Ulli compliments me on not being the last person at the breakfast table. “I work before breakfast!" I protest. "Ah, just like Lavoisier." And he gives me a detailed account of Antoine’s daily routine. "Six to nine, chemie. Then breakfast. Then business. Then in the evening, more chemie. Sunday, all day chemie.”
Chris Olah on machine learning interpretability. Or, as Rob put it: what the hell is going on in there?
We are finding remarkable common features in networks trained on very different data sets, or with very different algorithms and architectures. Line-detection seems like a fundamental primative for vision.
“Halle Berry neuron” fires for pictures of her, but also for her name when heard or written down. Abstract, conceptual representation.
“Morning neuron” that responds to alarm clocks and pictures of pancakes and breakfast foods and all things that are early.
“Barack Obama neuron” that fires a little bit for Michelle, a little bit for US flag.
Spanish couple on a motorbike. It’s their first time doing a long trip. Not so much fun in the rain. She speaks a bit of English, he really doesn’t. I show them a picture of Florent, and tell them about the local karting option.
“Bonne journée”, I say, and the man responds by telling me his name. I hide my surprise, and tell him my name. His partner is confused.
Well, I just asked for a “Macron" instead of a "macaroon”, so who am I to judge? I’m sorry, Spanish guy.
One half of my 2 o’clock is still in IKEA, the other is not answering his phone, last seen “sanding down some doors”. OK. I enjoy my macrones in peace.
Can’t remember the last time I drank an allongé. This is terrible!
Maybe it’s time I tarted up this website a bit. Colours and typefaces. Hmm.
My 2 o’clock kicks off at 3.30 or so. I’m in the car, so I park up in a layby, industrial estate on the outskirts of Vendôme. Lemke is getting heavy, baby due mid-October. René is starting to work with Halli. They’ve moved into the flat upstairs—it’ll be great, but right now there’s no floor.
I call in at GP KART CONCEPT on my way home. New personal best—into the 1:02s. Coffee on the terrace, sunshine, more Chris Olah. Then a heavy shower, and a round in the wet with Constant. The very wet track is... really quite difficult. I don’t spin out, but it takes me a while to get a feel for it, and my best lap is five seconds down on C.
My workout gear is, by accident, in the car, so I run and jump and flex in the forest. Wonderful!
Pizza at the Aerodrome. A couple of private jets on the strip. I keep an eye out for Mick Jagger.
Home. I settle on “Annie Use Your Telescope" for the headings, "Lato” for the rest. I am not very good at this.
I fall asleep on my bed, fully clothed.
I wake up at 1am. Very awake. I fiddle with colours and CSS for an hour or so.
Shower. I dry myself with the portrait of an 18th century duchess.
David Lynch voice: Today, I am thinking about: masterful inactivity.
That DC interview:
Could he have been a complete idler? ‘Oh very easily. I mean, I am a complete idler. Basically I just sit around reading, and talking to my wife and boy, interspersed with occasional projects that catch my interest.’ I tell him that after a lifetime’s reading I’ve concluded that ultimately it’s a waste of time, because I always forget everything. ‘I know exactly what you mean. But when I think what I could do instead I can’t think of anything.’
Is he basically a pessimist? ‘Yes. I’m optimistic about individual humans but pessimistic about the system. The system is prone to disaster. I mean we got lucky with Hitler in all sorts of ways, and lucky that we didn’t have nuclear war later, and people tend to think that’s all in the past, but I think we’re going to keep having horrific problems, and there’s no one in politics or the civil service equipped to deal with them. I guess I’m plagued by worries of disaster more than is normal.’
Actual David is thinking about: honey. And the phrase: sweet as honey.
The wind has dropped. From the window of the breakfast room, a light aircraft coming in to land. Antoine would have liked to see that.
His Wikipedia bio is quite something:
A French nobleman and chemist who was central to the 18th-century chemical revolution and who had a large influence on both the history of chemistry and the history of biology. It is generally accepted that Lavoisier’s great accomplishments in chemistry stem largely from his changing the science from a qualitative to a quantitative one. Lavoisier is most noted for his discovery of the role oxygen plays in combustion. He recognized and named oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783), and opposed the phlogiston theory. Lavoisier helped construct the metric system, wrote the first extensive list of elements, and helped to reform chemical nomenclature. He predicted the existence of silicon (1787) and discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same.
Lavoisier was a powerful member of a number of aristocratic councils, and an administrator of the Ferme générale. The Ferme générale was one of the most hated components of the Ancien Régime because of the profits it took at the expense of the state, the secrecy of the terms of its contracts, and the violence of its armed agents. All of these political and economic activities enabled him to fund his scientific research. At the height of the French Revolution, he was charged with tax fraud and selling adulterated tobacco, and was guillotined.
Other notable achievements:
In 1766 he was awarded a gold medal by the King for an essay on the problems of urban street lighting.
While Lavoisier is commonly known for his contributions to the sciences, he also dedicated a significant portion of his fortune and work toward benefitting the public. Lavoisier was a humanitarian—he cared deeply about the people in his country and often concerned himself with improving the livelihood of the population by agriculture, industry, and the sciences.
In 1768, he focused on a new project to design an aqueduct. The goal was to bring water from the river Yvette into Paris so that the citizens could have clean drinking water. But, since the construction never commenced, he instead turned his focus to purifying the water from the Seine. This was the project that interested Lavoisier in the chemistry of water and public sanitation duties. Additionally, he was interested in air quality and spent some time studying the health risks associated with gunpowder’s effect on the air. In 1772, he performed a study on how to reconstruct the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, after it had been damaged by fire, in a way that would allow proper ventilation and clean air throughout.
At the time, the prisons in Paris were known to be largely unlivable and the prisoners’ treatment inhumane. Lavoisier took part in investigations in 1780 (and again in 1791) on the hygiene in prisons and had made suggestions to improve living conditions, suggestions which were largely ignored.
Lavoisier gained a vast majority of his income through buying stock in the General Farm, which allowed him to work on science full-time, live comfortably, and allowed him to contribute financially to better the community. (It would also contribute to his demise during the Reign of Terror many years later.)
It was very difficult to secure public funding for the sciences at the time, and additionally not very financially profitable for the average scientist, so Lavoisier used his wealth to open a very expensive and sophisticated laboratory in France so that aspiring scientists could study without the barriers of securing funding for their research.
He founded two organizations, Lycée and Musée des Arts et Métiers, which were created to serve as educational tools for the public. Funded by the wealthy and noble, the Lycée regularly taught courses to the public beginning in 1793.
He spent considerable sums of his own money in order to improve the agricultural yields in the Sologne, an area where farmland was of poor quality. [...] In 1788 Lavoisier presented a report to the Commission detailing ten years of efforts on his experimental farm to introduce new crops and types of livestock. His conclusion was that despite the possibilities of agricultural reforms, the tax system left tenant farmers with so little that it was unrealistic to expect them to change their traditional practices.
He also developed methods for detecting the adulteration of tobacco, and, in the process, methods of improving its flavour. And, as one of four members of a Royal gunpowder commision, greatly improved the quality and quantity of production, such that its export became a major revenue source for the government.
How on earth......?
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born to a wealthy family of the nobility in Paris on 26 August 1743. The son of an attorney at the Parlement of Paris, he inherited a large fortune at the age of five upon the death of his mother. Lavoisier began his schooling at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, University of Paris (also known as the Collège Mazarin) in Paris in 1754 at the age of 11. In his last two years (1760–1761) at the school, his scientific interests were aroused, and he studied chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics. In the philosophy class he came under the tutelage of Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a distinguished mathematician and observational astronomer who imbued the young Lavoisier with an interest in meteorological observation, an enthusiasm which never left him. Lavoisier entered the school of law, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a licentiate in 1764. Lavoisier received a law degree and was admitted to the bar, but never practiced as a lawyer. However, he continued his scientific education in his spare time.
Lavoisier’s education was filled with the ideals of the French Enlightenment of the time, and he was fascinated by Pierre Macquer’s dictionary of chemistry. [...] Lavoisier’s devotion and passion for chemistry were largely influenced by Étienne Condillac, a prominent French scholar of the 18th century.
At age 21:
At age 23:
he was awarded a gold medal by the King for an essay on the problems of urban street lighting
He married well:
Lavoisier consolidated his social and economic position when, in 1771 [...] he married Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the 13-year- old daughter of a senior member of the Ferme générale. She was to play an important part in Lavoisier’s scientific career—notably, she translated English documents for him, including Richard Kirwan’s Essay on Phlogiston and Joseph Priestley’s research. In addition, she assisted him in the laboratory and created many sketches and carved engravings of the laboratory instruments used by Lavoisier and his colleagues for their scientific works. Madame Lavoisier edited and published Antoine’s memoirs (whether any English translations of those memoirs have survived is unknown as of today) and hosted parties at which eminent scientists discussed ideas and problems related to chemistry.
What were his mates into? Wikipedia again:
The idea of what it meant to be noble went through a radical transformation from the 16th to the 17th centuries. Through contact with the Italian Renaissance and their concept of the perfect courtier (Baldassare Castiglione), the rude warrior class was remodeled into what the 17th century would come to call l’honnête homme (’the honest or upright man’), among whose chief virtues were eloquent speech, skill at dance, refinement of manners, appreciation of the arts, intellectual curiosity, wit, a spiritual or platonic attitude in love, and the ability to write poetry. Most notable of noble values are the aristocratic obsession with “glory” (la gloire) and majesty (la grandeur) and the spectacle of power, prestige, and luxury.
The château of Versailles, court ballets, noble portraits, and triumphal arches were all representations of glory and prestige. The notion of glory (military, artistic, etc.) was seen in the context of the Roman Imperial model; it was not seen as vain or boastful, but as a moral imperative to the aristocratic classes. Nobles were required to be “generous" and "magnanimous", to perform great deeds disinterestedly (i.e. because their status demanded it – whence the expression noblesse oblige – and without expecting financial or political gain), and to master their own emotions, especially fear, jealousy, and the desire for vengeance. One’s status in the world demanded appropriate externalisation (or "conspicuous consumption”). Nobles indebted themselves to build prestigious urban mansions (hôtels particuliers) and to buy clothes, paintings, silverware, dishes, and other furnishings befitting their rank. They were also required to show liberality by hosting sumptuous parties and by funding the arts.
Hmm... so what happened to the nobles?
Traditional aristocratic values began to be criticised in the mid 17th century: Blaise Pascal, for example, offered a ferocious analysis of the spectacle of power and François de La Rochefoucauld posited that no human act – however generous it pretended to be – could be considered disinterested.
By relocating the French royal court to Versailles in the 1680s, Louis XIV further modified the role of the nobles. Versailles became a gilded cage: to leave spelled disaster for a noble, for all official charges and appointments were made there. Provincial nobles who refused to join the Versailles system were locked out of important positions in the military or state offices, and lacking royal subsidies (and unable to keep up a noble lifestyle on seigneurial taxes), these rural nobles (hobereaux) often went into debt. […] The relocation of the court to Versailles was also a brilliant political move by Louis. By distracting the nobles with court life and the daily intrigue that came with it, he neutralized a powerful threat to his authority and removed the largest obstacle to his ambition to centralize power in France.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen had adopted by vote of the Assembly on August 26, 1789, but the abolition of nobility did not occur at that time. The Declaration declared in its first article that “Men are born free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness.” It was not until June 19, 1790, that hereditary titles of nobility were abolished. The notions of equality and fraternity won over some nobles such as the Marquis de Lafayette who supported the abolition of legal recognition of nobility, but other liberal nobles who had happily sacrificed their fiscal privileges saw this as an attack on the culture of honor.
The First World War took a huge toll on noble families. It has been estimated that one third of noble family names became extinct through the deaths of their last bearers.
French courts have, however, held that the concept of nobility is incompatible with the equality of all citizens before the law proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, and which remains part of the Constitution of 1958. “Nobility”, as a legal concept and status, has therefore been effectively abolished in France.
I go looking for karting companions, end up having lunch with Elisabeth, Ulli and Pierre. I run the theories of Mokyr, McCloskey and Howes by Pierre—Lavoisier’s story seems consistent.
Pierre and Ulli want to lament the youth of today. But it’s not their fault—they lack role models, all they have is smartphones. Controversie du jour: Emmanuel Macron has addressed the youth of France on Tiktok, tricolours in the background, wearing a t-shirt. Shocking! Unbelievable! Will he shave his head if he wants to speak to football supporters?
Pierre: “We need General de Gaulle back, Bismarck, Churchill.” The others nod.
I tell them about Alex Jones—first his existence, then the Magellan vs Justin Bieber monolog. They are sympathetic. I wonder if I can find a version with subtitles.
I join the tasting for a candidate “Vin de Lavoisier". It’s a subtle, oaky red (according to Pierre). I confess ignorance, they mistake it for modesty. I express indifference, they accept that. The mood of the table is pensive, but "meh". In the discussion that follows, it becomes apparent that Elisabeth intends the "Vin de Lavosier" to be drinkable alone—as apéro, or by the fireplace "with your girl". "Mais non!" exclaims Pierre. "We must not legitimate this... this... American practice, drinking red wine without food. It is... insupportable !”
Elisabeth holds firm. Pierre does not press the point, but I sense he is fuming. Disagree and commit.
I share my concerns about the plan to rename the castle. They are not immediately dismissed.
Bea is down for karting, the others no. We go. New personal best, but only by five tenths. On my first lap, too: it seems I’m trying too hard.
Bea finds Alex pretty unbearable. The maybe-lesbian couple speak French too quickly, one of them smells bad. Ulli sleeps outside on the terrace, like a guard dog. Elisabeth’s priorities are not those of her guests. Bea’s “nom de conduire” is PASTELDENATES. My driver photo is hilarious.
Some serious competition shows up. Fantastic battle for the full eight laps. I place fifth. I’d like to go again, but my wrists hurt.
Bridge club is cancelled at short notice. Someone’s lover couldn’t wait.
I drive to Vendôme, À la recherche du kebab perdu. (Sorry). More Chris Olah. I’m one hour into a three hour episode, and this is just part one. Go Rob.
First kebab place has a 1.5 hour wait—a counter covered in post-it notes. They can’t believe it either. The next two kebab places are closed, contra Google. I resolve to take a stroll, then put in an order at the first place. But the stroll leads me to: Le Moulin du Loir. Excellent terrace, tolerable prices.
Glenfiddich. Pave de Boeuf (servi par le chef). Tarte Citron. Encore du Glenfiddich. Impeccable.
I arrive home. Unusually, all the lights are off in the reception room, stairway, function room, dining room. The bluetooth speaker is playing jazz, a line that reminds me of Audrey’s theme. The large stuffed gorilla (I haven’t asked) sits awkwardly on the leather sofa. I leave him to it.
The COO of some foundation has come under the impression that I am “an aligned cybersecurity expert”. I wonder what such experts charge per minute.
Aron thinks Anton Howes is good, really liked the Joel Mokyr book. Peter is staying meta. I am checking Slack, reviewing my new role, three weeks in.
6pm: “Friends of Lavoisier" team meeting. It’s as dysfunctional as one would expect. But Ulli has made a spread. Three hours and several glasses of red wine later, I have a sensible commission, and a hopefully-willing volunteer. Elisabeth has smoked half a pack. I have risked frank feedback on guest experience—and the "business" "plan”—and not fallen from Elisabeth’s good graces (I think). A little more of the backstory has emerged. An inheritance, an apartment sold in Munich.
Ulli and Elisabeth get very annoyed when people park too close to the terrace.
If she could, Elisabeth would establish the Independent Republic of Freschines, where taxes are not due. The castle would house a casino and a brothel. Is she joking? Apparently not: she has a connection somewhere, who can find very beautiful women, who know what they are doing, are not being exploited. It is clear that U & E have discussed this before.
The pair have big arguments, sometimes. “Why hasn’t Ulli left yet?" Elisabeth wonders out loud. "If I left, who would make her dinner?” he replies.
Twitter: an article on definitions and prevalence of psychopathy, liked by Paul Graham. I would like to read, but I can’t today. I add to the “maybe later, probably never” list.
A first draft of my booking.com review, written at 1am while tipsy:
Elisabeth, Ulli and Signor Bentley are in the opening chapters of a great adventure. There is a way of life to revive and reinterpret, a castle to renovate, history to write and to create. Do not come for modern comforts, or even basic amenities. Come for coffee served “the Château way”, for cigarettes and champagne on the terrace, strange paintings to contemplate, a future to be imagined. There is much to build, to restore, to ask. What will you add? What will you repair? What will you preserve? When you become a shadow of your former glory, and then nothing—what will you leave behind?
One thing I thought about during my stay: the romance and dignity and vulnerability of self-belief. It is honour and respect, things we stand for, things we do not compromise. A bad review, who cares? If you are disrespectful, I throw you out. Conrad Hilton was too optimistic, too American: the customer is not always fit to be king. If you keep your children hundreds of meters from the nearest sharp edge, well, you’re just an anxious fool. The Last Man—who seeks comfort and security, and blinks—is not welcome here. Free spirits, however, rejoice.
(The wifi sucks.)
Lol. This needs work.
I get talking with Pauline, the cleaner. Age 33, she has five children, a sixth that died of some disease the name of which I did not catch. Two ex-husband’s: one that abused her, the other that abused children, and is now in jail.
She is still standing. More than that— she has energy, she does not seem deeply tired. When she is done cleaning, she will go to the river and swim. Her two youngest children are with her today, they seem happy. The three year old loves visiting the castle of Elisabeth. She has two dogs, a piercing and a philosophy of life, tattoed on her chest: carpe Diem. “Ça, et la minimalism,” she says.
She has been working here since April.
I wonder how she gets on with Elisabeth.
Today is funding day. First draft of application, share to PM and AV for comment.
Lunchtime run, Lavoisier loop, this time with lunch and mobile office in my running backpack.
I run fast in the midday heat. I stop near the end of the loop, setup my desk in a tree. Check-in with AV, then a second pass on funding application.
A deer shows up, I watch for several minutes. It ambles around, grazing on leaves. Eventually it spots me, and runs.
4pm, and it’s time for kick off meeting with Béa. Elisabeth has a meeting at the same time with Annie, potential business partner, but she is nowhere to be found. Pauline searches, to no avail. Elisabeth shows up 20 minutes late, it seems she was sleeping. Power move, or just absent mindedness?
I remember Hanson tweeting a study that said absent mindedness correlates with social status. The higher up the dominance hierarchy, the more absent minded you can afford to be.
At 4.30 or so, Bea and I start on comms for the Château. But first up: getting to know each other. We have a nice time, and emerge with a plan. The Client approves.
Elisabeth is going to IKEA tomorrow: she has so many guests, and she has run out of linen. She invites me to join her. Its an hour away. I say “no”. But I am tempted...
Then—emergency, they are overbooked. A mix up involving Elisabeth and a reservation made by telephone. What to do?! Frustrated exchanges in German. Elisabeth appeals to Bea and I, because we happen to be there.
I later learn that the solution was: put them in the gîte, and give them a 5 euro discount and a complimentary glass of wine.
I slept atrociously. But I wrote three pages for E on “guest experience”, plus a shopping list for IKEA. A bit more of MTVs first broadcast; Kurt Kobain In the Pines. And a tribute to David. And now I want to watch Twin Peaks again. Patience, deer: a projector this winter. Penne d’Ag film club gon be lit.
More on funding. Moron funding.
I procrastinate by sending some links to Tyler:
I’ve been clinging onto the belief that the military, at least, is quite a functional institution.
This belief is in tension with reports that US soliders are putting nuclear security secrets in consumer flashcard memorisation apps.
How do you end up in a situation where soldiers guarding nuclear weapons think this is a reasonable thing to do? This suggests a rather large training failure to me. Legacy regimes not updated for the age of smartphone, perhaps? :(---
Two things that raised my spirits today:
- David Lynch montage: nice comments on catching and developing ideas; loving collaborations over the course of decades; value of routine.
- The very first two hours of MTV (August 1 1981). Decent serving of space/tech/future optimism in the opening minutes. It was on HN recently, I guess many people have sent you this.
He replies within minutes.
Pauline has been instructed to refresh my sheets, so I head back to the aéroport. A skein of private jets, but no Mick Jagger. “Security" "consulting”, then Bea on comms.
Dinner in Vendôme, back to the Moulin. Bea likes lollipops.
The British couple just sold their holiday home. They bought it for their honeymoon, 15 years ago. Jodi was crying as they left. But they are moving to France: she wants something bigger, he wants a man cave. He sits with his eyes closed, keen to listen but fending off a migraine. I too have a bit of a headache. Maybe it’s his bright orange shirt made of extremely practical nano-materials, his shorts and socks and oblivious flip flops, the sense that he could breakfast in this grand room a hundred times and never wonder what to wear. With only the slightest provocation, they tell me all about their children. Eventually I discover that she is an “Interfaith Minister”. I would like to know more, but I have a call and they have to hit the road.
Aron is getting into his cultural evolution stuff. PM is having a slow day, feeling rough after his second jab. PH is getting distracted by the guests. Bea is feeling anxious, a little overheated. The fan helps.
Elisabeth claims to have bought all the things on my IKEA list. I’ll believe it when I see it. She still likes me, at least.
I meet Ulli in the kitchen, getting started on a 2 litre bottle of Coca-Cola.
“Cola, coffee and cigarettes... it is a good life.”
I fetch a glass for my San Pelligrino. Huel straight from the bottle. Anthony Braxton, and now I really must finish this application.
Bea asks me what I am thinking. Should I tell her? Or just write it here for her to read?
Bea is enjoying the fan. I say that I will give it to her, something to remember me by. She asks if I could give her something smaller.
Dinner with the workaways. Alex has made a biryani. It is very good. He spent six months in India. His startup is building smart refrigerators for caterers. Those are words he cannot pronounce. He tells me about the problems with RFID tags. I ask “why not machine vision?” and realise I’ve touched a nerve. He is 22, but he already has a Dad bod. Cool guy.
“Blagounette" is a word. It means "little joke”. This is ridiculous.
The plot thickens: Elisabeth also has a son! Age 20, expelled from several schools in various countries. Recently accepted to a university course in Rome, thanks to his mother’s social connections. Lately he has acquired a formidable Spanish girlfriend. Elisabeth is in favour: she seems to keep him on the straight and narrow. They will arrive this weekend. He never works, according to Alan.
Stargazing and cognac in the early hours.
I wake up with The Köln Concert in my head.
Dylan Trigg is on Twitter! Still learning the ropes, it seems. I send him an email.
Nearly crashed my Twingo due to a fucking massive grasshopper. How was your morning?
Back at the aérodrome, counting my blessings. I order a steak and try to decipher the latest issue of Shitcoin Praxis.
Wondering what the hell that noise is. Turns out it’s this tab. Jesus Dylan.
Tamara must be rich again by now. I wonder who she’s dating.
Some guy asks me where the parachute place is. He looks nervous. Yes, it’s his first time. I wish him luck. He likes the joke, but also doesn’t.
A helicopter in great haste. Bright yellow. That doesn’t seem like Mick.
This espresso is hotter than the sun. I like this place.
I find myself quoting Bon Jovi to a colleague. She seems unmoved.
I’ve felt very alive these past weeks, I say. She nods. It’s like I’m an actor, and I have the most wonderful lines. She looks faintly concerned.
Bea has been researching the ancestry. There is a Baron Herring-Frankensdorf.
Speaking with you, I trace new lines in the pleasure of conversation. It is electrifying, breathtaking, all those words that are not enough. Thank God, I have not seen it all. I have barely begun. This is tenderness and grace to the point of tears. And it’s only for us. Now.
And you tell me it’s time I read more fiction. Spot on, again. I’m losing count, and it’s just today. What is this?
I sit alone, Ulli and Bentley on the far end of the terrace. Ulli yawns. His iPhone chirps a reply. The clink of the glass he places on the ground. His lighter—fscht—a flash in my peripheral vision.
He wishes a guest goodnight. We are aware of each other, sharing crickets and owls and warm darkness summer evening in glorious, respectful solitude. There is no threat of conversation.
Who am I, these past days?
Elisabeth comes, asking for keys auf Deutsch. Ulli rouses himself, dissolves into the house. His phone continues to chirp. This must be a chat. I know he does not have children. Who, then?
Back again, he speaks softly in German. To himself perhaps, or perhaps to Signor.
She promised she would read me some Pessoa. She really did, and I think she will.
The Boss snores softly.
I exchange a few words with Ulli before I retire. I hope I am not taking liberties, I say, gesturing at the glasses. No no, he says. Just put them back in that kitchen, you know? I know.
Elisabeth shows up, apologises for interrupting. Sits on the step and lights a cigarette in a single motion. Her son will arrive on Sunday. “Watch out for him" she says. "He is..." she makes the gesture of a man flexing, puffing out his chest. "But no, he will like you. You are English.”
The guests are nice this evening. Elisabeth thanks me for the emails about the signage. I am absolutely right. Anne-Sophie has been put to work.
Prosecco in the fridge, I pass them once more. Elisabeth says bonne nuit again.
At the last possible moment, Ulli calls: “Peter!" He has never called me that before. Always "Monsieur", or "Monsieur Peter". "Have you read ’The Way Leads To Nothing?’" he asks. "No, I don’t know it." "Well, now you do!” he says, and laughs with an intensity I don’t quite understand.
New Pope, episode five.
Saturday cowork. Aron recommends: Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick (1975).
Run to the ’drome. Much safer than driving. Hopefully I trod on some crickets.
Pilot walks by. Late 50s, leather jacket, unlit cigarillo, aviators.
Some twenty-somethings, here for the skydiving.
I always thought this song was about places in the US with European names. Seems not.
This is not a song about go-karting:
Walk back from the Aérodrome in the 2pm sun. Tracing the shade of the forest.
“If I could only remember my name” on my Bluetooth speaker, just me and the birds.
And I nap in the grass, and for once it is actually comfortable, the insects are not attacking.
Víkingur at the Proms. Bravo.
Excellent vibes here at the track.
It’s a sunny day, 22 degrees Celsius, about... 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, I am thinking about: dominating my opponents. And the song: Therapy, by Marc Rebillet.
Qualifying: 9th fastest, in my group of 20.
Pre-final: caught in a pile up on lap 2. Small mistake on the penultimate turn and I miss out on third by about 20 centimetres.
Final final: I take care to avoid trouble in the opening laps, but then Didier le Fou takes me out on lap 5, a real dick move. We both end up in the grass, then he and I have our own private race, well behind the pack at the front.
Shortly after writing the above, a friendly exchange of words with Monsieur le Fou. Turns out there were three of us going into that corner, and Didier got rammed by a late breaker, and therefore ploughed into me. This makes sense: our duel was indeed quite clean for the rest of the race. In my helmet, I was attributing this to his contrition. But no, he’s just a mensch. Much laughter as we debrief. It’s his son that added “le Fou” to his race name.
I drive to Vendôme. I am too late for the restaurants, but the kebab place does not have a line this time. It is good.
I wonder off in search of a place to nap, but find myself walking into Trinity Abbey.
I take some photos, straighten some posters, make a donation. It is worth a visit, dear reader.
I later learn that it has 4.6 stars and 346 reviews on Google Maps.
I find myself blasting Infinity Land (Biffy Clyro) in the Twingo. Holds up better than I expected, if I forgive them
some most of the lyrics.
I join U & E for a drink on the steps.
The hay bales are going to a former farmer who runs a sanctuary for animals that have becomes economically useless. Ulli gives them for free, in exchange for the grass cutting.
E invites me to join the newly formed “Friends of Lavoisier” association. Will there be a membership card? I will submit my application by email. Or perhaps in writing.
Bea shows up.
U & E are big fans of Dinner for One. For some reason, he wants to describe a classic scene to Bea and I. Patchy English mixed with German words—we pretend to follow and try to laugh at the right moments. I’m not sure even Elisabeth knows which scene he is referring to.
The Universal Music Group have provided this video to YouTube, but they do not want me to embed it.
This one probably shouldn’t be embedded before the watershed.
I think it’s about time I watched Jordan Peterson’s Bible lectures. And maybe Basic Instinct.
“The Château is yours”, says Elisabeth. I’ve agreed to hold the fort while she runs an errand. Ulli, uncharacteristically, is sleeping late, having stayed up drinking with Elisabeth’s son.
Breakfast with Bea. “User research.”
How was your morning?
“Maybe I should force some knowledge into him.”
—Bea on Alex.
Alex wants to start a submarine base in international waters. Gather the brightest scientists to work “where ethics and process would not be a problem”. He thinks that would allow the world to advance.
I am more sympathetic than Bea expected.
The clock at the Eglise de Villefrancœur is 2 minutes fast.
We should get to it.
Never underestimate a pop star.
4am, wide awake. I buy a microphone and shop around for a projector. Added to cart, but I’ll wait ’til morning.
Ben sincerely thanks me for “useful feedback”, on a thread where I quoted Bon Jovi at length. I should charge more.
Someone on The Economist podcast saying that the Taliban took many key cities without firing a shot in anger. Apparently they negotiated with elders and key officials. I wonder how much was threats, and how much was kosher persuasion? Is their incredibly rapid takeover a sign that, basically, much of the population wanted them back in power? Most people hated the current government, says the podcast guest. Too much corruption, and the soliders and policemen were not getting paid. The Taliban are saying that they will not be as draconian as they were in the 90s, but they are already kicking women out of the universities.
I wonder what trad Twitter thinks of all this.
I fall asleep again around 5.30.
How many empty bottles of Huel in one’s Twingo is too many?
I invite Bea to join my Tattoo Advisory Board. (Mum, if you’re reading this, don’t worry! The charter includes a mandatory waiting period and appropriate checks and balances.)
Elisabeth is disappointed with the results—actually kind of angry. It turns out she hasn’t read half the things I sent her last week, so she (incorrectly) thinks I’ve barely done anything. I encourage her to do this, lament the difficulty of working with volunteers, and she softens. But this is the moment I realise that I’m not coming back. She is just too all over the place. Sad.
I exchange private words with Ulli. I wonder about saying something, but I don’t have the heart to do so, of course. Maybe they’ll be fine, I tell myself, not believing it. I promise to send him news from London. Warm goodbyes.
Bea and I play it gracefully.
Paris Austerlitz. The second time I’ve arrived here without Sophie. The first time I might, plausibly, bump into her. I wonder if she wants help with her bag.
A lady with three shopping bags roller blades past me, unironically. She is texting on her phone.
Coffee in the Jardin des Plantes. I guess the naming department had a hangover.
Paris is looking good, despite all the homelessness.
I think I’ve properly fallen in love with France, these past months. The idea of living here for years feels... good. A bit like the idea of living in Reykjavík. Maybe better. And certainly more practical.
Let’s see how I feel after I’ve tried to hire someone.
A crux between libs and cons: what is reason, and what can it do. I want to read Kant on judgement.
I just realised why they obsessively give out placemats on the Eurostar. The table surface is laminated, so if you put a ceramic cup on it, there’s not enough traction to withstand the wobbles of the high speed carriage. Lol.
Trial and error is great until it gets you killed. “But what is the alternative?” says David Deutsch. Well, it seems like there is an alternative, because people get killed much less often than than if they were just trying all the things. Individual humans often exhibit disproportionate concern for downside risk in the tails, just as the eco-rationality folks suggest. Them that don’t make a quick exit. Now we just need to do this globally, for various kinds of technology. If we cast this as a scaled up version of a thing we already do, this might give grounds for optimism. We do manage to scale things pretty well sometimes. So, let’s have at it.
I want my time with you.
Hello London, my old friend.