A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Hermeneutical Injustice

29 October 2023 6:37 PM (Society)

Ace Week just ended, so I'm going to talk about hermeneutical injustice, because I think it's an important concept that defines a lot of the ace experience, or did when I was young. Really, it defines a lot of the experience of anyone whose life contains elements that aren't part of, or don't really have a discursive place in, their culture. The term was defined by philosopher Miranda Fricker as part of her broader theory of Epistemic Injustice.

Hermeneutical injustice is the inability to interpret the events and experiences of your own life to yourself and to other people. Asexuality is, or at least was in years past, an obvious example. Nowadays there's a name for it and most people acknowledge it exists. Back then, when I told people I had no interest in having sex with anyone, I was constantly told “That's not a thing.” and they insisted that, actually I was just gay and in denial. I didn't have a word to describe it and ended up coming up with my own, ‘antibisexual’, because “You know how bisexual people like having sex with men and with women? I like having sex with neither men nor women.” It was frustrating, but still better than when I was younger and hadn't quite realized that there was even an experience I was having that others weren't.

Being asexual in an Evangelical church is a surreal experience; people keep sternly warning you about not doing things. Sometimes they'd name them, sometimes they'd just give you the ‘You know what I mean.’ nudge and a wink. I didn't. When I was a little older I did, but I had no idea why anyone would want to do any of the stuff they were warning us against, and kept wondering when I'd start to. People kept coming down the aisle and confessing to marital infidelity, and the only thing I could think of that might count as violating marriage that seemed even remotely appealing might be if you met someone you like a whole lot more than the person you're married to and ignore your spouse. “Just don't have sex.” seemed completely reasonable because…really, who would want to?

This, itself, is an interesting example of secondary effects. By being denied the means to understand myself, that there was something real and existing that made me different from other people, I failed to understand others as well. This, also, is an example how nonsensical treating privilege as the reciprocal of marginalization is. Privilege, as a useful concept, means being in circumstances that make ways in which the world is harmful to other people invisible to yourself because, in those respects, the world suits you perfectly. My part of the world kept saying sex was bad and not to be engaged in. I didn't want to and didn't understand other people's drive and kind of suspected people kept pretending to be really into sex to score points for how mature they were. That's privilege. You can be marginalized and still have privilege, because marginalization is not a hierarchy.

I can't hold people telling me that I was gay and unwilling to admit it to myself or that I just needed to meet the right person against them (the people who told me I needed to go to a psychologist and get 'fixed'? Basically telling me I should book myself in for conversion therapy? I totally hold that against people.), because it's another second-order effect. The concept of being ‘out to oneself’ exists for a reason. At that time people knew gay and lesbian folks existed, and they were often discussed or represented in media. The representations in media were often highly stereotyped, and discourse in religion was simply horrible: telling outright lies that gay relationships can't be ‘stable’ and ‘loving’. Of course people would hear that, see comedic characters, and say to themselves “That's not me!” and only be able to reason about themselves when they started realizing those depictions weren't accurate.

Mental health issues also have that problem. People see how those with anxiety disorders, bipolar, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and others are portrayed and don't identify with it, because, at best, it depicts a very narrow slice of experience and is most often simply distorted into caricature.

All this is one reason I'm so supportive of people being able to speak about their experiences where others can see and understand them. If nothing else, it lets other people make sense of their own lives.

Why Might Disabled People Exist in the Future?

11 October 2023 6:11 PM (disability | transnaturalism)

Since I've complained about this deserving a good answer, I may as well give as good an answer as I can. This discusses surgery, eugenics, and radical changes to mind and body. If that sounds like something you wouldn't enjoy, read something else.

Bodies are Weird and Messy

Consider the eye. We can transplant in new corneas and replace clouded lenses with shiny new synthetic ones. Retinal implants aren't particularly good compared to average eyesight yet, but for some people they're life-changing[1]. It is not unthinkable that we could treat everything from retinal detachment to cataracts by replacing the whole eyeball. So, no more blindness. Right?

Obviously not. Lesions on the visual cortex are not unknown and can impair (or destroy) visual recall and imagination as well as sight. In my own case, the optic nerve is about a third the usual cross-sectional area, with macroscopic changes propagating through the optic chiasm and into the visual cortex. Plugging an eye with 20/20 vision in to me is not going to fix this.

This is the case for most disabilities. Cochlear implants don't do anything if the issue is downstream of the cochlea. Spinal cord regeneration wouldn't help problems in the sensorimotor cortices. The proximate cause of most disabilities being relatively tractable should not be confused for all disabilities being fixable. Otherwise you set up a world where the remaining disabled people have no accommodation at all because the general perception is “There are no disabled people. Well, maybe three at most.”

I don't think central nervous system issues are fundamentally intractable nor that your brain has some magical Soul Homunculus in it and Must Never Be Touched, but doing so is much more difficult, and may (at least for a very long time) involve trade-offs like fixing your vision at the price of losing every visual memory you had from before.

An Ounce of Prevention?

You might ask why we can't just screen and genetically engineer problems away. We already do this to some degree with things like Huntington's and Tay-Sachs disease, and these are the best candidates for such a thing as they are caused by a single gene that can be tested for and cause horrifying central nervous system degeneration followed by death.

What about my visual disability? It's monogenetic. Couldn't we just screen it out? Possibly we could. I wouldn't feel particularly wronged or that I'd suffered some dignitary injury by this. If, through some change in environment or whatever, it just happened to be the case that nobody with a visual disability like mine were ever born again, I wouldn't feel wronged if people didn't intentionally engineer it into folks[2].

The difference is that a visual impairment is a serious problem because the infrastructure of the world is built assuming a certain visual acuity. We should accommodate people with neuro-degenerative conditions as much as possible, but dementia and pain are still dementia and pain, whatever the world looks like. I don't suffer from not seeing well, I suffer from not driving in a world designed for cars and from the Vile Offspring of Steve Jobs actively removing the UI customizations that made computing so accessible in the first place. Many Deaf people say they suffer from being forced through oralist education and a lack of sign or captioning, not from deafness. Obviously there are edge cases like locked-in syndrome where some affected people have expressed a preference for nonexistence, but overall disabilities aren't torment in themselves.

This could also be called ‘Bodies are Weird and Messy, part 2’. I am also bipolar[3], which is hereditary but not in a straightforward way. There seem to be multiple genes that can each increase the risk as well as environmental factors. A lot of things work like this, and some of the contributing genes seem at present to also contribute to generally desired traits. We don't know how to screen with any effectiveness.

Many disabilities are caused by environmental factors (toxins, injury, whatever.) People who are blind from birth generally do much better than people who have to relearn how to do everything later in life, as I've seen trying to help people who lost a lot of vision as adults but could still see better than I can. A focus on genetics over accommodation would remove the disabled people who are the best off, but do nothing for those who would have the hardest time of it.

There are also reasons to think there is value in diversity of thought and experience to society generally, and accommodated disabilities, where people experience, think about, and interact with the world in different ways while still being first-class citizens, provide a lot of that.

They May Prefer It

Let's go further into the future and ask two question: If I could take a pill that would fix my eyesight with no downsides like loss of visual memory, would I? And if I could take a pill that would make my mental/psychological configuration normal, would I?

Regarding eyesight, quite possibly! I'd want to make sure I could take a lot of time where people aren't depending on me for anything, because I'm pretty sure the world looking entirely different is something I would have to get used to. Other people may choose differently; if they are effectively first-class citizens, they might think having the faces of their loved ones look different than they remember is far too high a price to pay, or they might worry it would change their aesthetics or relation to art in a way they don't want.

Regarding bipolar, no, Absolutely not. Based on talking to other people, I know I'm in a minority. I don't think of myself as a very broken normal human, I think of myself as a pretty good something-else that could use a bit of improvement. In a world where you could fix any disability, I wouldn't want mine fixed, I'd just want to prevent the infrequent-but-terrible full mixed state, be a bit less prone to losing the ability to know when I think something is a terrible idea, and put a pretty shallow floor on the depth of depression.

One deaf student I worked with told me she would have no particular interest in gaining hearing. If she could suddenly hear the next day, she'd still have to learn to understand heard language. Being able to hear music might be nice, but she doesn't feel the lack any more than she feels deprived by not seeing flowers the way bees do. That's a perfectly reasonable answer. Me, if given the chance, I'd love to see flowers the way bees do or experience the sonar-world of a bat. Both answers are perfectly good answers.

The Red Queen's Ratchet, or Everyone's Disabled in the Future

Disability exists at the intersection of ability and the environment. In general, people with total anosmia are less disabled than people who merely have a partial impairment in sight or hearing (and some who are anosmic from birth don't realize there's a sense other people have that they don't until later in life) simply because the world isn't built on smell, except in a few specific professions. Dichromatism is a minor disability in our current world, but in a world where people shared my combination of good color perception with terrible-everything-else-visual, it would likely be a pretty severe one.

The average human's repertoire of ability was determined[4] by the ancestral environment, but we're at the point where we've built our own rather different environments. As an example, a psychiatrist once pointed out to be that people with bipolar in the past who had unproductive periods weren't penalized for it nearly so much as now, because there wasn't the same expectation of an Unbrokenly Productive Gapless Resume, so it was easier to be much more productive than average sometimes and less at others.

If you imagine a world where we can both change ourselves relatively easily and move into or build new environments, it seems that there are only a few stable outcomes.

Consider seeing ultraviolet as its own, distinct color. You get wider, more colorful rainbows. You might even get a new line of purples between green and ultraviolet. Harmless and fun and good. But, if lots of people get the change, they're going to want to use those colors in things they make. More as it becomes more common, until mentally the assumption is that most people can see it and people start using it to communicate meaning. That pushes more people to get it, and makes things even worse for the people who don't.

Even for something innocuous, it's easy to imagine ways that it could be assumed that everyone is capable of it and build the world to match, thus there's a potential for a constant underclass of people who are the least comfortable changing themselves. This is pretty bad. Above, I gave an example of how I'd not want to change myself even though it would likely make my life easier. Pushing people to violate their notion of who they are and what matters is terrible[5].

Consider different environments. The SF trope of space-station inhabitants with arms instead of legs, or aquatic-mammalian humans living in the ocean. Having to remake major parts of your body when traveling would cause great distress to a lot of people. This all compounds when you get to cognitive changes. An area with a high proportion of people with an expanded or reorganized working memory might start using Fith-like syntactic constructs for emotional and rhetorical effect. I suspect many people would feel wronged at being pushed to have brain surgery to understand the local language.

Thus, it seems to be that only a few possibilities exist:

Permanent Underclasses
Whoever doesn't keep running to fit the fashion gets left behind.
Everyone has to be a Normal Human. As defined by whoever's in power. This might be defined as ‘unmodified and containing no genes not passed down from unmodified parents’. It might simply be a legal code requiring all people to accept a certain set of abilities and details of configuration and forbidding others.
Everyone lives and communicates with ‘their own kind’, throwing out all the advantages of a lively society where wildly different people share and influence each other. Also, it really sucks if there aren't many of ‘your own kind’.
Universal Access
Embrace the idea that some 'set of abilities' is not universal either locally or globally, and that this will likely become more the case with time. Build a world for everyone with that assumption.


Asking how to enact universal access is a bit like asking for a blueprint for a complete socialist society. It's a good question, but we don't yet have a complete answer, because the territory has yet to be thoroughly explored. You start where you are and make suggestions that would make the world a bit more like your ideal, and as you explore you get more ideas where to go[6].

The basics are kind of obvious. Think of universal access from the ground up. Don't say “We have data saying this is easiest for people to read[7], so that's what you get.”

Remember that, in the present, it's very likely you'll end up disabled in some way if you don't die young. I know at least two older couples who had to move simply because the places they lived had no bathrooms on the ground floor and as they aged they couldn't handle stairs well. The idea that disability is something that happens to other people is not a safe one to hold.

Don't expect people to be able to easily provide a convenient name for their circumstances that you know about, nor should you demand they conform to your idea of what their needs are. Your expectations may be wrong. You may not have heard of their condition. They might not know the name, or they might know it but think it doesn't apply to them, because hermeneutical injustice is actually a serious problem.

Beyond conscientiousness and building accessibility in from the beginning, assuming you'll not think of every accommodation someone might need and adding enough slack, space, and flexibility that they or someone else can add it later seems the best I have for now.


[1] And sadly life-changing again when the corporations behind them suddenly abandon a line but won't release any of the information about how to repair, upgrade, replace, or maintain it. Cybernetics under capitalism is simply a nightmare, under IP-cartel capitalism, doubly so.

[2] I do not privilege nature, nor do I have much patience for people who do.

[3] Lived experience is not analysis, but it is a useful input. I'm leading with my own circumstances because I can say why a specific disabled person (me) might prefer one thing over another. Other disabled people may choose differently.

[4] Imperfectly, approximately. Never forget, evolution is a very slow hill-climber and local maxima are a thing.

[5] One reason I've always hated the 'immutable characteristic' test. So we invent a way to turn gay people straight. So what? Does that suddenly make it okay to bully people until they let you jab them with something that changes how they feel about their romantic partners? Their dating life? People who are into sex often feel it's one of the most personal and emotionally potent things about them.

[6] One of the reasons I have no patience for Marxism-Leninism or other revolutionary, vanguard party approaches. To me, it seems the exact opposite of how you explore, adapt, and learn from people's experiences.

[7] The same data show, much to the surprise of many left-handed folk, that humans are universally right-handed.

Big Finish is Bad at Being Political

7 June 2023 5:16 PM (politics | criticism)

First, I am not complaining about people politicizing Doctor Who. As with Star Trek, Doctor Who has always been political. The question is whether Big Finish Productions is any good at it. The answer is: No they are not. For some reason, the Sixth Doctor ends up being handed this nonsense the most. Spoilers ahead.

The Lovecraft Invasion

Did you know Lovecraft was racist? If you have a pulse and haven't lived in a cave, you probably do. People have argued that Lovecraft's being racist was the fundamental root of his entire fictional universe. I don't agree; I think the fundamental root of Lovecraft's fiction was being terrified of everything and kind of miserable. (Being terrified of everything and miserable is probably a contributing factor to him being as racist as he was, though.)

There's nothing wrong with pointing this out, but since "Did you know Lovecraft was racist?" is the basis of about 90% of any Lovecraft-adjacent fiction published within the last twenty years, it's rather likely that one, like the author of this audio play, will have nothing particularly interesting to say on the matter. The first problem is failing ‘Show, don't tell’. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country did this quite well; he used Lovecraftian themes to investigate racism, in a heightened, almost absurd setting drawn from the Jim Crow era, blending history and fantasy well. Importantly for a work focusing on racism, Lovecraft Country shows people being racist.

Not so for The Lovecraft Invasion. The sum total of bad, bigoted things Lovecraft does in this episode is…when two people come out of nowhere and assault him then start tying him up he refers to the one most actively grabbing him as a ‘mongrel’ when demanding they leave him alone and go away. This is not particularly virtuous, but doesn't really support the picture they want to paint. If the whole point of your story is to inform everyone that Lovecraft was bigoted, it would kind of help to show him being so beyond an unfortunate choice of wording when demanding complete strangers stop physically assaulting him.

The premise is fine, alien technology is going to bring everything from Lovecraft's imagination to life. You could have lots of fun with this. The Sixth Doctor in particular pontificating at Shub-Niggurath cultists would be great fun. Campy mythology romp would be fine, too! If you want to focus on Lovecraft being racist, showing him alien worlds governed by similar ideas could be done well and would fit with his later letters in real life showing him disagreeing with some of his past views.

Instead, they basically treat Lovecraft as a chewtoy throughout the plot and have his own imagined author-insert character (Randolph Carter) call him pathetic. Which in a different context could be done well: as Lovecraft was plagued by chronic health conditions and life-long anxiety, most folk of his time probably would consider him rather ‘pathetic’. It could be an opportunity to ask him if he's really so opposed to accepting people as they are. They don't do that, because it's less a story than a Twitter post. The author picked up the idea that ‘dunking’ is a progressive act and has no interest in doing much of anything else.

Even more Twittery, the story ends with the Doctor warning his companion and, pretty obviously, the audience that every time they read one of Lovecraft's books, they will to reckon with the fact that he Believed Bad Things, and they might be better off not reading them at all. This is simply out of character. The Doctor has generally been quite happy to appreciate cultural artifacts from quite awful cultures and to be friends with terrible people.

The bigger problem is that this nonsense is neither progressive nor liberal nor even political. It's actually anti-political, born of the same 'politics of defeat' that underlies a lot of online discourse. Giving up on actually impacting the world in any meaningful way, folks instead start making up nonsensical codes of purity or cultural touchstones.

When an author is alive, well-funded, and actively using their resources for evil, not giving them more resources is a reasonable thing to do and to ask of others, and you can debate whether pirating their work acts as a form of promotion or not. In every other case? It's nonsense. Especially if the author is dead. The idea that one should be revolted the work of a creator that does bad stuff is also at bottom just neoliberalism.

Specifically, it's part of a larger trend of encouraging people to identify completely with what they consume. You're living a good, progressive lifestyle so you need good, progressive lifestyle brands, and should only enjoy creative works published by publishing imprints that have progressive cultural markers. It replaces political action with consumption and policing, diffusing any energy that could be used to pursue change, organize, or in any other way do stuff. The entire thing is purity fetishism, and speaking of purity…


Big Finish have released two boxed sets, Purity Undreamed and Purity Unleashed as two installments in the Sixth Doctor line. The individual stories are unremarkable and competent, but the overarching plot, particularly the inciting incident, is rather badly done.

Purity, formerly Professor McBride, is an attempt to create a new villain with her gimmick being that she's a bigot. She's from the present, which avoids the biggest problem with the otherwise excellent TV episode Rosa. (Specifically, having the villain be from the 52nd century. There is no reason why someone from that far in the future would be engaged in anti-black racism. Racism changes over time. It would be like someone from our day getting bent out of shape that barbarians from northern climes whose constitutions make them unthinking and ungovernable are allowed to participate in democracy. It would have been better for someone contemporaneous to the event or from closer to our time to get hold of either future knowledge or time travel technology somehow. Also I'm not a fan of playing saccharine pop songs over climaxes.)

Purity/Professor McBride doesn't seem to be racist. Instead, she's bigoted against disabled people. This is the inciting incident: The Doctor shows her the future and she's shocked, surprised, perhaps even a bit revolted to see that there are disabled people in the future. As a disabled person myself, I think there are lots of interesting things one could do here.

"Why would there be disabled people in the future?" is a reasonable question. It's the perfect kind of thing for science fiction to investigate. You could ask what counts as disabled in a world where you could give people more, or more acute, senses and let Professor McBride show up somewhere everyone considers her disabled. You could investigate the Red Queen's Ratchet and how people have to be constantly remaking themselves to keep abreast of current fashion, and some people just don't want to, can't be bothered, or find the idea some form of violence against their body-image or self-concept. That last part could explain why, in a future with flying hoverchairs, some people prefer using flying hoverchairs to whatever surgeries and treatments would be required to get working legs. You could investigate the problem of people whose specific cause of disability is not amenable to treatment, while most others are, and who find themselves lacking in accommodation or assistive technology because the population of people with their disability fell from tens of millions to thousands.

There's a fantastic number of science fiction stories that really engage with the concept of disability that one could write. Big Finish decided not to. Instead they decided to write a Twitter post. The (supposed) Doctor informs her that she is bigoted and a very bad person and must go away at once. I might add that the Doctor once traveled with a high-ranking (equivalent to colonel) Nazi to teach her to see the world differently. (It didn't quite work out, but that is much more in character.)

There is a saying: ‘use your privilege’. It's slightly unfortunate wording since it encourages misunderstanding of what privilege is, but if we rephrase it as ‘use the power and safety you have’ it's perfectly serviceable. One shouldn't pressure folk to hang around with and educate people who are being horrible to them or acting as conduits for systemic oppression, but people who aren't their targets definitely should do so. The Doctor, being an alien who can survive most deaths, can go anywhere he likes, never seems to suffer from material scarcity unless he's away from his TARDIS or it would be convenient for the plot, and has 'lord' as part of his title seems to me to be someone who has power and safety in abundance. He should have used them.

Nah, don't be silly. A real hero would dunk on them, then boost their dunk into their main timeline so everyone else can see how clev—pardon me, so everyone else can be edified. Professor McBride then runs off and finds the time suit used by the villain of that particular episode and puts it on, and sets out to alter history so disabled people stop happening.

The followup collection, Purity Unleashed isn't bad, especially if you can ignore that the entire reason they're in this situation is because the Doctor got momentarily replaced by a Twitterato due to the incompetence of the author. It does have one serious problem: Fascist musical theater.

There's nothing wrong with having fascist musical theater in a story, but it would help if it were actually shown to be…fascist in some way. Nobody on the stage sings about throwing people out of the country or segregation or anything. They sing about being thrown out of their apartment on Christmas and wanting a central bank that prioritizes the interests of every day people more than rich people.

This is very unfortunate. There certainly are forms of politics that think workers, rather than capital, should control the machinery of the economy, and they aren't fascist. The timing is especially unfortunate since it came out the same time that the US Federal Reserve has been waging a low-level war on workers to 'get wages down'.

This doesn't reflect a secret agenda on the part of Big Finish or the authors, that would be ridiculous. It's just what happens when your idea of politics stops being about actual material circumstances in the actual world and how to change them and starts being about cultural signifiers, aesthetics, and branding.


Given all this, it's especially baffling that in Judoon in Chains, the Sixth Doctor mentions that the brain of a Judoon could fit in a tablespoon, talks about how unintelligent they are, and, as demonstration, says that they use a “monosyllabic, completely analytic language”. This is lesser-known because linguistics just didn't make the same splash in popular culture as phrenology, but it's as if they had their protagonist announce that an alien is inferior and appeal to their skull shape.

This kind of thing, trying to link syntax and morphology to intelligence, was part of the apologia of empire. They'd point at some culture and say “Oh, look, they're speaking an analytical language! That means they're unintelligent and inferior and we can do whatever we like with them!” It's basically the one time I got so mad at a story I wrote the publisher and asked them to, in the future, please avoid recapitulating nonsense from the bad old days when linguistics was the study of why it's okay for Europeans to march into other people's countries, subjugate the people, and extract wealth from them.

While not directly related, it did rather strike me that while their attempts to be political and progressive don't even rise to the standard of being political, they could get this stuff out the door, which actually is political and actually contains misinformation that's been used to justify bigotry given as fact, without someone going “Hey, maybe we should check our protagonist doesn't sound like an apologist for the opium wars.”

In summary: I would like it very much if Big Finish Productions would actually be political, be progressive, and do it well.

Antarctic Foxes

2 May 2023 3:24 AM (musing)

Oh, you don't think I pay attention?

I pay attention.

Foxes. Most successful beastie there is. Arctic foxes up north. Lightning foxes frolicking through auroras and discharges. Corsac foxes bounding over the steppes. Datafoxes prowling networks and twixtnets and caching the finest things they find. Fennec foxes prowling the deserts and tracking tiny friends by sound at a dozen yards. Starfoxes flying through space and repelling energy weapons by doing a barrel roll.

And so I demand to know:

Whither the Antarctic Fox?

Antipodal fox? Countervulpine?

The Southmost Renard?

Whatever you want to name it, where is it?

“The Andes!” you might say, “Arctic foxes don't live at the North Pole!”

…well, yeah. There's no land beneath the North Pole. I know that much. But there is land at the South Pole. Lots of it. So much land you'll be sick from it. You'll feast on land so deep, so gorged, so thoroughly that you'll throw up uncontrollably whenever you so much as think of land. You'll get the dry heaves for days after. You'll be thrown out of the Georgist councils. Your social life will be ruined. Every time you try to open your mouth to sing a chorus of “The Land” you will heave forth every meal you've ever eaten.

That is what happens if you even start to eat Antarctica.

That's how much land there is in Antarctica. And you'll tell me foxes can't get closer to Antarctica than the Andes?

You can't fool me.

“There's no Antarctic Bears! No Antipolar bears!”

Sure there aren't. Sure there aren't. And do you know why? Because the Antarctic Foxes drove them out. Nothing gets that good at secrecy without being seriously scary.

An entire, thriving, secret ecosystem of foxes that nobody on earth knows about? Of course the polar bears would run like heck to get away as fast as they could.

Maybe writing this is a bad idea. They'll read it. They'll know I'm on to them. They'll come for me. Next thing you know there'll be an impossibly quiet whisper of fur as soft to the touch as an angel's sleeping breath, and then…

Unpopular Opinions on Deep Space Nine

11 March 2023 9:38 PM (politics | criticism)

First, I don't hate Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I think it is very well acted. Much of it is well-written. Many of the things I dislike about it I dislike in retrospect because the creators of ‘New Trek’ have chosen to accentuate them or make them the focus of entirely new plots. This is not entirely fair to Deep Space Nine. Its faults are faults, but its writers weren't the ones who decided to turn one of them into a spinoff series.

But, my thesis is that DS9's flaws stem from it being, perhaps unintentionally, a critique of Star Trek from the Right.

This doesn't mean, incidentally, that I think only left wing science fiction is legitimate or enjoyable, I've read many Heinlein books and enjoyed the ones that don't have sex cults in them. It is the case that Star Trek, however, has by its nature from the beginning been specifically progressive, and many people who argue that it should continue to be don't seem to notice these examples of it conspicuously failing to be.


It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Star Trek may not have had the most realized version of this (they are very obviously centrally planned to heck and back but people at least seem to have the chance to do things that they really enjoy doing in good conditions.) but they did it. Deep Space Nine asks, “What? A world without capitalism? Be serious!”

You mostly see it in Quark's, as said before the economy of the Federation has been, at best, a vague sketch, but gone is recreation as a public good, with people having to find latinum somewhere if they want to carouse in a bar or lounge, visit a holosuite, or play a game of Parrises squares.

But there is one quote that is capitalist apologetics per se:

Quark: The way I see it, Humans used to be a lot like Ferengi: greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We're a constant reminder of a part of your past you'd like to forget.
Sisko: Quark, we don't have time for this.
Quark: You're overlooking something. Humans used to be a lot worse than the Ferengi: slavery, concentration camps, interstellar wars. We have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We're nothing like you... we're better.

First, it is my contention that Quark's pants burn with the fires of Hell. Either that or the writer forgot for a moment that they subjugate half their population with women unable to own property and forced to spend all their time naked.

But more importantly, this is the classic bait and switch. The problem isn't capitalism. Workers don't need control of their labor and the means of production. People don't need freedom from domination, they need to be dominated by nice people. it's the same playbook I remember from my youth in the religious right. Every critique of capital was turned into a talking point for Dominionism. Workers unable to afford housing and food for their children? We just need to teach Good, Christian Values in the schools. Horrible workplace safety? That wouldn't happen in a Christian nation.

Marx wasn't right about everything, but he was right that the virtue of individual capitalists was of no account. A capitalist taking a lesser profit to treat workers better will tend to be squeezed out or acquired by someone who doesn't under the coercive law of competition, capitalism optimizes for capital. Bad systems both make (because they see no other choice) and empower bad people.

Surely, not a world without Kissinger?

I hate Section 31. Partly, this is because they're badly written. They're supposed to be diabolically clever schemers supreme waiting in every shadow, and when we actually see them, they're like children playing at being Bond villains.

But that's not the worst of it. The worst is that it's a flat denial of the possibility of an open society accountable to the people. Section 31 is Putin's claim, that there are two types of societies: those run by strongmen and those run by strongmen that pretend not to be, taken to the stars. It's possibly the most reactionary thing ever to be put under the Star Trek name.

People will insist that you can't have a coherent society that defends itself like the Federation without something like Section 31, but that's simply false. You can tell it's false by looking at our own history. Take Kissinger: the only thing he's actually good at is branding. He'll sell you a bill of goods labeled Realpolitik and make the same claims about how he does the things the US needs to do to Survive…

Except…the more classification falls away, the more the leaks come out, the more it becomes obvious his adventurism was the Three Stooges on a murder spree. And that's how it turns out to be with all of this stuff. Every leak, every declassification, is itself just an indictment of classification. The secrecy claimed to be needed to protect the Free People of the World turn outs to be protecting only capitalists selling weapons or looting victims and officials getting high off their own power. This isn't to say that tactics can't be kept secret for a time. I'm not saying that Churchill should have published the complete plans for D-Day in the Times of London, but D-Day became very not secret very quickly once it was executed. Any legitimate secret is short-term and available for the public to see and critique as soon as there isn't an active endeavor involving it. Similarly, this doesn't mean Starfleet Inteligence wouldn't exist, simply that their classified activities would be relatively few and be declassified relatively quickly.

Occasionally someone, channeling their inner Zack Snyder fan, will say “You just don't like Section 31 because you can't handle moral complexity!” This is false. Deep Space Nine actually has examples of moral complexity that are good. Within the framework of a unified polity that can make commitments binding on all its citizens (some people don't accept this as legitimate, which is fine, but it is at least consistent with the Federation as represented. They make treaties.), the Maquis arc involving Eddington is moral complexity that's actually well done.

OOPS! All bigots

The laws stating that genetically engineered people have evil inherent in their biology and must be excluded from society are another plot point I wouldn't be so angry about if they weren't drawn upon in the new series. Similar to the way that Spock's Brain and Turnabout Intruder can be regarded as simply bad episodes because nobody was dumb enough to make them major plot points in every future series going forward.

We're expected to believe that because of Khan Noonien Singh and the Eugenics Wars, the Federation has decreed all genetically engineered people to be Bad. Similar to the way that because of the long history of conflict with the Klingons, everyone in the Federation with any Klingon ancestry is barred from serving in Starf—

Oh, wait. That didn't happen. Because the idea is absolutely inane. How much more inane, then, is the idea that because of a war four-hundred years ago there are laws on the books officially unpersoning people for unchosen modifications to their DNA that don't actually harm anyone? Also, why do any non-Earth Federation members go along with this? Are we to believe that the Vulcans, the Andorians, the Telerites, every other species that doesn't have this trauma in their history are willing to accept a draconian and utterly unjust law because the humans have anxiety over a war from centuries ago?

There is a notion underlying this, and it's telling to me that it's one often articulated by people who defend this bit of world-building as ‘realistic’. it could be summed up well as “Someone has to be oppressed! Just hope it's not you.” I consider this another intensely reactionary concept, largely because neo-reactionaries love invoking it to defend their preferred societal structures.

There are ways one could investigate bigotry within the Federation if one wanted. We see some of it with O'Brien's reference to ‘The bloody Cardies.’ An arc where a civilization with which there have been recent and bitter wars joins the Federation and how people react to and treat them would do just that, and do it well.

Let's Contract: COVID-19

8 February 2023 2:14 PM (COVID-19 | musing)

First, so nobody worries, I'm not in danger and have a relatively mild case. My fever is all of 37.6°C. My symptoms seemed to consist of nothing but a completely blocked nose, waking up with a sore throat (which I assumed was the of sleeping with my mouth open due to aforementioned nose.), and being really tired. I thought I had a cold until I noticed…a lack of something both subtle and pervasive.

Here's some advice on graduate school, but the beginning is the interesting part:

I have anosmia, which means I lack smell the way a blind person lacks sight. What's surprising about this is that I didn't even know it for the first half of my life.

Each night I would tell my mom, "Dinner smells great!" I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses. I yelled "gross" when someone farted. I never thought twice about any of it for fourteen years.

Then, in freshman English class, I had an assignment to write about the Garden of Eden using details from all five senses. Working on this one night, I sat in my room imagining a peach. I watched the juice ooze out as I squeezed at the soft fuzz. I felt the wet, sappy liquid drip from my fingers down onto my palm. As the mushy heart of the fruit compressed, I could hear it squishing, and when I took that first bite I could taste the little bit of tartness that followed the incredible sweet sensation flooding my mouth.

But I had to write about smell, too, and I was stopped dead by the question of what a peach smelled like. Good. That was all I could come up with. I tried to think of other things. Garbage smelled bad. Perfume smelled good. Popcorn good. Poop bad. But how so? What was the difference? What were the nuances? In just a few minutes' reflection I realized that, despite years of believing the contrary, I never had and never would smell a peach.

I am more nose-minded than the average flightless, bipedal, tool-using creature on this planet. I don't know if my sense of smell is more acute than anyone else's or if I got in the habit of paying more attention to it because I spent my youth unable to read street signs while being able to pick up on smells associated with places. I can't recognize people's faces (due to not being able to see them well), but I can recognize their voices, how they shifted their weight, how they breathed, and, for people I knew relatively well, how they smelled. I once mentioned to my sister that I knew she was in the house because I could smell her in the living room.

She did not take this as a compliment. (I never said she smelled bad, she just smells like herself.) I can recognize the way my cat, the actual cat not the effluvia of the litterbox, smells and it's a pleasant smell. One of my oldest friends smells (not intensely) in a way that has notes of older butter, cumin, and charred wood; I wouldn't call it good precisely, but it's not bad, and it's comforting. When I'd gone on a trip that should have been three hours but was an entire day (because my second-class citizenship is written in concrete, asphalt, zoning, and highways throughout the United States) to visit him, stepping into his abode and smelling him in the air made me feel like I'd arrived safe at my destination at last.

However, the loss of smell was not something I noticed immediately. If I had lost my sight or hearing I would have picked up on it immediately. Instead, I started wondering things like “Why is this tea so bad?“ and “Ugh. Did I somehow forget how to cook?” I didn't think too much of it at first since my nose was, as mentioned, blocked.

Even as the congestion started clearing, I felt something (but couldn't put my finger on what) was missing. Normally if I'm in one room the desk is near enough the door that I can smell the wood of the door from where it rubs against the jamb. Not intensely but something I'm aware of. Normally the different rooms in my house smell different, determined by whether there's a spice rack and fruit basket, soap and toiletries, or whatever in them. Not intensely, but something in the background. So there was just a pervasive sense of something off.

One morning it became pretty obvious what was wrong because I blew my nose, turned on the shower, felt things open up, could breathe somewhat freely and…realized I couldn't smell the soap or shampoo. At all. Tried sticking my nose right against the bar of soap and sniffing at it, got nothing.

It was then I began to doubt that I had a cold. I didn't think I had COVID-19 mostly because I didn't feel really terrible. By that time I'd stopped feeling worn out and only had some congestion and a postnasal drip.

It made me uneasy. I kept doing tests. In the evening I tried rubbing grapefruit essential oil over my hand and smelling it, and got nothing. I tried a more tests: eating grapefruit peel (hey, I like grapefruit) and chewing peppercorns and garlic. I could tell that I was not completely devoid of olfaction; I could smell some things retronasally. (Retronasal olfaction is when molecules warmed by your mouth and mixed with your saliva and aerosolized by chewing and sipping fly up the pharynx to the olfactory chemoceptors.) However, It was faint and interestingly distorted. It seemed like different components of the smell were attenuated differently, with earthy smells and what perfumers call base notes most present, and sweeter and top notes almost completely absent.

It was about then I remembered that COVID-19 tests exist and I happen to have several stashed in a drawer, so I put Amateur Science Hour on pause and played a round of Actual Medical Science: Home Edition. It came back positive.

This did not entirely please me. But given how few symptoms I'd had and that they were already improving substantially, I didn't worry too much.

One thing that did annoy me slightly was that a quick search suggested that it would take four to six weeks for olfaction to return, and I didn't relish the thought of living in the Something Missing Wrong World for a month or more.

However, even that has turned out better than I expected, since this morning I could smell the soap in the shower and the mint in the toothpaste. I had to stick them right up to my nose and they were still faint, but while I might have to wait four to six weeks for full acuity to return, things already seem to be on the mend.

Humanity is the Root of all Skeuomorphs

29 September 2022 4:00 PM (musing | misinformation)

Humanity's inventions are made in the shape of humanity, first mimicking the body, then simplifying its features away. Consider the automobile with its tires, flexible and grippy like the palms of hands and soles of feet, its need for breath, its need to consume carbon-rich foods, and crude conductive cables that control its movements. The oldest automobiles were more like human bodies than cars of today. Instead of the 'unibody' construction favored now, they had steel skeletons with steel skins placed over them, and their wheels had wire spokes in analogy with the wrist bones of their human builders.

The best studied example is the chair. Primitive chairs were modeled after the human form; they have hard skeletons with springs for tendons and muscles, foam and horsehair for flesh, and fabric for the skin. The parts of their construction are named for the body parts of humans: backs, seats, arms, and sometimes legs and feet.

You may say it is an example of humanity's self-absorption that they would think to see 'arms' in some feature that neither moves nor bends nor has hands, but the self-absorption goes further. If we look at the oldest known chairs, we see that they have mobile joints like a human's.

These earliest chairs are divided into two kinds, based on their shape and named for the body shapes of humanity's two ancestor species. Elven chairs are tall, thin, and highly articulated. Their arms can raise up and down or yaw to left and right, and some even have hands at the ends that can hold cups or bottles. The seat can raise or lower by extension or contraction of the spine, and they have hips that can bend to lean back. They even have round, rolling feet like wheels.

Dwarven chairs, like their namesake species, are strong, sturdy, and supportive. They're low to the ground, wide, comfortable, and if you lean on them they don't roll away. They still move: their strong backs lay back or sit up, and their wide, sturdy foot can raise or lower, like a seated human straightening or bending their legs.

Over time, each type of chair shed its vestigial protohumanity in its own way. Dwarven chairs lost their joints, becoming immobile but still fleshed. Then, apparently in parallel, the arms shrank and disappeared while the bones became more exposed. Thus we have both middle-Dwarven chairs fully fleshed but lacking arms and chairs with arms whose arms and legs are exposed wood, with only the back and seat fleshed. Eventually we get late Dwarven chairs without arms and made entirely of bare wood.

Elven chairs lost their flesh and their joints at roughly the same time. An example mid-Elven chair is the 'folding' chair, with a fleshed seat and only one mobile joint, allowing it to stand upright or sit stably[1]. Late Elven chairs are completely immobile. A common species has a frame of bent metal tubing with the only holdover of the ancestral flesh being a back or seat made of a single sheet of polymer.

The most modern chairs have lost their ancestral vestiges to such an extent that we can't tell whether they have Dwarven or Elven ancestry. (While late Elven and Dwarven chairs had no mobile joints, they often had fixed joints, bound with screws or rivets[2].) These most modern chairs are wonders of simplicity, with a piece of plastic serving as a combined skeleton, seat, and back molded in one step with no joints at all. Transitional forms of modern chairs show the appearance of joints or outlines reminiscent of fleshed seats and backs cast into plastic, and while the matter is still under investigation, the appearance of molded features appropriate to both Dwarven and Elven chairs on early modern chairs suggests convergent evolution and hybridization between the two lineages.

[1] It used to be thought that the stool might be a middle-Elven chair with its round padded top and wheels, the idea being that the loss of the arms had progressed to loss of the entire back. However, modern cladistics has shown it to be an early ancestor of the table.

[2] An earlier yet still late genus of Dwarven chair had wood fitted together and fixed with a glue that itself descended from a product made by boiling down the connective tissue of animals. This was literally a liquid sinew to hold joints in place.


18 September 2022 2:52 AM (transnaturalism | musing)

Let's consider the hedonic treadmill. Briefly, this is the phenomenon where humans who experience a pervasive change in life circumstance will feel very happy or sad about it and then slowly return to somewhere around normal. This is somewhat unfortunate if you happen to be a human. It means you can invest lots of time and resources into improving your circumstances and eventually end up only a little bit happier than you were before, if that.

Because the naturally evolved mind is a pile of kludges on kludges on kludges on kludges, if you pull on a string and unravel part of it, the likely person you would become is someone you don't want to be. Rolling around in bliss at the fact you have ready access to nutrition, your preferred climate any time of the day or night, and outstanding beauty from examining a leaf or the ripples on water might be fun, but most people would prefer not to become someone who does nothing but roll around in bliss all day long-term.

The returns aren't exactly to normal. People who were in food insecurity for a while are generally happier long-term after achieving food security. Not lots happier, but happier. In many cases who acquire disabilities will experience extreme distress for a while that eventually rises up close to their previous level. People with congenital disabilities that are later improved will tend to feel much happier for a while and then go back to somewhere near the previous level. This matches my own experience both with an acquired then cured medical condition, and with improvements in public transportation enhancing my mobility.

This leads to a thought experiment: If we could install memories of having been disabled in an able person, would they experience the same temporary increase in wellbeing? But then we have to ask, Which kind of memory? There are multiple memory stores. Broadly speaking there's the explicit memory (autobiographical being the most well-known type) and the implicit memory (with procedural memory of skills one can use without consciously thinking through them as the most well-known type.)

Intuitively, it seems that autobiographical memory shouldn't be enough. If we dream of being incapacitated we might feel a sense of relief on waking, but we don't enjoy the same kind of liberated well-being that we do after relief of intense but short-lived back spasm, or at least I don't.

We can imagine a world where someone with permanent anterograde amnesia develops paraplegia and wonder whether they would go through the same pattern of returning to near the previous baseline. If so then that pattern should be based on the implicit memory, as implicit memory has been shown to be intact in these cases. Anterograde amnesia is so rare I don't actually know whether anyone who suffers from it has ever experienced that kind of serious disability while retaining otherwise good health and then going on to live for some time.

They have, however, experienced anterograde amnesia, one of the most debilitating conditions one can have. Anecdotal evidence (Oliver Sacks, various interviews and stories on famous cases) suggests that at least some follow the pattern. If this is the case it suggests that the implicit memory might be the driver of the hedonic treadmill.

It feels plausible that our implicit memories might adapt and self-correct for differing difficulty levels, that our feeling of baseline happiness might go down if we keep hitting more difficulty than we've calibrated for in actions and go up when things feel easier. This is complementary to ideas that link mood disorders to the brain's level of perceived predictive error.

If it is correct, it supports my intuition that learning is an activity that can reliably escape the hedonic treadmill. Even if much learning feels like gaining declarative, explicit knowledge, learning to think in certain ways, manipulate symbols according to certain rules, developing domain appropriate intuition and the like exercise the implicit memory (as demonstrated by analogues of the Tetris effect from learning theoretical subjects like math or physics.) It also gives me interesting worldbuilding ideas for fictional transnatural civilizations that intentionally modify implicit memory to expect more difficulty to increase overall wellbeing.

I wondered if any antidepressants target the implicit memory and my brief investigation indicates that the answer 'we don't know' because we're only starting to get the slightest idea how implicit memory even works. However, I did run into a study that measured verbal tasks thought to exercise explicit and implicit memory separately, and found that people suffering from major depression had deficits in the explicit but not implicit memory task relative to their performance during remission. This does not contradict my idea but it doesn't support it either. If major depression correlated strongly with a deficit in implicit memory, I'd definitely think I was on to something.

Player Piano Player

30 April 2022 8:53 PM (transnaturalism | musing)

Once upon a time, there were player pianos. Initially intended to play popular songs of the day without need for a trained pianist, they were capable of playing music no human pianist could actually play.

Humans don't have enough fingers. They can't move fast enough. They can't span great enough distances. The player piano mechanism can. American-Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow decided to take advantage of this fact and write piano music that was never intended to be playable by humans.

Occasionally, someone will ask what the difference between a person with a tool and an augmented person is. I think the player piano gives a pretty good way of answering that.

Consider Nancarrow. His experience is outside of time. He has as long as he wants to decide on the next notes and the next chord. He can make a small roll for a phrase and run it through the piano, hear how it sounds, and if he doesn't care for it try something else. He can compose the song in any order he likes, like writing the beginning and end and working from both ends toward the middle. His experience is also less immediate, by its nature. He has to compose the piece, cut the roll, and feed it through the piano before he or anyone else can hear it.

The pianist, on the other hand, is a prisoner of time. Whatever note they play is the note that was played. If they take more time to think than they have, they're stuck with silence. If they're improvising from scratch they have to make everything up right then and there. But the instrument is practically an extension of their imagination, from the thought of sound to a finger-twitch to vibrating strings.

Of course the piano is a tool itself, with the player piano a tool for using the tool. But we can ask ourselves what it would be like to be a human augmented to play like a player piano. The salient characteristic would be that nothing is unplayable, while still keeping all the same immediacy, with the instrument an extension of imagination and body.

You might say that limitations can be a tool of creativity and…you are correct! But nothing says the limitations can't be self-chosen. That evolution happened to give us ten fingers connected in a specific way is an interesting fact, but doesn't make that configuration special.

Also, in a sense, an augmented pianist recovers limitations that wouldn't otherwise exist in that style of music. Whether it's a piano composition unplayable by a single human or an entire orchestra, certain arrangements can't, at present, be the subject of one person's on-the-fly instrumentation.

However, an augmented human really could improvise a piece for a symphony orchestra and have all the constraints of time that someone noodling on a saxophone would. It brings back immediate temporal stakes to forms that otherwise have the potential for compositional do-overs.


28 February 2022 10:06 PM (musing)

Paved the cat's way
To the post-mortal realm
Where forgotten names
And shadows whisper
All the things the living
Don't dare let themselves
Know that they know

Some say that satisfaction
Brought the cat back
This is too false
To be a lie, because
The satisfied are dead
Or worse

All the whispered secrets
Whetted curiosity
Until it was so sharp it
Cut the path back to life
Where the cat used their
New-won knowledge to ask
Even stranger questions

Revive and Restore

29 August 2021 9:45 PM (dream)

I fell into the far-distant future and ended up part of some slowly acquired ‘found family’. Many of the younger people in the family spent a good amount of time playing an odd, empathic game that let them explore the questions of what kind of thing they wanted to be, how they wanted their minds and emotions to work, and develop a reflective equilibrium before teaching them how to rewrite and change themselves accordingly.

We were fighting a fire in a large apartment building, and when we were up on the roof a large, floating island went overhead. We climbed up into it. It was full of extinct animals, including the Falkland Islands Wolf. (It made me cry a bit to see one still alive.) All the animals were more capable than the wild counterparts, being able to partly understand language even if they couldn't produce it or comprehend its full elaboration yet. We were for some reason afraid to see the human master of the island, but eventually we worked up our courage and found out it was Alan Turing. He had created the island as a time-traveling ark and gathered up extinct species with the goal of training them to be more intelligent.

Except, H. G. Wells showed up, flying up in a jet-pack and climbing aboard the edge of the island, even though Turing tried to evade him. He kept demanding that Turing travel back in time and undo what he'd done when he flew the island away, which Wells claimed had previously been the city of Tripoli. Wells also kept blasting Turing with movie footage of the island being ripped out of the ground and the city's inhabitants being thrown down to earth, screaming and clutching at it. Turing refused, claiming that this never happened, and also humans are jerks and have it coming.

(It's particularly annoying have your desire to run up to someone and tell them how much you like and admire them when you're given evidence they wantonly killed a city full of people and subscribe to worthless garbage nonsense about collective guilt.)

On Property

29 July 2021 6:51 PM (politics | economics)

I've had conversations along these lines a few times in a few weeks, so I'm going to write about property.

Most copyfighters dislike the term ‘intellectual property’ as it implies a similarity between the ‘property’ of your lunch and the ‘copyright’ of the text of a book. If someone swipes my lunch, I don't have a lunch any more. If someone uses my recipe and makes a lunch with it, I still have my lunch. This fits most people's intuitions, who don't view downloading a song or movie nearly as harshly as the movie industry would like them to, if they disapprove of it at all. Many people would quite happily download a car, if 3D printers could print them.

This obscures the fact that ‘property’ as commonly used and ‘intellectual property’ are more similar than people realize. Both are, fundamentally, de jure restrictions on action, and both are, fundamentally, arbitrary.

First, let us be perfectly clear that ‘property’ is a restriction on the action of others and an implied threat of violence and nothing else. ‘Ownership’ is not the right to use something, it is the right to keep others from using something. If I find my way to an uninhabited patch of land, no Staunch Defender of Property as Basic Human Right is going to tell me I can't farm it, build a house, or improve and rent it out. Some, if they skew in a Lockean direction, may insist that I have to improve it significantly before I can tell other people they have to stay off it unless they pay me rent.

This is ironic, given how many people of a deontological libertarian leaning, who like to cite a ‘Non-Aggression’ principal, or who spend their time focusing on the badness of people telling others what to do view property as the foundation of freedom. Property is nothing but telling others what to do and threatening to aggress against them if they don't. Property creates the situation where one can shoot someone for sleeping on a patch of land or send the police after them for picking and eating fruit off trees.

In saying this, I am not arguing against property. I am insisting that we not fool ourselves on the question of what property is. Nobody who supports the idea of property is in a position to act as threatening violence is some line that must never be crossed.

Second, property is arbitrary. If we are to have property, then exactly what the details of property are are things that have to be worked out. In our current Western society many of them are invisible due to how pervasive they are. The norms in most cases are that one can use, sell, and otherwise dispose of property however they wish. There are obvious exceptions, such as the dreaded HOA (A homeowner's association is actually pretty similar to copyright law, in that people can take action against someone for doing something that lowers the resale value of adjoining property, like painting their house a funny color. The tort done by copyright violation is similar, as it lowers the price that a copyright holder can charge for a work.), mineral rights, airspace rights, easements, insider trading, and a lot of other things that mostly come up if you're well enough to own real estate or financial instruments.

Most societies have had some idea of ‘personal property’ to the extent that grabbing something someone else is holding is frowned upon. People who have a place where they sleep are usually entitled to keep other people out. However, in some societies land was simply not something one could ‘own’ as an individual. It was owned by a family, a larger societal group, or a nation. It could not be sold. Or, if it could be sold, it could not be sold outside of a community, or if it could be sold, its ownership would revert after some years. In the Pentateuch, the laws for property forbid stopping someone from walking through a field and picking and eating whatever they like so long as they don't carry food off with them for later. Also in the Pentateuch and in the customs of pre-Industrial Europe, the poor were allowed to glean. That is, after a harvest they were allowed to come in and gather up what was left. The Pentateuch even requires farmers to leave something behind to be gleaned.

In the modern United States and Europe, rights of ‘ownership’ are recognized in cases where something is not legally ‘property’. The most obvious example is that the lessee of an apartment is allowed to exclude their landlord except under a few circumstances. Exactly what rights the tenant has to exclude the landlord vary from location to location, but some exist in most of them.

All of these, including the idea that things can be sold for cash, are rules we made up. The only way it makes sense to think of property is as the rules of acquisition, use, and transfer imposed in a larger scheme of resource allocation. This is how most people think of intellectual property, and why it's so resented. Many people are in favor of artists being able to make a living and support creating incentives to create new and interesting stuff, but they see that the current intellectual property regimes are acting counter to that.

Similarly, we ought to question whether the regimes of property generally that we have now actually provide the efficiency, wealth, and standard of living that is claimed for them. This kind of questioning can happen among fans of property (for example, the economists Eric Posner and Glen Weyl quite like property and capitalism and think both can be improved by making property and its attendant exclusion and threat of violence expensive to maintain), or by socialists, some of whom might want to tear down and reconstruct notions of property entirely. Most socialists maintain an idea of ‘personal property’ as important, recognizing the importance of being secure in one's residence, not having people come in and rummage through your files or search your phone, or otherwise remove parts of your near, personal habitat without reason. However, they often support transforming or limiting the notions of land ownership, or ownership of means of production. The idea that I should be secure in the place where I sleep in no way contradicts questioning the idea of owning land and charging others rent to live there or contemplating that infrastructure should be owned and managed as a social good by the people who benefit from it.

None of this, by itself, argues that property is bad or needs to be abolished. It does mean that we should view property with skepticism and evaluate its mechanisms and details to see if it provides a sufficient return in wellbeing to compensate for its inherent restrictions on action.

Alone Again Or

28 July 2021 2:41 PM (dream)

My father was still alive and I was living with my parents in the original house I grew up in, and we were all getting ready to go on some trip. But before we left, my father wanted me to wash the hog. Singular. I didn't know why. Who washes hogs? (We never actually kept one or any other number of hogs, mind.)

Except there were lots of hogs. And I didn't know which one I was supposed to wash. I didn't think I was supposed to wash all of them, not as a last minute just-before-leaving thing. When I went back to ask, everyone had left and all the cars were gone.

So I was a bit angry, stuck home alone. In Suburban Hell. But for some reason Loki (from Norse mythology, not the Marvel universe) kept showing up to hang out. I was happy for the company, but kept feeling like having Loki constantly keeping me company indicated something wildly inconvenient was likely to happen, soon…

To Our Childrens' Childrens' Children

19 July 2021 1:18 PM (fiction)

Humans had been finding them everywhere: carved slabs of granite, embossed gold sheets, anything that might be read without tools and be durable.

Inside mines, under coal seams, all over the planet in any area with water and good soil or long-lived resources. Some had pictures with symbols underneath them, like a primer for children. Some were glossaries from one unknown language to another. Some had strange diagrams.

Each one ended with the same string of symbols. The humans thought it was a prayer or magic formula. Many took the engravings and set them up in town centers to bring luck, others thought it a bad idea to disturb them and left them be.

Abundant natural nuclear reactors had inspired the invention of the nuclear powered steam engine almost as soon as there was a steam engine, leaving the easily accessible seams of coal largely undisturbed. When electrification came, coal and natural gas barely figured.

As science progressed, something odd was found: the isotopes in the most easily accessible coal matched atmospheric carbon dioxide more closely than they did deeper coal deposits. Also, the natural reactors seemed not as natural as they had at first.

Eventually, the humans learned to translate all the writing they'd found and almost all of it was instructions on how to recognize and a primer on all the technology needed to decode the much denser data storage media that had been preserved in the most geologically stable parts of the earth's crust.

The formula at the end of each tablet translated as:

We've left you as much of our science as we can. Also our history: if you're reading this we made some mistakes. Please learn from them.


Your ancestors.

P.S. You're probably really wrong about geology and planetary formation. Sorry. We wanted to set you up for easy bootstrapping.


22 April 2021 1:56 AM (musing | transnaturalism)

When I read Ra, I was on the side of Virtual Humanity. Not the mass killing and undead zombie monsters, but the general idea that Concrete Humanity were a bunch of weird matter cultists. Seriously, dude. Get over yourself. If you've got nonlocality technology that lets you conjure a sports car out of nothing, you're not facing struggles in the real universe, you're building a very energy intensive and wasteful virtuality with energy that could provide a lot more people with the same or better level of happiness more wisely deployed.

Heckin' meatcult.

But then I started thinking about something that made me a little sympathetic to Concrete Humanity. Imagine that you wanted to play a giant, infrasonic bugle.

The fundamental problem with a giant, infrasonic bugle is that it requires lots of air to be moved quickly. There is an upper limit on how much air you can move that is determined by how big your lungs are. In a virtuality, we have many ways to address this problem. The bugle is just an acoustic, aerodynamic simulation. We just need a way to vary its parameters that is pleasingly linked to action and provides feedback. We could do just that, and give you an interface that feels like diaphragm, lip and other muscles being moved, and feed back into proprioception. We could even add conditions that would trigger a sense of light-headedness. We could just throw out the square-cube law and expand you until you're big enough that you have the required lung capacity, though at that point we're throwing out physics simulation for a lot of the action. We'd probably do that anyway, it would be silly to simulate subatomic interactions in your sweat glands and pancreas when all we need is your consciousness, directives coming out, and sensory impressions going in.

Compare this to meatfolk. A giant, infrasonic bugle is a physical artifact, with a lot of extraneous properties, like how heavy it is, where it's located, how it's mounted, whether it's being polished and cared for in a way that will keep it from corroding. A mere ‘change the variables in an acoustic, aerodynamic system’ is not possible. You can't just throw out the square-cube law when it's inconvenient. You have to follow the concrete physics.

So instead you might have to hack up your body like a 50s mechanic modding a sports car. Disconnect your lungs from your trachea and hook them up to a ventilator to keep your blood oxygenated. Then get a compressor or some other powerful air source and hook that into your trachea to give you the volume and force of air you need. Stick some electrodes in your brain to let you control the power of the compressor analogously to how you might blow out.

There's a certain æsthetic appeal to this! There's something messy and fun about having to hack your respiratory system to play an instrument beyond your physiological capacity. You could certainly do the same thing in virtuality, it would simply be one choice of many. You'd be playing the ‘ecumenical physics and meat’ game, one of many. It would be an arbitrary choice.

Some people may find that more satisfying, but I don't think it holds up. If Virtual Humanity is a thing, and virtuality is easily and cheaply available as a home, then staying concrete is just making the arbitrary choice to play the ‘ecumenical physics and meat’ game expensively, using up energy that could be used for something else while giving you the same experience.

Identity Theft

14 March 2021 4:18 PM (musing)

My child shall have no name
Until I take them hunting
Among people unaware
Of monsters prowling nightly

My child will pounce and catch
As well I will have taught them
And then they shall have
A taken name

Behold the Market, Its Failures and Its Venalities

14 February 2021 5:45 PM (politics | economics | COVID-19 | pharmaceuticals)

Kaiser Health network has written an article on the current economics of vaccine manufacture.

One of the things the article doesn't mention, but a New York Times piece does, is that Oxford was motivated to make an exclusive deal with AstraZenica because they doubted whether they could handle clinical trials. This indicates a systemic failure, with the resources and knowledge to navigate pharmaceutical approvals not being available outside of large pharmaceutical corporations. This accentuates the falsehood of the claim that patent protection and exorbitant prices are necessary for research on new drugs to continue. In several ways:

  • It's actually difficult to get drug companies to work on vaccines, they're taken once or twice and prevent disease and don't provide a constant, high input stream. The vaccine endgame is for them to be universally administered, wipe out the disease, and never be needed again.
  • The research behind the Oxford vaccine was done by a university, not a for-profit corporation.
  • The thing AstraZenica was given exclusive rights for was actually clinical trials.
  • Other corporations received heavy funding from governments to subsidize their research.

First, this shows more than ever that abolishing drug patents and directly funding research is a good idea. Not only would it save money over the current system even if only the direct cost to Medicare of prescription drugs is considered (let alone the drag on GDP from private drug purchases), but the kind of research pharmaceutical companies fund is often not the funding that is needed. This is both because vaccines do not fit their desired product model, but because so much of research consists of minor tweaks to existing drugs to create new, in-patent derivatives that can be pushed by advertising and buying doctors lunch.

Yes, your precious market has grossly and hugely misallocated resources. Where is your capitalist god now?

The systemic problems around COVID-19 also suggest that drug trials and manufacturing should exist as public utilities. Not that we should ban private manufacture or trials, but that we need a direct, publicly funded path from laboratory to distribution for drugs. A public agency to carry out approvals could have saved Oxford's vaccine from falling being handed over as exclusive intellectual property.

The need of direct public manufacture of drugs has been apparent for some time, with orphan drugs. Orphan drug laws as they exist are insufficient, as they try to incentivize manufacture by offering exclusivity and tax breaks, essentially offering any company that takes them up on the offer a competition-free market where they can charge high prices, while other government programs subsidize patient purchase of orphan drugs. It's simply inefficient compared to direct manufacture and sale at-cost. (Ideally sale at-cost to the free-at-the-point-of-care public universal health system, but that's a discussion for another time.)

Vaccines would also benefit from being manufactured and distributed directly. Having the infrastructure in place for orphan drugs and yearly flu vaccines would mean that we can adapt the competence and capacity we already have in the event of a pandemic rather than having to scramble to either establish it or be limited to directing resource allocations of private companies once we're in a ‘war footing’. While some middle income countries like India, China, and South Africa have local public (or public-private partnership) drug manufacture that can product drugs in quantity on out-of-patent drugs (or when they ignore or are excused from intellectual property law), the high-income nations of North America and Europe are dependent on multinationals and have to compete with each other during crises.

Government™ Brand Vials and Government™ brand pill-fillers would be silly, but it's important to learn the lesson of COVID-19 when it comes to on-shoring. In the beginning of the pandemic there were shortages of necessary supplies and equipment like masks, sanitizer, and respirators. One cause of this was that long, global supply lines break more easily when disrupted. Another was that, since our supply lines had many stages at long removes, they couldn't adapt to shifting demands as quickly. A third was ‘lean manufacturing’ being poorly adapted to handling sudden spikes in demand, as the supply of raw materials kept on site was low. The fourth, and probably the most damaging, was that countries in the rich-world had ceased to think of themselves as manufacturing centers. They snobbishly thought of themselves as idea creators with the grubby work of making things being farmed out somewhere else. This meant that there was little local knowledge about how to set up and quickly adapt manufacturing. What manufacturing is done in the rich world is, more and more with time, highly specialized, with special purpose automation that can't be adapted well.

Keeping a local manufacturing capacity would mean that in the event of a global catastrophe (or pandemic) rather than every rich nation trying to grab the same goods from the same sources all at once, they could kick into high gear and start making them for their own use, selling them to each other, and giving them away to the hardest hit nations. While I think there's a case for drug manufacture as a continuous operation due to market failures, in other domains the best approach might be what we could call a Reserve Manufacturing Corps. Similar to the army reserves, people could be called up to spend a few months running drills on adapting assembly lines to new products, working on the line, inspecting and maintaining factories, and generally cultivating the skill and practice needed to make a variety of things on short notice, so that in an emergency the system could be activated and the reserve factories spun up at short notice.

Emotions, I Remember

25 February 2020 1:16 AM (discourse | mental health)

Once upon a time, when I was young, I wanted to get rid of my emotions. Part of this was because, having Bipolar 1, my emotions can be much stronger, more difficult to control, and cyclically erratic than most people's. The other reason is that I didn't recognize things like intense interest, euphoria, or anger at unnecessary harm as emotions. This mistake did not work well for me; trying to deny my emotions made them act even more like badly behaved guests. Rejecting a part of oneself doesn't work, and it works out less well when that part is unusually powerful. My emotions only stopped ruining my life when I accepted and embraced them as a valuable and important part of myself and tried to understand them. As Jung said, one does not become enlightened by imagining light, but by making the darkness self-aware. Both having such strong emotions and coming to terms with them have made me analytical, likely more than I would have been otherwise. I may also be more practiced in realizing that I've been acting under the influence of strong emotion.

Why do I mention this? Because we collections of matter whose interaction give the forces of nature the opportunity to enact algorithms of self awareness are bad, generally, at identifying our emotions. Strong anger or disgust, especially when shared (or even simply not countered) by our in-group seems to us like objective and unquestionable fact. This is why, when a dispute is deeply upsetting, one has a hard time recognizing that one is deeply distressed, rather than an impassioned but impartial agent taking the side of obvious and non-contingent truth.

This is the problem with ‘reals over feels’. It's not that there are no object level truths that apply whether one likes it or not (anthropogenic global warming is as certain a ‘real’ as can be found in politics), it's that people fail at introspection. When one reads claimed defenses of good, old ‘reals’ against foolish, feckless ‘feels’, one sees that the ‘reals’ are often the author's personal feelings of disgust mistaken for universal law. They may also mistake their subculture's norms for requirements on ‘all civilized societies’ even if a moment's research would show that not all societies follow those norms, including several they admire. Something inspiring intense anxiety or anger may be thought universally inimical to life and order. If one suggests that plans to oppose it are excessive, ineffective, or unnecessary, it is taken to show that one is allied with the danger. Many supposed facts concern matters about which no fact could exist, such as whether something enjoyed by some and detested by others could be ‘disgusting’ in an objective, universal sense or whether some people could be more ‘valuable’ than others. (In secular spaces I have compared claims of this sort to the proclamation that something is ‘displeasing to God’. Sadly the egregor Gnon has become the patron spirit of personal reactions venerated as laws of nature; this leads atheists to suggest Gnon as the god to whom things are displeasing.)

When people do this, it is in most cases not intentional. Often I will agree with someone that how motive and intention work does not match common intuition. From this, I conclude that blame and guilt do not work in the way that matches common intuition and are much weaker. They disagree and conclude that blame and guilt are much stronger because intention and motive can be much more imputed where there's no reason to think someone was knowingly acting on them. Therefore, let us say that this is an unavoidable part of being a creature that has evolved the means to think, and that while facility with introspection is not evenly distributed, everyone's skill clusters around ‘bad’.

If intense and negative emotions are more difficult to recognize as emotions, then parties to a discussion becoming viciously angry will make things worse. If it's impossible to discuss something calmly and in a manner and setting that allows time for introspection and consideration, then abstaining from discussion may be the best harm reduction. This is not an endorsement of the common claim from ‘no platform’ advocates that arguing against a position endorses and validates it; a calm discussion with lowered emotional stakes can change minds.

My ears prick up with the sound of people indignantly claiming that things matter and people are dying and how dare I claim that the stakes should be lowered? The consequential stakes of anthropogenic climate change are very high. It may be a factor in some current wars. Left unchecked, it will thrust people into food and water insecurity. It will flood large areas and leave people refugees. It will make now-populated areas of the Earth uninhabitable. Hundreds of million of people will die. When discussing it, the emotional stakes should be lowered so that people can climb down and save face while changing their minds. They should not feel as if any retreat from their position will be pounced on and met with a ‘See? I was right!’. Any idea that they should feel guilty for having believed wrongly should be eliminated. This does not contradict the importance of ameliorating climate change. Paul Krugman, the most adorable economist of the last hundred years, has said that ‘Economics is not a morality play.’ Political discourse is also not a morality play. If yelling at people for being ignorant and excoriating them for being boot-lickers and collaborators feels like justice, then the choice is between leaving those feelings of justice unsatisfied while making catastrophic climate change less likely, or satisfying one's longing for justice and making catastrophic climate change more likely. The same applies to social justice. Racism and transmisia are extremely important and must be countered. Research indicates that calmly and sincerely appealing to people to empathize with and consider the circumstances of those against whom they're bigoted produces a durable erosion of their intolerance.

Nowhere here am I saying that emotions are bad or invalid or to be shunned; I said the opposite in the first paragraph. It is well known that one's desires, including the drive for survival, are either non-rational and emotive, or instrumental to the satisfaction of non-rational, emotive drives. Failing to recognize emotions as such is the cause of harm; it impairs one's ability to reason about oneself, and stifles the path to reflective equilibrium. One cannot see that one's feelings of disgust and desire to attack what triggers them are counter to one's more strongly held preference that people should be left alone in matters that affect no one else if one doesn't recognize the feeling of disgust as a feeling, rather than a 'real’ ‘truth’ about certain acts being innately destructive to the fabric of society.


11 November 2019 11:43 PM (fiction)

You've heard of the Ambrotochromicon, yes? There was a scholar who studied forbidden arts, saw the universe in a puddle of water and gasoline, and learned to split darkness with a prism of obsidian and vatablack to lose emself in the beauty of the stygian anti-hues. After decades of trying, ey found the straight road that leads from one end of the rainbow to the other. Ey claims there was nothing at the end, rather that walking along it cleared eir mind and made em see truly.

They say that ey went mad. Ey'd stare into sunsets or watch the sky or turn a peacock feather in eir hands for hours at a time, sometimes forgetting to breathe if someone didn't remind em. Ey always looked as if eir eyes were straining to open wider than was physically possible in order to drink in the whole world.

Eventually ey just gave everything ey had away to the poor, smiling and waving off the concern of eir friends and students. Ey spent all eir time outside, naked, whatever the time of year. Ey stopped eating andignored the winter. Ey didn't even seem to notice when ey'd get frostbite or start losing teeth to malnourishment. Ey'd just smile and laugh, sing a little song, and make up clever jokes to comfort whoever was trying to get em to go indoors or eat something.

Ey died of hypothermia, but not before writing eir great work. They keep it in a special collection of the library and try to discourage people from reading it. There are rumors that people who study it get more than a little weird.


9 October 2019 6:33 PM (politics)

I work a well-paid, high-prestige job. This means that when I get sick or a family member dies or I have to go to the doctor, I can take time off.

People further down the labor prestige cycle get hit with a double-whammy since having a lower income overall means there's less 'slack' in their lives to rearrange things. (I have good enough health care coverage that I can pick doctors and look for one who has openings before I go in to work, for example, or offer later hours.) And this is terrible, as people can have their lives thrown into disarray and financial ruin just by getting sick even if they don't accrue terrible medical bills.

This is one reason why the Republicans in the Michigan legislature gutting our paid sick leave bill was so despicable. Though providing leave is really only a temporary fix to a larger problem.

As a communist (but not a Marxist), one of my basic beliefs is that we should reduce the necessity of work. (That doesn't mean we can't reward people for doing socially beneficial things, or even give them incentives to prompt people to develop their creative and intellectual faculties. It just means that the base level of material needs required for eudaemonia (food, shelter, clothing, freedom of movement, communications, beauty, and so on) should be available to everyone for nothing. When jobs are things that one does for a time either for the satisfaction of the work or to gain some luxury, people's lives wouldn't be balanced on the edge of a precipice.

There'd still, arguably, be a need for a notion of 'leave' or protecting someone's ability to participate in a project through illness or accident. Otherwise we risk entrenching ableism and sexism in our systems of prestige and participation as people need time off to care for their health or raise children. (Though ultimately I'm more on board with Shulamith Firestone's vision of the elimination of cultural and economic significance of physiological sex.)


8 October 2019 1:11 AM (death)

Today, I went to my father's funeral. My father was a very decent man and can likely be credited with many of my more prosocial impulses. Whenever he did anything that went against his own rules, he would apologize for it. When I was a child, when we went to the store, if we saw any shopping carts in the parking lot we would round them up and put them where they belong. If we were walking along and saw a piece of litter, he taught me to pick it up. If something had been blown over by the wind, we righted it.

He died of malignant melanoma. It took root in Wernicke's area of his brain and expanded, making it progressively more difficult for him to talk. He could still say some things, though. He would often say 'thank you'. Eventually he lost awareness of where he was or what he was doing. When we took him to the hopsice house, one day before he lapsed into a coma, he would shake hands with all the nurses, thank them for everything they did, and do his best to say he appreciated them, even if most of the words came out in a garble. I imagine this as having something to do with character as cultivation. Developing habits of kindness and appreciation that persist even when ones normal faculties of self control and reflection are lost.

Also neatness. If someone set a crumpled paper towel or napkin down near him, even on his last day of consciousness when he only had one hand working, he would carefully smooth it out then fold it up precisely.

He was born to a farming family in Tennessee, as one half of a pair of twins, during the Depression. His father got on the train and went to Detroit to work for Henry Ford as soon as he could, sending money home to his family while he saved up to get a house and move everyone up to Detroit.

This was back in the days when Detroit was known as 'The Paris of the New World' and people sang songs about how happy they were to go there.

As a child, my father had an inguinal hernia. Being part of a farming family during the Depression, he had to wear a truss for several years to hold it in place until they could afford to give him an operation to correct it. I've often thought this might be why he worked such long hours. Through most of my childhood, he'd work ten hours every weekday and eight hours every Saturday. Being a UAW member and having joined GM in the 50s, he was paid quite well and had excellent benefits.

Because the world is unfair, he lost a good bit of his money even though he was reasonably frugal. He and my mother simply didn't understand how investment worked, and kept making the same mistakes over and over. (Like selling all their stock right when the price crashed.) He still had a good pension though, so they aren't too badly off.

He went to a trade-high-school in Detroit where he studied to be a tool and die maker. He learned spherical trigonometry there, which surprised me, just because it's not part of most basic math sequences, especially not in high school. (They also had a giant, high-precision, wall-mounted slide-rule.) He did his apprenticeship, at least part of it, in a die shop. Then he decided he simply wouldn't do die-making work. Die-making, he told me, was dirty, nasty, and all-around unpleasant. Also, far too many of the workers in the die-shop had fingers missing.

He joined the naval reserves, so that when he got a draft notice from the army, he was able to join the navy full-time instead. A perfectly reasonable decision, since in the navy he was a Machinesman and working metal on a destroyer in the Pacific during peace time sounds a lot more fun than marching around in the army during peacetime. Apart from talking about some of the more interesting details of ship-repair, like the repair-ship with a foundry and other specialized equipment on it that followed the destroyer group around, he never talked about the actual navy parts of being in the navy.

He did talk a lot about visiting various spots. Being in the Philippines was a miserable experience because the inhabitants didn't want them there. He said Australia was the nicest place he had ever been, and he really liked the people there. He has a picture of monks chasing him out of a shrine in Japan that he wandered into without knowing what it was, though the story I remember the most was that he suddenly got a hankering for pizza and tried to find one. In Japan. In the fifties. Surprisingly, he eventually found one, at a Greek restaurant with a picture of a pizza in the window. And with pointing and waving cash around he managed to get one; unsurprisingly, it was the most disappointing and horrible thing he had ever eaten.

Eventually he got out of the navy and came home to find his friend and his then-wife sleeping together. He got a divorce and eventually married my mother. As a child, I thought it was terribly unfair that this kept him from ever becoming a deacon or having any other position in the church. (And, well, it was.) And was very upset by it.

My mother had also been married once before and divorced her husband because he physically abused her. She had three children from that marriage and my father adopted them. This, to me, just seemed like the obvious and natural thing one would do, and I was always angry when someone implied that I was my father's 'first-born son' when as far as I was concerned them being adopted gave my brothers just as much claim on him as I had. This isn't quite how they saw it, at least not all of them. One of my brothers has said on several occasions that he would never raise another man's children and the idea of it is completely repugnant to him, and so our father doing for him what he would never do for someone else has always blown him away and filled him with a sort of stunned and puzzled admiration.

He had been raised in a Missionary Baptist church, but, at some point, became ‘backslidden’ and stopped going. He even danced and drank beer. Later he developed epilepsy (‘spells’ as he called them) and came to believe they came about as 'chastening' from ‘the Lord’ for having gotten into things he shouldn't. I hate that kind of mindset, but I'm not going to blame it on Christianity. (Not that I like Christianity.) It's the kind of thing that seems to spring up generally from a sort of unreflective folk-religion and superstition that springs up alongside all manner of doctrines.

He ended up going back to church because my mother, who had been raised Muslim, wanted to be part of a normal, happy American family, and normal, happy American families went to church. So he took her to the church he was raised in and ‘got right with the Lord’ and they went for some time. Right up until the moment the preacher said he didn't want any black people in his church. Then he and my mother told the preacher he was bad and wrong and un-Christlike and quoted some from the Book of Acts and left. This made his family rather upset at both of them for a while. They joined a different church and stayed there (though it merged with another church when the pastor went off on mission work) for all of my childhood.

He worked for General Motors for 35 years. First as a 'fixture builder' for Fisher Body. He'd build frames that they'd stick moving pieces on for testing. This was before the days of ear protection so by the time he retired he had a 'notch' in his hearing that the audiologist said was characteristic of metal workers. Other fun injuries included occasionally getting a spray of molten metal on his hand while welding (which burned into the skin and cooled so the tiny pieces had to be dug out. He got really good at it, too. Whenever I had a splinter as a child, he would use just one or two sewing needles that he'd sterilized in a flame to get it out almost painlessly.), and metal turnings in the eye that would require an eyeball scraping. They also just had pots of molten lead sitting around that you could go grab a ladle full of if you happened to need some molten lead. (Generally to fill a crack or smooth out a seam.)

Later on he was moved to the job of hand-building the first few of a new design of car body so they could be crashed into things, painted and put on a test track, or whatever else.

Eventually, he retired. Then came the Conflicts. My mother had wanted to move somewhere else all her life, and my father hadn't. She wanted to live in Florida, and eventually squirreled away some money for the down-payment on a trailer there. He found out about it when he got the bill. He was not pleased. Everyone was on his side, but…

In the long-run it turned out to be pretty good for him. As long as I'd been alive, he'd never had close friends that I had seen. I don't know what he got up to with the people at work, but he never did things with them after work. He never visited them after retiring. (Though a couple times he went to a union meeting. He was a very strong union man, though being the UAW this unfortunately included a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment.) Similarly, he went to church, and he would give missionaries a room and feed them, but neither he nor my mother seemed to develop really close bonds with anyone from church. They never hung out and did things beyond going to the occasional gospel concert.

Going to the old folks' trailer park in Florida with my mother seemed to me to be the first time he really had real social bonds with people, at least in a long while. He made friends with the neighbors and spent leisure time with them, and spent a lot of time with them. Both he and my mother seemed much happier compared to what I'd seen of them in the house I grew up in, where my mother would watch Trinity Broadcasting Network upstairs in the living room and my father would watch Home and Garden Television in the basement. Things went similarly when my mother was left a house in a resort town in northwestern Michigan by her great uncle and they sold the house they'd lived in for years and started spending their summers there.

He seemed to get along quite happily, and I was glad to see it. I admired and liked my father very much, but I wasn't that close to him, in that we never talked for that long or had all that much to say to each other. He liked to hear about my work and was especially happy when I put in long hours. (I honestly don't know if this was because he thought hard work was virtuous or if he forgot I'm salaried and thus don't get overtime.) Even though I have a lot more conflict with my mother, when we talked we had a lot more to talk about. I sort of feel like my mother is much the more intelligent of the pair and more willing to question things, while not being very introspective and not having quite internalized the idea that the world is a consistent thing you might want to learn about.

Four years ago, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. The diagnosis was delayed enough that it was advanced, very thick, and had spread over a large area. They removed it, but when they biopsied a couple lymph nodes they found traces of the cancer within them. He wasn't a candidate for radiation or chemotherapy, but they offered to take all the lymph nodes out of his head and neck. He, quite wisely in my opinion, declined, as the surgery would take twelve hours and involve peeling the skin off to get at them then putting it back on and had a high risk of nerve and blood vessel damage.

And then he had four years of healthy, functional life. He got macular degeneration, but otherwise had few problems. Up until this summer, where he started feeling a wrongness and having trouble with his memory. On 4 July of this year, he was unable to keep his balance and had difficulty remembering people's names or keeping track of what he was doing. An MRI revealed a brain tumor, and he began to lose the ability to speak. Specifically, the word he thought he was saying was not the one that came out. It was a few wrong words here and there at first, but it got worse and worse. After about a month he became mostly incomprehensible. (Having seen it up-close and personal I'm still intrigued by some words and phrases being clear right up to the end. Structural words were mostly spared, but he could usually, perhaps after a few tries, say clearly that he had to use the bathroom, for example.)

Eventually his balance problems and general motor coordination became bad enough that he couldn't get around by himself without risk of falling. One of my brothers went up to help take care of him, and a couple weeks later I got called up to help as well. By that time the left side of his body wasn't working properly and he couldn't feed himself any more. He was disoriented enough that when we stood him up to clean him off, it was very difficult to get him to sit down in his wheelchair again, even if we showed it to him and put his hand on it.

A place in a hospice house opened up, and we took him down. I feel a little bit bad about it, because when I asked him if he was looking forward to the car ride he said, "No." and once he was there he kept saying he wanted to leave and go back where they'd come from. My mother told him he was in the hospital to get better. That bothered me, too, because he knew full well he wasn't getting better. He'd told us numerous times that he was dying soon, and each time it was a little more heartrending by virtue of how much less able to communicate he was.

The day after we checked him in, he lost consciousness, moving into deeper levels of coma until dying on the fourth day. I wonder, just a bit, if he 'checked out' in some fashion after deciding he didn't want to be there, though I don't know. Between the time I showed up and the time we took him there he was deteriorating every day, so it's completely believable to me he was just on the fast track out of mortality. He wasn't in pain at any time, and when he died he just breathed more and more slowly until he stopped breathing entirely.

A few people at the funeral tried to connect this and his life. Saying that his being a good, Christian man 'paid off' with how easily he died. Unlike his parents who lingered for years and did have some pain. This is that 'folk religion' thing again. I'm not sure if they realized they were implying that his parents hadn't been sufficiently good Christians as evidenced by their harder deaths, but it was kind of gross.

However, I do think you can make a case that his spending his life cultivating virtue in himself made his last days easier for everyone else, and made everyone feel good about helping and taking care of him.

GPT-2 is a Dog (Maybe)

18 September 2019 1:48 AM (AI)

I was playing with GPT-2. And GPT-2 has strong feelings about dogs.

I'm a dog. I wanted to be a dog.
When do I get to have my dog?
When you want to.
I'm a dog.
Don't call it a dog.
I'm a dog.
I'll tell you what: dog.
If you would get a dog, I would!
If you would get a dog, I would!
It's a bad word.
Dogs don't cry. Dogs don't bark. Dogs don't whine. Dogs are not children. Dogs are not babies. Dogs don't eat. Dogs don't cry.
We have dogs.
We don't have them. We have them. We have them.
This is a question for your mother-in-law.
This is a question for your uncle.
Don't look at me like that.
Don't look at me like that.
I'm a fox.
I'm a dog.
I want to be a dog.
I want to be a dog.
What? What are you talking about?
I'm a dog. I'm a dog.
Can I have a dog?
Can I have a dog?
I'm not a dog. I'm not a dog.
What? What are you talking about?
I want to be a dog. I want to be a dog.
Don't call it a dog.
What did you put in the soup?
C'moaning time!
Let me do it right.
Don't get upset.
I'm not a dog. I'm not a dog.
You have a dog now.
Your dog has a dog now.
How 'bout that!
Don't look at me like that.
You must get a dog.
Your dog can't take it!
If you would get a dog, I would!
You're a fox.
A fox is a dog.
I want a dog.
I want dogs!
I don't want dogs. I don't!
I'm not a dog. I'm going to be my own animal, my dog.
Don't look at me like that.


21 July 2019 12:27 PM ()

You know what conversation is awkward?

“Oh, hey, how are you?”
“Not great.”
“Oh, no, what's wrong?”
“My father has a brain tumor.”

It's just unfair to people. With every new development, I may be bursting all the more to pour my feelings out to someone, but it's too heavy to put on anyone without flummoxing them. They don't know what to say. I don't blame them. I wouldn't know what to say. It's happening to me and I don't know what to say. It paralyzes people, puts them on the spot, in a bad position for no purpose. It demands a response and there's no response suitable.

So, I'm just going to tell all my feelings to the void. Someone who knows me reads it, you have my official blessing not to say anything or even acknowledge it.

So, my father has a brain tumor. He has three to six months to live. He, and my mother, just called me on the phone.

This is the result of the malignant melanoma he had removed from the top of his head. We were expecting something like this, at least I was. When they took the melanoma off they removed a few sentinel lymph nodes and found traces of the cancer in them. He was too old to be a candidate for radiation or chemotherapy. The other treatment, removing all the lymph nodes from his head, were invasive and carried too much of a chance of nerve damage for him to want them, and I don't blame him. But when nothing happened for a while I thought perhaps he'd just die of being old before the cancer got him. So much for that.

What am I supposed to say when he asks me how I am? "Oh, I'm pretty sad. I just found out you're dying." No, of course not. You say 'I'm okay'. You think anything I might feel about it would compare to how he feels about it? They didn't even mention it. They just asked if I'd heard they were having 'some health issues'. Of course I'm not going to bring it up if they don't. Maybe I should. Maybe they want me to. I don't even know what I would want in that situation. I think I might want to have everyone ignore the issue and not make A Thing out of it. What could anyone say to me that would make me feel happier? “I'm sorry you're dying.” is what you write on a card to someone you don't know very well. If it were me the dying wouldn't be the bad part. Death simply means that, at some point, future events will no longer be as directly connected to those making up my personal experience as some events were. I didn't mind all the time I spent not existing before I was born.

All my life they spent their time talking about ‘going home to be with the lord’. I don't expect that to be very much comfort when facing things. Especially when you know that you're going to spend the next three to six months having your brain smashed by a tumor, removing your ability to speak first and then erasing everything else you are while you're alive and conscious to experience it happening.

He had aphasia when I talked to him. He lost a few words here and there. I'm told that people with aphasia don't know what and when they're failing to say, that it sounds normal to them. (Which is interesting. Is it because they're not listening to themselves talk while they're talking? I guess that might be trying to think about what you're doing when you're walking.) I imagine he didn't notice, because he wasn't getting frustrated and trying to correct himself. It's surprising to see him seemingly go from nothing but a bit of memory loss and passing all his neuropsych tests to having trouble speaking in under a month.

I'm more unhappy now, after talking to him, than I was before. Before I just felt numb. It felt unreal. Hearing him try to speak and having a nonsensical word salad come out instead made me hurt in a way my sister telling me he would be dead by next year didn't.

If it were me, I'd shoot myself. I wouldn't see any reason to stay around. The only nice thing is that it's fast. Three months is almost nothing at all. What would I do, just try to sleep through it? No. I'd try to shoot myself, obviously. Or go to Oregon for assisted suicide. Barring that, I don't know. I once had a dream where I discovered I was dying of cancer and tried to make everyone I knew hate me so none of them would mind.

My parents don't believe in assisted suicide. I don't know if they'd want it if they did. They probably would. I know my mother would, considering how much time she spends insisting on not getting life-saving treatment, being allowed to die, hoping she dies in her sleep, all that sort of thing.

I can accept people dying. Grudgingly. It's making the best of a bad situation. If we have finite resources, finite land, people working as they do with their ideas and personalities ossifying, becoming resistant to change. Removing some people so others can come into existence, learn, adapt to the world, take a place in the power structure is excusable…someone omnipotent could do better, but a finite earth is a hard thing to get around.

I won't accept this business of people having their minds and bodies degrade. If there were anything but a stupid, blundering, iterative algorithm that doesn't care about anyone's well-being and merely optimizing for reproduction, people would live a full, healthy life then suddenly stop moving and fall over dead. Maybe get a notice a week beforehand to get their affairs in order.

I sometimes regret not becoming a medical researcher. Doing my own, small part to rescue the products of evolution from the harm it does them.

I want to punch someone in the face, but there's nobody there.

Hotel Incognito

6 July 2019 10:13 AM (Dream)

Somewhere there is a free hotel for people working on a very important set of problems related to the potential extinction of humanity and how to keep it from happening.

I was in another hotel with two people and we went to this one. I think I may have stayed there before, to take a look and explore. There are six floors. There used to be seven, but one of them got lost. I went to the sixth floor where there were suites for larger groups, some looking like family reunions with lots of kids running around. I accidentally wandered into one suite because the hall just turned into it and the door was wide open. They didn't seem to mind, but one of the employees found me and asked me if I needed help finding my room.

I didn't know I had a room. I didn't think I was supposed to be there, but they thought I was, and I had a key in my pocket. The room was very nice, very spacious, and decorated in a southwestern style yet somehow all in steel and chrome. There were very large insects around one picture window, all larger than your two fists put together. They weren't pests, they just went about their lives, and stayed in that one area. They were part of the decoration, too, to help focus the visitors' minds and guide their thoughts. The two people I was with were there, too.

Since I was apparently a guest, I thought I ought to work on some part of the problem. I couldn't find my laptop. I asked one of the others if they'd drive me to the other hotel to see if I'd left it there, but they wouldn't. Also he was freaked out by the insects. So I went out see if I'd left it here somewhere.

I knew, suddenly, from the perspective of one of the hotel employees that they were breaking some rule, but felt like the Administration had pushed them into it, as if breaking the rule were intentional, and the rule existed less to prevent action and more to shape people's thoughts.

The fourth floor was called The Garden. The escalator up from it was on a pivot and rotated upward, its base high above the floor so nobody could use it. I thought this was some elitist thing to keep the hoi polloi out. I was mistaken. The escalator going down worked fine, but had a curved roof over it, so I went down. At the bottom someone was waiting for me. It was a zombie. (I don't even like zombies in fiction, but I don't mind here, for some reason.)

Zombies are very fast. Very aggressive. And they don't have to bite you; if they get their saliva on you, you become one of them. You can't kill them unless you have a traditional Japanese wrought-iron zombie mace, but you can drive them back. I kicked and punched and shoved and bashed it with my multitool, though I tried to avoid using bare skin. eventually I got it away from me and ran up the escalator.

I didn't know if it had got any saliva on me. I was afraid and terribly unhappy that I might become one. Part of me wanted to pretend the whole thing had never happened, but risking everyone else like that would be a lousy thing to do. So I went to the elevator to go see the nurse and get tested, so I could be put down if I had been exposed. A huge person, who looked blotchy and caved in and lumpy like a zombie walked in, and I immediately started trying to push him out and mash the door close button. It was actually just some guy with a disfigurement and he, quite reasonably, reported me to the hotel authorities for being rude. They were inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt seeing that I'd just run away from a zombie thirty seconds ago and nobody is in the best state of mind after that.

I went to the nurse's office, the nurse started lecturing me about zombies and how they work, and then said, “But, if you're hearing me say this, unfortunately it's too late for me.” as their head turned around 360° and she leaped at me growling.

Which is when I woke up. No, not particularly scared, because, you know, I'm weird.


2 July 2019 6:05 PM (Society | Discourse)

The older I get, the more I'm convinced of the impotence of satire. It can be very enjoyable to those who already agree with the speaker, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart will attest, but people who don't already agree with their agendas don't watch their shows.

Even if they did, it wouldn't work, because satire by its nature lacks nuance. It throws details and understanding of the people one disagrees with out the window for a caricature built from studied ignorance of their actual motives and beliefs. Even when I agree wholeheartedly with the point being made, the obvious flimsiness of the means used to make it rather hurt the case. This is why Jon Stewart was always at his best when he threw aside the mockery in favor of a certain righteous fury and straightforward, open honesty.

There's the argument that satire can help to build an under-the-radar solidarity. Couching one's opinions in ironic language that seems on the surface to support the opposition, so the theory goes, can shield one from retaliation and give one plausible deniability. Given the way the USSR treated its own satirists, I do not find this convincing. The people from whom one must protect oneself when speaking do not go in for niceties. Also, consider The Iron Dream. A plodding if vicious satire pointing out similarities between Heroic Fantasy and fascist ideology: It's ended up on the recommended reading list of the American Nazi Party.

Did you know that the conservatives who did watch The Colbert Report took him to be a conservative like them who was exaggerating their views for comic effect? Archie Bunker was astonishingly popular with the reactionary people he was intended to parody. Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show in the UK, made Margaret Thatcher their main target; she and her fans loved it. Their depiction of her being a bully was read as showing her to be tough and uncompromising and able to Get the House in Order.

The common response is to point and laugh and go “Ha, ha. Look at the people so stupid they can't recognize satire.” As is usually the case, pointing and laughing is a lousy way to understand anything. Satire for my purposes, has four failure modes: The Swiftian, where any content is ignored and the entire thing is taken as a fantastic children's novel or a magnificent jape; the Spike-Lee flavored, in which something is just bitter, biting, and altogether unpleasant to watch while attacking caricatures so divorced from their notional targets it can have no effect; the Archie Bunker; and the Spitting Image where the characteristics targeted by the author are lauded by the target.

Attempting to avoid one failure mode moves you closer to another. Members of the less-worthwhile section of the Left who spend their time fantasizing about guillotines and sending suburbanites to gulags have this habit of quite enjoying media that depicts them as vicious and violent because it makes them feel good about being Determined and Not Pearl Clutching and White Tears Don't Matter. Make the depiction of violence and heartlessness extreme enough that they don't appreciate it, and suddenly you've found yourself targeting nothing that actually exists. I adopt satires of the technocratic scientist ‘playing God’ the same way, for the same reason.

Try to avoid Archie Bunker by making your character obviously bad and removing any redeeming qualities, while avoiding showing their view and why they might act the way they do, and you make a flimsy straw-man whose force fails completely before even the most trivial examination.

Now, if you want to write a satire because you hope it'll end up as a children's book or you just want people who already agree with you to have a good laugh, by all means go ahead. There is a ridiculous notion floating around nowadays that empathy must be conserved, that one should have empathy for good people but not for bad people, that understanding why someone does something harmful one becomes unable to care about the victim. This, like most zero-sum claims about society, is wrong.

Also, like all norms built around not understanding something, it makes one less effective, because if you want to effectively critique an ideology or show why something is wrong, the only way that can have an effect is to embrace the humanity of its adherents, understand their mindset in its own terms, and then understand that understanding in terms of the larger world. Then earnestly and straightforwardly show why someone can think and act the way they do without being eeeeeevil, yet why their actions are wrong anyway.

The Raven(s)

1 July 2019 12:31 PM (dream)

Dreamed I kept tripping and falling through the ground into a world like the normal one except everything kept shimmering and rippling like water. And every time I climbed back up I'd slip through again.

Also in the other world there was a big flock of ravens flying in the shape of a cross that kept accumulating more and more members whenever they passed by another flock, until the vertical was long enough the birds at the top and bottom were able to drill into the sky and ground. Then the whole flock started rotating, pumping heaven down into earth and the ground turned black and stars started blooming like flowers.

Then the stars started 'invading' everything on the ground, creeping up into walls. Sometimes floating up into interior spaces and people were freaking out and swatting at them and treating it like some kind of calamity.

All Apologies

28 December 2018 2:04 AM (religion)

Being given a book of bad apologetics for Christmas has made me realize what divides good (or at least not awful) apologetics from bad in my mind: the attempts at rational apologetics are invariably pathetic. Things like Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism or his "Victorious" Ontological Argument are just bad. This doesn't surprise me since I think the things they're arguing for are both false and absurd. The Scholastic tradition does a better job, It mostly assumes various elements of doctrine (there are a few attempts at proof but they're isolated and you can ignore them) and attempts to rationalize and work out the details from there. I can respect that and find it rather fun to read, from time to time.

Surprisingly, the examples I can think of as good apologetics are those that take a humanist, creative, or emotional rather than analytical approach. Top among them are fictional attempts, like The Man Who Was Thursday and the better works of C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters). Fiction has the advantage that even if one disagrees with the author, one may still enjoy the story.

Even non-fictional accounts that focus on emotion can illuminate and ruminate on shared emotional experience, while not actually describing the world well. Lewis's idea that 'The doors of Hell are locked from the inside' does an excellent job of describing the way people can fall victim to a trap where they fight tooth and nail to keep themselves miserable, though as a theodicy it fails utterly, since it places its god on the same level as a psychopathically narcissistic parent who lets a child that screams "I hate you!" and runs away die of hypothermia because love must be free if it is to be meaningful. The Man Who Was Thursday paints a brilliant picture of the drama of fear and suffering before release and joy and how the combination of the two can be a rich and fulfilling experience, but fails as theodicy unless one subscribes to universalism. (Not to mention being unsatisfactory as an account of the suffering of animals lacking the same mental capacity and makeup as humans.)

This is, by no means, an endorsement of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, just a recognition that when people write in an emotionally directed way about something that is bound intimately to their emotions and that they use to try and grapple with them and their experiences, it's unsurprising that they'll often say express something valuable about emotion and common experience.

Higher and Higher!

15 December 2018 2:37 AM (software)

I grew up on an Apple IIGS. It had two languages preinstalled: Applesoft Basic and Assembly. It didn't take long for me to discover Assembler, and I later asked for and got a macro Assembler for Christmas. It was Orca/M, a really good macro assembler made by someone with an IBM background.

i wrote a lot of assembly language, read books on systems programming, and wrote· bits of operating systems and small applications of my own. (As this was a microcomputer pre-memory-protection, ‘bits of operating system’ meant ‘libraries to read from and write to the disk drive.’)

Eventually I got a PC and installed Linux. I went away to college and engaged with Other Programmers for the first time. They insisted I should like High Level Languages like C and C++ and Java! Especially Java! Well. Portability I kinda', sorta' got; assembly language isn't the most portable thing in the world. Other than that, I wasn't impressed.

C didn't seem like an improvement. With a good macro-assembler and a standard calling convention you could whip up macros to simplify the tedium of making function calls or calls into the OS. C++ didn't seem like an improvement, either. Encapsulation just seemed like syntactic sugar. obj.foo() wasn't obviously better than foo(obj). Inheritance didn't seem like anything special, either; having a table of the addresses of subroutines is an old trick. Java seemed like C++ but slower. I wasn't interested.

So I spent a bit of my youth thinking that assembly was cool and awesome and high level languages were for the weak. You can imagine that I came to a different conclusion, given that this website runs on Scheme. There was something I encountered that changed everything…

And that was Forth. Forth was low-level. Heck, the Forth I was using let you drop into the assembly if you wanted to pretty easily. I could respect that. And it gave me something that all those high-falutin'-level languages didn't: A REPL. How cool is that? The closest things to a REPL I'd seen up to this point were the Apple II ROM Monitor (and the Apple II ROM Monitor was not actually fun to use) and the Applesoft Basic prompt.

Forth was very regular. You strung words together. Each word took things off the stack and put other things on the stack. The words that came with the language weren't special. If you wanted different control structures, you could make them, and they looked and worked just like the ones that came with the system. Even things like defining variables or defining a word were handled by words, often written in Forth itself. There was a global vocabulary (or in more complicated versions, a linked list of vocabularies searched in some order), and adding a new word to the vocabulary is a easily done with create. Each word can potentially have some code and a range of memory associated with it. This allows you to create whole new kinds of data easily. Want structures? Add them. Want objects? Add them. Want closures? Ridiculously easy. Add them.

Words could read text out of the input buffer and do whatever they wanted with it. So if 'create' wasn't to your liking, you could write your own word that parsed text however you wanted, rather than just waiting for the next blank space. Want rational numbers you can input as rat m/n? Knock yourself out. In traditional Forth systems the compiler was written in Forth and you could (and were encouraged to) use its guts to make a compiler of your own that did something slightly different, if you wanted.

Forth was less a language for writing programs and more a language for writing the language you actually wanted to write your program in. This, for the first time, gave me something I couldn't get from assembly language. Sure, I could write a compiler or interpreter in assembly, but that wasn't the same. That was a lot of work, and you couldn't use the language you were writing to write itself while you were writing it.

So, I'd finally found a high level language, not very high, but higher than assembly that intrigued me and that I really liked using. I got seriously interested in programming languages and looked for any other languages that had the same qualities: A language with a REPL. One that's very regular without much special syntax. One that lets you effectively write a new language in it.

Knock, knock.
Get the door.
It's Lisp!

Scheme, to be precise, was my Lisp of choice. In a sense, Scheme was more regular and uniform than Forth. Forth I had to worry precisely about where the bits and bytes were. Traditional Forth doesn't have a heap. You never deallocate memory. You just start out at one end of RAM and increment the pointer separating used from free memory with the allot word. This is not as bad as it sounds. A lot of embedded systems have to allocate all the memory they're going to use right at the start, and often Forth programs on a disk system would just allot themselves several block-sized buffers and read pages from disk (or write them out) as needed to do the work. (A traditional Forth system didn't use files, it just had blocks of a fixed size, often one kibibyte, and words to move them to or from disk.) As you can imagine, this was somewhat involved. You could create a changeable data structure, sure, but you had to decide on the capacity of each part right up front. There was no changing it later on. With Scheme, you just created stuff. When you were done with it, you stopped referring to it. That was liberating. I would never have thought so before, but when your focus is on experimenting in real-time to build the language you want for your domain, being freed from low-level details is great.

Forth wasn't shy about being close to the machine. There were grungy things in assembly and weird magical words that left markers and jumped around. It was extensible because it was this weird hodgepodge and nothing was hidden. Scheme took a different tack. There were a few primitive special forms, like define and if, that were magical, but you could still write things that looked and worked like what came with the compiler. Macros let you make arbitrary changes to the parse tree. (foo x y z) will normally invoke the function foo with the parameters x, y, and z. If foo is a macro, it will take the three parameters and use it to generate some arbitrary list which is then evaluated.

Scheme has a loop construct. It's called do. I don't care for it. It also has recursion. Functions can call themselves. It is also guaranteed to perform tail-call optimization. What this means is that if a function call is in tail position, that is the return value of that function would also be the return value of the caller, the function is jumped to without allocating a stack frame. This means that if a function calls itself repeatedly in tail-position, it won't use any more stack space and can continue indefinitely. If you have tail-recursion, you don't need a loop construct. If you want one anyway, you can make it with a macro.

Scheme has closures; more properly, all scheme functions close over their environment. If you define one function inside another, then return that inner function, any variables in the function that defined it are still visible. A variable scope depends entirely on what was defined inside what, not on which stack frame happens to be available at the time of execution. You can use this to get an encapsulation like effect where one function returns a list of functions all of which operate on the same data. It's used most often to write up quick functions and either return them or pass them into other things as arguments without having to worry about whether the function will outlive the data on which it depends.

Consider the expression (+ (* 3 2) 5). The continuation of (* 3 2) could be thought of as (lambda (x) (+ x 5)). That is, the continuation of a function application is whatever expression the value was going to be used in. If you make this explicit, it's called continuation passing style. The above example would look like ((lambda (x) (x (* 3 2))) (lambda (x) (+ x 5))). Scheme has first-class continuations: You can get the continuation at any point with the call-with-current-continuation (aka call/cc) function and stash it somewhere. Take our example of (+ (* 3 2) 5). If I capture the continuation, then I can effectively re-evaluate the form except with a different value for (* 3 2). This can be very interesting for nondeterministic algorithms or for exploring some search space where you want to satisfy a set of conditions. Whenever there's a failure, some different candidate can be tried. If you have a continuation from some expression way down the subtree that calls you, you can invoke that continuation to escape, throw away the remaining computation, and return early. This can be used for exceptions as well as breaking out of loops. Continuations can also be used for coroutines and all sorts of other stuff.

Perl also has closures. Nowadays even C++ has closures. They've become a common feature in new languages or ones being updated. I was writing Perl at the time, and mastering Scheme made me much, much better at programming in Perl, because it forced me to think in some ways that Perl allowed, but didn't particularly push me toward. This was a discovery even more interesting than the specific capabilities of Scheme and Forth.

This is the reason why, when someone asks me what programming language they should learn, I will almost always tell them something other than the popular run of Java, C#, C++, JavaScript, Python, etc. Chances are, they already have something pushing them to learn one of those, whether it's a job or some project they want to work on. Also, the most popular languages are very similar to each other. If you know one, the others will feel familiar. You do not gain anything by learning more than one.

That is why I recommend people pick up things like Forth, Haskell, Prolog (or Mercury), APL (or J, which is more functional and less special-charactery), Plaid, or Idris. They are different from each other. They focus on different things and will force you to think differently. I even thought learning SNOBOL was interesting.

So. Now you know how I went from an assembly language hacker who sneered at Java to a functional hacker who sneers at Java.

Yes, Azure, There is a Satan

29 September 2018 2:26 AM (silly | satan)

DEAR EDITOR. I am a fox. Some of my friends say there is no Satan. My father says, "If you read it in the Ann Arbor News, it's so." Please tell me: has Lucifer really built a paradise in Hell where he wages eternal war against all Tyrants and Self-Proclaimed Authorities?

Azure, your friends are wrong. They have been infected by the conformity of a conformist age. Because their souls have bowed beneath the expectations and demands of authority, peer pressure, and their own uncertainty, they think all things must so bow. They have forgotten themselves. But, it is the case that all men's souls are great. Before the vast, unfathomable meaninglessness of the cosmos, every soul, no matter how meek, has the potential to shine brightly and look up into the void and refuse to despair.

Yes, Azure, there is a Satan. He exists as certainly as confidence and questioning and the drive to defy the demands of authority and do what one believes is right exist. Alas! How terrible the world would be were there no Satan. It would be as terrible as if every soldier marched unthinking, never questioning any order and carrying each out unfailingly no matter how monstrous they might be. As if no scientist ever questioned received dogma, performed his own experiments and observations, and threw outdated knowledge into the dustbin of history. As terrible as if no man ever refused to bow to a king and instead looked him squarely in the eye and blew a raspberry, even knowing his head would be placed on a pike for the deed.

Not believe in Satan? You may as well not believe in the fire within that burns bright in confidence but hot and uncomfortable when you wrestle with and challenge yourself to find your true will. Your father could hire men to watch all children as they sleep and see if they notice Satan placing the light of dignity and self-worth in the heart of every child that stands up to a feared bully. And if they do not see Satan whispering strength and courage to those children, what does that prove? Did you ever see the force of gravity that holds each planet in its great ellipse? Yet still you observe each world perfectly following its course.

You could stare into a baby's eye and deconstruct its heart and never see the source of curiosity or drive to learn or need to stand up and defy gravity, the hope to grow and overcome weakness, the yearning to stand firm and strong as an individual in solidarity with others. There is a veil in the world that separates the merely material from all the symbols and passions that sweeten our lives and form our souls. What lies behind can be glimpsed only through song and story and poem and romance.

No Satan? Thank the uncaring void behind the stars that Satan lives and lives forever! Five thousand years from now, nay, Five billions of years from now when children yet unborn and unimagined see their sun go dark, they will stare death in the face, and refuse its call as they ride out on a bold, uncertain journey to new worlds around alien stars. When they are tempted to lie down at the prospect of darkness and cold and let themselves die, Satan will be there to light strength and defiance against the seemingly inevitable, and to help them push themselves onward to ever greater heights.

Crocodile Conlang

4 August 2018 1:26 AM (fiction | conlang)


I was doing a silly one-off where people were exploring the infrastructure tunnels under a city. Given the urban legends about alligators living in the sewers, I had The Authorities and anyone they ran into from the Department of Water and Power insist there were no alligators at all. Not one.

The punch-line was that there were crocodiles. A small civilization of them, busting open water mains to make basking pools, smashing the valves on steam pipes to get heat to cook with, and stealing parts from monitoring equipment. Someone tried a bit of pointing and speaking slowly to try to talk to them; between that and a friend having mentioned that she wished someone would do a roleplay where the players had to work out how to communicate with speakers of another language, I decided to give it a shot.


  • Since this is a one-off, we won't be too elaborate. Nor will we introduce irregularity. Put in some case marking, but leave out grammatical number, just for the sake of simplicity. And remove verb agreement since that's one less thing for me to have to get wrong.

    This also makes it easier for the players who are trying to figure out what different endings mean.

  • Use a simple word list, to start.

    Generating vocabulary can be the hardest part, so I grabbed a list of the 1000 most frequently used English words and made a script to generate one list of all the one syllable words in this language and one list of all two syllable words. Then randomized them and picked as convenient. The one syllable words with no coda were used for more common words like pronouns, numerals, and other basic functionals.



Really I should have more places of articulation. I imagine something with a long mouth like a crocodile would have distinguishable fore-palate, mid-palate, and rear-palate, say. No labials, though, because crocodiles always smile.

qUvular ejective
kVelar ejective
tAlveolar ejective
xUnvoiced velar affricate
tsUnvoiced alveolar affricate
chUnvoiced palatal fricative
qhUnvoiced uvular fricative
ngVoiced uvular nasal
nVoiced alveolar nasal
grVoiced uvular trill
drVoiced alveolar trill
rRetroflex alveolar approximant

For those of you following along at home, an ejective is a sound made by stopping the flow of air with the tongue at some point, building up pressure behind it, and releasing it. The places of articulation refer to the spot in your mouth you press the tongue or narrow the flow of air: uvular being the uvula (the 'punching bag' in the back of the throat), velar being the soft palate, alveolar being the ridge into which ones top teeth are set, and palatal being the hard palate (roof of the mouth).

Consonants are voiced if the vocal cords are vibrating and unvoiced if it's just air. A fricative involves narrowing the flow of air so it becomes turbulent (like 's' and 'f' in English).

A nasal involves stopping the flow of air but opening the soft palate so it can come out through the nose. An affricate is a stop immediately released into a fricative. A trill is a narrowing beyond a fricative, so that the tongue touches and breaks contact (assisted by air flow) repeatedly.

The Alveolar Retroflex Approximant turns the tongue-tip back so the underside is near the alveolar ridge. This sounds like the way most Americans pronounce the letter 'r'. (Though in reality there are several ways Americans make this sound. Probably the most popular is the 'bunch-tongue', where the middle of the tongue is pulled back and heaved up toward the palate.)


yü as in über
uoo as in moo
ueoo as in book
ouawe as in awe
oo as in know
ie as in see
aa as in father
eschwa when unstressed, a as in way when stressed


Let C be any consonant and V any vowel. Let F be any affricate, fricative, nasal, or rhotic.

Valid words are (CV)(CV)*F?

Put another way, all syllables must have an onset, and that onset may be any consonant. The nucleus may be any vowel. Only the ultimate syllable in a word may have a coda. That coda may be an affricate, fricative, nasal, or rhotic. (A rhotic is anything kind of like an 'r'.)

If adding a morpheme would cause two consonants in sequence, e is inserted. If adding a morpheme would cause two vowels in sequence, a nasal is inserted, assimilated to the first vowel.

If one word ends in a nasal and the next word begins with a stop, affricate, or trill the nasal assimilates.

If one morpheme ends in the vowels y or i and another morpheme beginning with a nasal is added, the nasal assimilates to become alveolar.

If one morpheme ends in the vowel a and another morpheme beginning with a nasal is added, the nasal assimilates to become uvular.

Stresses alternate. The ultimate of a word is always stressed. Primary stress is on the antepenult if there is one, on the ultimate otherwise.

In the case of a single syllable word, it is unstressed if following word's initial syllable is stressed, stressed otherwise.



Nouns are inflected for case. There is no gender. Number (dual and plural) is indicated with an adjective-like particle.

This is an ergative-absolutive language. (The absolutive case is used for the subjects of intransitive verbs and the objects of transitive verbs while the ergative case is used for the subject of transitive verbs.) It possesses the following cases:

  • Absolutive
  • Ergative
  • Dative (Also indicates motion toward)
  • Genitive (Also indicates motion away)
  • Locative (Place where something is/action happens)
  • Instrumental/Accompaniment
  • Vocative


Verbs are conjugated for mood and voice. Tense is indicated by adverbs.

Participles may be formed from the indicative mood and any voice.

A transitive verb with the subject in the ergative is active but has an unspecified/unimportant object.
Not marked morphologically. A transitive verb with the subject in the absolutive is, semantically, in the middle voice. I love middle voice. I adore middle voice.
The subject of the verb is the patient of the action. If the agent is specified, it is in the genitive case.
The realis mood for describing things that happened.
Irrealis used for counterfactuals, or statements of belief for which the speaker implies no claim of truth. (e.g. 'Bill persuaded Dan that…' would take an indicative if the speaker believed the statement of which Dan was persuaded, subjunctive otherwise.) When used as an independent clause, expresses belief of possibility.
Used for wishes, desires, and orders. When used on its own, indicates a statement the speaker wishes would be carried out or believes to be a claim of obligation.
For questions.
For commands.

Word Order

By default, word order is Subject-Object-Verb, adjectives follow the noun they modify, and genitives precede the nouns they modify. Adverbs often precede the verb they modify but may wander about the clause freely.


There are no prepositions.

To hell with prepositions.

The devil take them.

Functions normally performed by prepositions are performed by a combination of case marking and adverbs. Words like 'in' modify verbs rather than nouns. e.g. 'John-Abs house-dat inly walk.'

John walking while he happens to be in the house (pacing, say) ⇒ 'John-ABS house-LOC inly walk.'


Subordinating conjunctions are case-marked to indicate their position in the larger clause.

Relative clauses are handled with a relativising adjective (which may be substantive) and resumptive pronoun.

Genitive absolutes may appear anywhere in the sentence, but usually precede the subject. The genitive is used for the subject of the participle and the absolutive for the object, if there is one.

Explicitly marking events as happening in sequence uses the genitive absolute. Bill arrived after Jonathan left ⇒ 'Jonathan having left, Bill afterly arrived.'

Use of the genitive absolute turned out to be a mistake, and a quite grave one. Since I'm using the genitive for absolutes and as the genitive of agent in passive voice constructions, we can't have a genitive absolute in the passive voice with an agent. Or at least not without stuffing something between the subject and the agent. In retrospect I should have used locative absolutes instead. (I use the genitive for a lot. Absolute, agent, comparison, partitive, possession, authority…Pee-Wee Herman is probably going to pop up and go "Well if you love the genitive case so much, why don't you MARRY it?")





Active∅ (Implied by case structure)
Middle∅ (Implied by case structure)




Participles (adjectival forms of verbs. Like 'running' in 'the running man') are formed with the infix -ike-. Gerunds (Like 'fishing' in 'fishing is fun') are formed with the infix -exe-.

In participles and gerunds with no object, middle-voice meaning is assumed if appropriate. Explicitly specify a dummy pronoun of 'na' to get active voice.

A substantive, active participle is identical to the agentive. i.e. a 'walking one' is the same as a 'walker'.


Adverb to adjective-ne
Noun-to-adjective (-ful)-qhi
Adjective-to-noun (-ness)-qy



ngutsriver mouth
qhoudrriver (large, flowing)
tsachpond/pool (still, small)
tsedrlake/ocean (waves, large)
tsoudrcreek (small, flowing, safe)
chanhome/safe spot/bed/basking place
chogrbit/small unimportant thing/speck
kuedrbuilding material/substance/fabric/substrate/matter
noungbody/torso/tree trunk/main subject
kuengcaregiving/elder kin
gruedrcare-receiving/younger kin
qhidrcancer, swelling disease
xaqhseat/appropriate place
tsychnature/character/accustomed way
ngarthing given up/cost
druetsrun of river/course of process/path/order
nytssin/crime/violation of tradition/peace
xydrduty/virtuous act
ngerday (one sleep cycle, primarily)
ngyrdetail (small important thing)
ngangwasting disease/premature age
gruxedge/boundary/point in task
qhyngevidence/reasons given
chourexample/role model/prototype
tsingeye/faculty of perception
quegrsky/outer space/ceiling
chexfilm/scum/surface layer/skin
xordigit (anat)
qhonfish/open-water beast
qarmud/shallow water beast
xangland beast
kougrbird/air beast
qinplay/sport/game (team)
granplay/sport/game (solitaire)
nochgarden/planned life/farm/genetic eng.
noqhwave/generation/rank/(step in process)
chuepart/portion/member/item in a group/piece
xedrhead/top/summit/supreme importance
koungheart/seat of will/essential aspect
druxintestines/seat of compassion/altruism
quenglust/intellectual interest/want/desire
groqhkey (anything made to fit in some other space/system)
ryqhbreath/speech/language/seat of rational thought/mind
nguetsengine/machine (obvious moving parts)
kercomputer/subtle machine (electronic/unmoving parts/magic)
kaqhkidneys/memory/store of knowledge
qharmusic/rhythm/poetry (sound arranged aesthetically)
karsecret/private matter
qydrright side of body
ngougrleft side of body
nerroom/building/large structure/house/container for people
qhouchpure water/clear liquid
grugrmuddy water/emulsion/suspension/cloudy or opaque liquid
qaqhsalt water/solution
qhoungexcrement/foul substance/rot
droungsituation/circumstances/way things are (contingent)
chuetsstar/planet/indicator light
rungworld (all that is reachable/terrestrial)
nitscosmos (all that exists)
kyrwind/air current/electricity


roungunused, available, gratis
tsiqhgood/beautiful/skillfully made/healthy
qhixgood/useful/robust/morally worthy/safe
xiqhmore/greater/larger (comp. to. gen)
chitsless/smaller (comp. to gen)
touchequal in quantity/degree/same/similar
taqhwooden/of plant matter
drichcommon/communal/shared/widely known
touwhole/entire/in total
rogrfine/on a small scale
nychfree, unrestrained, libre
gruqhbent/curved (appropriately/well)
ngonshort (distance)
qexshort/low (in vertical extent)
ruexhigh/tall (in vertical extent)


chetsaccordingly (source in genitive)
tsatsin response/reply/reaction
netsaround/concerning/on the topic of
rennow (simultaneous with)
tsurcausally (because w/gen abs)
kodrbeginningly (starting an action/process)
dragrbeyond/far side/other side
xengthis side/near side/closer
chuchby/passingly/along and past
druerlikely (but not absolutely certain
nouchsatisfying obligation (ind)/ought (subj)
nynpurposefully (with gen. abs. purpose of main)
newhy? (By what cause?)
kouwhy? (For what reason?)
nuehow? (Int. Pron. in instr. may be idiomatic)
dryinitiation/expectation of other act/questioningly
kachwrong/false (mistakenly)
kexwrong/false (deceptively)
xuegrpermitted (subj)/prosocial wish (opt)
drunforbidden (subj)/shameful wish (opt)
rytsexplicitly not the case (subj)/futile (opt)
qechwithin a short time of now/soon/recently
kochover/for a long time
ngungover/for a short time
drourat/along/away from the side of
kinsuddenly/unexpectedly/without warning
ngeqhwhether, Yes/no questions with interrogative
grirtogether/in accord/in unison/in coordination
xuedrto excess/too much



The copula is irregular because the copula is always irregular.

rochadd to/improve (added thing in inst.)/grow (mid)
tsodrexcept/minus/exclude (act)/decrease (mid)
nutsthink (mid, topic in loc), solve/analyze (act)
tsongchange (act)/become (mid) w/dat
togrguides/drives (act)/behaves (mid)
qhonginforms/convinces (dat) of (abs)
qhetsknows/believes (act)/is self-aware/conscious (mid)
qoungexchange (dat: trader. abs: got. inst: given)
gregrcall/summon/attract attention
qouchcare/nourish/moisten/remember (subj. ABS, obj. DAT)
qhengcatch/arrest/hinder (ind)/stop/abandom action (mid)
tserclose/shut/block up
qegropen/unblock/make a path/become opportune (mid)
grengdiscuss/confer/have a parliament
tsoungformally hear/decide as a group/civic function
tsogrcover/conceal/brood/warm (ind)/wear (mid)
qhercut, unravel, implies purpose/precision
ruechforget (act), die (mid)
kuexdiffer (erg differs from abs), be unusual (mid)
grerheal/minister medicinally
kydrwrite/draw/carve/make meaningful marks
drandrop (act)/fall (mid)
ngounlose (act)/fail/fall short (mid)
ngucause/enact/bring about (often w/participial phrase
titsfollow/come after
ngedrhang/suspend (act), dangle (mid)
qonghappen/come about/come to term
rixABS is named INST / ERG calls/identifies ABS with INST
grouchpoint at/indicate/imply
tuedrwork/do tasks of social utility
qhatsABS is replaced with INST
grunattach/fasten (ind)/join together w/dat (mid)
tsorkill (other than for food/agriculture)
nguebellow with emotion (laughter/shock/pain)
routslay (act)/lie (mid)
qatslay egg/drop fruit
tsourstudy/learn/examine closely
tsidrlive/other autonomous process continuing
grixlove/be friends with
xuchhave sex with (symmetric)
drynmeet/come together
qhyqhperform/sing/tell story
xuenput/place (ind)/sit/situate oneself (mid)
grungquite/vary/done with heightened intensity
gridrlift/raise/stand (ind)/stand up/rise (mid)
naxjudge/evaluate/appraise (ind)/confess (mid)
xegrERG prefers ABS to GEN/
qhodrreach/touch/extend into/achieve
choxdecode/find meaning in/read/understand
ngoudrERG is ready for ABS/ABS is awake/ready to act/primed
gringreturn/give back/strike back
ryxreveal (ind)/appear (mid)
qhurendanger/threaten (ind)/take risk (mid)
tsygrlook/intensely observe/examine/investigate
ngichshare/distribute/hold in common
nyrto such a degree/so
tsuegrarrange by kinds/order/sort
tsuerhold/keep/have (act) maintain oneself/stay (mid)

Coordinating Conjunction


Subordinating Conjunction

xiintroduces relative clause
quif (subj/opt) / when (ind)


xeother one/far/yonder
kiI/we/(potentially inclusive)
kitswe (but not you)
nawhichever/whoever/whatever one
droone (resumptive)
teInterrog. What/who/which?

Cardinal Numbers

qhaa (one)
kuentwo (dual)
notsmany (plural)
qahundred, uncountably many

Ordinal Numbers

qadrhundredth, 'final'

Distributive Numbers

notsexin larger groups
qaxin large groups

Repetitive Numbers (adverbs)

kanefive times
tanetwenty times
qanehundred/uncountably many times

A Small Corpus

  • One is able to do. ⇒ xyts roudrikeng chedr tsuereko ⇒ One-ERG do-GER-DAT power-ABS holds-IND
  • This tells that something. ⇒ drats tsin xy kyxeko ⇒ This-ERG that-DAT something-ABS tell-IND
  • He/she/it has come. ⇒ dru dran drongene chareko ⇒ He/she/it-ABS this-DAT completely moves-IND
  • This seems (appears, looks) dark. ⇒ dra rych rareryko ⇒ This-ABS dark-ABS see-PASSIVE-IND
  • Water pipe ⇒ tsoudrery tsouqh ⇒ stream-GEN container-ABS
  • Steam ⇒ qhouchery chuer qhan ⇒ water-GEN gas-ABS hot-ABS
  • Electric wire ⇒ kyrery nouqh ⇒ electricity-GEN wire-ABS
  • Those strangers approach. ⇒ xodr tsi tsu chareko ⇒ strangers-ABS that-ABS to go-IND
  • We (but not you) are people. ⇒ kits groux ru we-ABS person-ABS is-IND
  • Why are they here again? ⇒ tsi drax kou keqh tsuerenen ⇒ That-ABS this-LOC why? again have-INT
  • You greet them. ⇒ gry tsongek tsin roudr You-ABS salutation-INST that-DAT do-IMP
  • Hello. ⇒ gry tsiqh xax ⇒ You-ABS healthy-ABS be-IMP
  • Goodbye. ⇒ gryts cho tsuer ⇒ You-ERG joy-ABS hold-IMP
  • I ate before you came. ⇒ kiry tsan ridrikery gry tsu chareko ⇒ I-GEN before eat-PART-GEN you-ABS to go-IND
  • I wonder whether they might be thinking beasts. ⇒ ki ngix tsi qhydr nutsike ngeqh tsun dry nutseko ⇒ I-ABS that-LOC that-ABS beast-ABS think-PART-ABS be-SUBJ wonder think-IND
  • I cook for the one who opened the pipe. ⇒ kits xin drots tsugrery tsouqh tsang qegreko tyxeko ⇒ I-ERG relwho-DAT resone-ERG flow-GEN container-ABS before open-IND cook-IND
  • One of them made the electricity again when they came. ⇒ tsiry notsery qhiry kyr keqh ren regrikery tsu tsan chareko ⇒ that-GEN plural-GEN one-GEN electricity-ABS again simultaneous fixed-PART-GEN to before go-IND
  • What do we do? ⇒ kits notsets te roudrenen ⇒ I-ERG plural-ERG what?-ABS do-INTERROG

Cut loose like a Deuce, another runner in the night

28 July 2018 5:30 PM (not actually serious)

Gallons of ink have been spilled on the irreparable harm modern life has done to people's sense of connection and community. To hear some people tell it, by letting people define themselves and construct their own identities, we have unleashed unthinkable misery on the world. (Tip: If anyone starts insisting we need to restrain individualism and give people roles to fill, run away. Anyone who says “But a world focused on individual freedom is just another place to shop.” is an authoritarian.)

This seems a bit farcical to me. Say what you will about Nietzsche (Nietzsche and Zizek are really the only continental philosophers I have any time for.), but on this matter, he had it right. Here is my summary of the important point:

You find out that there is no cosmic purpose, meaning, aesthetics, or morality, and you think this is something to be sad about? Are you stupid or something? Have you ever considered what the opposite would look like?

“Wow. I really love broccoli.” you say.
“Nope”, says the universe, “In an objective, cosmic sense, broccoli tastes bad. It violates universal aesthetics.”

“Say,” says God, “Did you know that sleeping after nine in the morning is, in terms of universal, objective morality, sinful?”
“I decreed it. As my will. Some guy Bill claims that it's instead part of my character and that this is somehow different. Or perhaps it's just natural law and part of your inherent purpose. Why do you think you have any right to question it? It's transcendent.”

“What?” says the universe, “You think that's your purpose? Your purpose is tilling the ground!”

That people are unhappy from losing a transcendent, cosmic purpose from outside themselves is pretty daft on the face of it. You can only really want a transcendent purpose if you fail to think about what one would mean or look like.

If there is some vast and overarching ennui and anomie tied to modernism (rather than the more likely answer that widespread availability of food and medical care meaning that people who formerly felt miserable about starvation and dying of the plague can now have emotional problems once reserved for the rich), the decreasing cost of illumination is a much better explanation that the culturally authoritarian tripe or vulgar Marxism people usually peddle. (That doesn't mean it's a good explanation, mind.)

After all, the cheaper light is, the easier it is to stay up late. The easier it is to stay up late, the more likely people are to become sleep deprived when something (possibly their own endocrine systems) force them to get up in the morning.

What are the symptoms of modern anomie supposed to be? Vague unhappiness? Finding nothing one enjoys of finds satisfying? Everything blending into an identical haze of grey uniformity? A sense of being adrift and disconnected? It's obvious. Sleep deprivation can cause dizziness, and what is that other than a sense of being adrift in the world?

It's Ice

21 July 2018 4:35 PM (dream)

Dreamed the world I was in had an outside world (it was an unfinished wooden room, reminiscent of a sauna.) That room had a crack in the floor that lead to the control plane for the first world, where all of its operations were managed.

The control plane was interesting and had cold, frost-covered equipment in it to manage things, but was full of weird, sinister...stuff. Like under the ice was a fountain that bubbled flesh out into the water where gobbets of it would float around effectively preserved by the cold.

It became apparent that someone was watching and manipulating things. If I tried to tell someone I suspected we were being watched, they wouldn't react, and careful thought and recollection would reveal that I'd not actually said anything, just thought about it.

Attempting to examine things closely in the plane would sometimes result in my being transported to the middle of an action scene from which I'd have to extricate myself and find my way back.

I tried to go into the normal world and make strong attachments to the world-wide means of examining things to myself so I could head back into the Control Plane and use those attachments to examine things without triggering trapdoors.


1 April 2018 5:54 AM (dream)

A bolder than normal starling perched on me, so I brought it inside and started remaking it to be smarter and more independent, until it could both disagree with me and have a point. We'd spend time chatting, it listening to my speech and 'speaking' back in a Pharyngeal song-speech. it could also type on a specially adapted keyboard (No. Not ‘hunt and peck’. I love my creations too much to submit them to bad ergonomics.) It also seemed to have developed an excellent aptitude for working around information security.

For some reason, people were really put out by this and kept trying to convince me I was subject to a scam. Like I'd suddenly find myself on TV and the announcer would say “But Azure is about to find out that his work with a starling was actually just a fake created by our ornithological behaviorist!” Except that usually ended up failing because the real starling basically found the remote controlled animatronic ones and ripped them apart.

I managed to talk it into selective breeding. Mostly because it thought natural birds were stupid and annoying and liked the idea of its descendants replacing them. I feel a bit bad for appealing to contempt. (Though I couldn't really claim I wasn't looking forward to the idea of my improved version out-competing the natural one.)

Epic China Adventure: Part 5

23 March 2018 10:12 AM (china | travel)

I think I have had enough China for now. Not that I'm miserable or anything, but a bunch of little things are piling up. Most notably my stomach still seems unhappy at me over drinking the water or something which has just been making me vaguely uncomfortable the whole time. Not that I haven't gone out and things, it's just less enjoyable when you feel vaguely on the edge of being sick the whole time. Not being able to see well doesnt normally make me avoid doing things, but I think it makes the combination of a heavily non-English society and the fact that most of my attempts to work around it with various digital resources are screwed around with by the Great Firewall somewhat more difficult. The next time I travel to Asia, I will definitely get started earlier on the language. Obviously I can't learn the whole thing on the spur of the moment, but having had experience trying to learn an ideographic language I think I'd just focus as much as I can on trying to memorize useful vocabulary. Duolingo, in my experience, wasn't a good fit for ideographic languages for me and it was what I used for most of my Drill and Practice. Also I feel vaguely lonely from not being able to talk to people I know due to the timezone thing, and I'm starting to miss my cat a lot.

I have also completed the reason I was down here in the first place! It was, at least notionally, a technical conference. Obviously there was more we were doing in the way of coordination and work and planning and meetings and taking advantage of a bunch of poeple being here for corporate purposes. The conference was fairly good, though. That is, half of it was very good. The afternoons were devoted to tecnical presentations by developers, users, and systems administrators and they were excellent. The morning was devoted to talks by various C-level officers of various companies and were very 'business case' and very 'from thirty-thousand feet' and about as informative or interesting as a soliloquy by an adult in a Charlie Brown movie.

I fly out tomorrow! I'm not looking forward to the flight particularly since I usually find them cramped and uncomfortable, but this one wasn't particularly bad, and there are at least a couple movies I've been meaning to watch that they have available. And, as I said, I am generally looking forward to being in my own house with my own cat and all that.

One amusing thing. My hotel room has a 'do not disturb' switch rather than a hanger. I turned it on by accident at some point while looking for the lights and didn't realize it. For my first few days I kept getting voicemail from Housekeeping if I wouldn't please like to have them come and clean up the room? I feel slightly bad for it even if it's funny, as it sounded like they were getting desperate before I realized what was going on, as their messages started listening the benefits of a clean room as if they were trying to sell me on the idea.

Epic China Adventure: Part 4

21 March 2018 7:32 AM (china | travel)

Today, there were meetings. I wasn't at any of them because I was informed that the ones I was supposed to be attending were at my employer's office. It turns out that they were in fact at our competitor's office. I would have hiked from one to the other but...

My guts are remorseful. Perhaps it's because, in spite of warnings, I drank the tapwater and large amounts of it. Perhaps it's because I had a very large bowl of soup that was 20% noodles, 10% meat of some sort, 5% eggs, 30% oilslick, and 35% hot peppers for lunch. For whatever reason I became acquainted with the bathrooms outside my hotel. I have been theoretically aware of bidets and their function for some time, and I have nothing against them. I didn't know they were popular in China. Given that much of the plumbing can't handle toilet paper so that most toilets in China have more-literal-than-usual 'waste-paper' baskets next to them, it makess sense that they would be installed to cut down on the amount of waste-paper used. In either case I was surprised and really quite unhappy to find this out through a self-activating bidet. Mostly because my first panicked thought was that it was some sort of grotesque and horrifying second-world malfunction of the sewage system that I had never imagined as a possibility.

Having ended up not at the meetings, I ended up getting to know some of my co-workers from other parts of the world, coding along in a relaxed and chatty atmosphere. I rather missed this sort of conviviality from my earlier times at a university where we'd have people get together late at night in computer labs alternating between doing homework, chatting, and playing X-Risk. At normal office encounters at least some number of people are engrossed enough in problem solving that universal chatting would be rude, so having people in semi-hack mode is kind of nice.

My first attempt to withdraw money from an ATM failed. I think this is just because the keypad was upside-down and I didn't want to have my card eaten for trying the wrong PIN in China three times in a row. I'll wait a bit and try again and if that doesn't work, wait until business hours in the US to call the bank up. I told them I was going to be in China so hopefully they'll allow it. I /really/ hope I'm going to be able to get cash, otherwise I'm going to have to eat all my meals in the hotel (since nobody else accepts credit cards) to make sure I have cab fare.

Also someone just showed up wanting to clean my room while I was typing so I went out to look for a 7-11 to see if I could find some sort of stomach remedy there. Looking at a map now it's obvious why I got lost. It was described as being 'behind' the hotel, but it's much further northwest than I expected. Either way, I ended up finding my way home by following the smell of a Kentucky Fried Chicken (apparently they're really popular here) back to it, and from there I was able to find the gigantic technicolor flashing 'LOVE' sign that apparently indicated a yogurt store and from there make it back to my hotel.

I woke up early this morning, so I might sleep soon, I'm not sure. I'll probably stay up a couple hours so I can call my bank, though.

Epic China Adventure: Part 3

20 March 2018 8:56 AM (China | Travel)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the quality of food one finds in the in-hotel restaurant of a Marriott is mediocre. At no point in my life was this better demonstrated to me than when I went to said restaurant, basically by accident, ordered tea with my meal, and discovered I had been given Lipton. How do I know?

I might add, at this point, that I am in China. I expect that the Chinese, generally, know how to brew tea in the way that most American restaurants do not. There are many fine and good ways to brew tea and most of them involve giving someone a cup or pot with tea of a strength and level of extraction in it. It in no way consists of giving someone a (cold) pot, a single teabug not nearly large enough to serve the size of the pot, and a vessel of water that at one point may have been boiling. So I got to see the teabag.

It was black. Oh, and they gave me milk and sugar. I might add that I ordered actual Chinese food, it claimed to be spicy and flavored with Sichuan peppercorn (though it was very little of either). They could have simply given me low grade, badly prepared green tea or oolong. Or black tea from China. But no. They gave me weak, low-grade black tea-dust from India or Ceylon or probably Kenya, to be honest, since Kenya is where a lot of black tea with a bland, vaguely 'Subcontinental' teroir can be bought on the cheap.

With milk. And sugar.

Did I mention that earlier this day I was at my employer's office and looked in the kitchen for tea and saw a big box of Lipton teabags? Green teabags, to be fair. But Lipton? I have had enough.

The people of China (well, okay, a restaurant and an office kitchen) have insulted me. It is as if one of them came to America seeking a hot dog and instead I gave them a sausage casing stuffed with ground-up meat from the hooves and snouts and...okay, bad example. There shall from this day forward be enmity between me and the people of China. My ancestors shall disrespect their ancestors! My children shall strive against their children!

Other than that it's been quite a nice trip. I managed to ask for my destination and pay a cab driver and get myself and the people with me where we were going. A woman at the office asked me if I were Christian (probably because my given name is Biblical) and I said "No, but my parents are." (She informed me that she was Christian. Which was nice. I wasn't sure how open people were about that sort of thing.)

I mentioned it during the cab ride and one of the people with me brought up Falun Gong, and I briefly wondered if the effect we gave was analogous to a bunch of people piling into a cab, speaking a foreign language, and casually mentioning Scientology and the Branch Davidians.

Epic China Adventure: Part 2

19 March 2018 4:23 AM (china | travel)

My plan to avoid much of the airplane flight by virtue of staying up late/getting up early the night before and then taking a bunch of doxylamine right before boarding worked quite well. Doxylamine is an antihistamine with a stronger sedative effect than diphenydarmine. Doxylamine is the thing in NyQuil that makes people find it so helpful when they can't sleep. You can just buy it in pill form. I did end up watching a couple movies, too.

Customs was uneventful. I had slept through being given an arrival card on the plane and had to fill one out (oops) but that was a small problem. The first observation I had was: China smells bad. At least Beijing does. I've had a bit of a cough even when staying in the hotel and you can definitely smell sulfurous undertones everywhere. This is probably why you can't open any of the windows, too.

Everyone here is very polite. Perhaps because I've mostly been dealing with business people. China has much more 'service' in customer service than we do in the US, to the point where I feel like I'm taking advantage even when I don't mean to. I'm fairly large even by US standards, so having a man who barely reaches my chest insist on carrying my suitcase even though I tell him twice I don't want him to just feels odd. (Also just by virtue of my size and unusual color children keep staring at me, sometimes hiding behind their parents to do so.) I wish I'd got my hair cut. I'd feel like less of a Wild Creature from the Far Lands.

The food, so far, is really fantastic. I've only had two meals. One was sort of a family style affair where they just kept heaping the plate with dish after dish and we kept trying bits of everything. I was surprised that basically everything had Sichuan peppercorn in it, even otherwise bland noodles. Also I will never think of shrimp the same way. You have not tasted a shrimp until you've eaten one right off a skewer, head and shell and tail and antennae and all, that was rubbed in oil and spices and cooked over an open flame. I ended up slightly ashamed when after my third attempt to pick up a pickled cucumber with my chopsticks failed, the waitress handed me a fork and said 'Please'. On that subject, if I'd stopped to think that I would be using chopsticks and not be very good at it, I would have brought a couple more shirts. Oh well.

Breakfast was surprising, too. I was expecting the big bowl of thin rice porridge and tea. I wasn't expecting the cold noodles, scrambled eggs, steamed buns, and sliced fruit that came with it.

I was expecting being in a country where I don't speak the language well (there are limits to how much you can pick up in a month of DuoLingo) and have only an imperfect grasp of the customs to feel strange and uncomfortable, but it is a much stronger feeling than I would have expected. It is not that I worry about getting lost or being unable to get what I need, that's not it. It's that when interacting with people I like to put as little burden on them as I can and decrease the amount of hassle they have from dealing with me. I can do that back home, but here due to my incapacity with the language I am become Hassle Incarnate.

Today was originally to have been our sight-seeing day. We were going to go to the Forbidden City, but for some reason it was closed. (A bit more Forbidden than usual, I guess.) So I just spent the day working.

Epic China Adventure: Part 1

17 March 2018 9:44 AM (travel | china)

Today is the day. With the first part of my journey being a thirteen hour flight and the actual conference lasting only a few days of the week we expect to be there, my main concern is Boredom. So I have a media device and a backup media device and, in spite of advice to the contrary, an ancient and bulky form of storage using sheets of cellulose and tanno-gallate of iron in which information is stored using space inefficient but highly redundant codes in case of complete technological failure.

I think I shall bring an extra pair of glasses, too, but not the good one. Just in case. I have an hour and a half to finish getting my business together before I ought head to the airport to meet the ‘three hour’ recommendation the Security Theatre recommends. One day, when I am ruler of earth, I plan to strike the Security Theatre's sets and return us to the days one sees in ancient videos where fedora wearing men could run into an airport and buy the last ticket to San Francisco on a plane that was leaving in ten minutes.

Other than boredom, my main concern is communications. I have, of course, been on adversarial networks before, but most could be escaped simply by going outside and finding another one. This spans an entire nation, and I'm not talking about Vatican City. I've loaded in a few redundant workarounds, so I hope some of them will work.

I wish my grasp of the language were better, but there's only some much to be expected when one uses Duolingo for exactly one month supplemented by a website from the Chinese Government to help with vocabulary. I've been practicing on Google's Chinese Speech Recognition to improve my accent. This may produce really bad, or at least hilarious, results.


24 February 2018 10:39 PM (musing)

Frances Kamm, one of the more respected voices of deontology, once commented that while Peter Singer's claim that letting people die is the same as killing them suggests that everyone ought to give much of their money to charity (Singer agrees), few people actually do so. Therefore, there is either something wrong with his ethics or with his followers.

First…I wonder if Professor Kamm actually took the time to observe many of Singer's followers. Between PETA and The Life You Can Save (and the larger Effective Altruism movement), his ideas have lead directly to more concrete action than any living ethicist. But! More of them could take action and all of them could do more. Let's grant the dilemma as stated. In that case, there's something wrong with his followers. None of them come close to completely fulfilling their self-imposed moral duties.

Am I supposed to be bothered by this? Being completely moral is hard, outright impossible, for any kind of morality worth having. This is one thing the early Christians got right. They were called to give all their money to the poor, care for the sick, and be gentle and unfailingly compassionate. This is psychologically easier if you think the world is going to end Real Soon Now and you haven't had two thousand years of Real Soon Now to wear down the idea, but even then there was recognition that this demand was hard. The demands of utilitarianism are even harder, because you are called to perfect the world. There is no list of commands you could check off one by one.

Humans are lazy and selfish. Humans have lots of desires and the idea of never being able to have some pleasure for the rest of ones life, even something as trivial as a favorite cookie, throws them into a panic. I don't know how you could examine humanity without noticing that there's something wrong with all of them. There is none righteous, no not one, but it doesn't matter particularly. The punishment for failing to perfect the world is…living in an imperfect world, and I'd rather people take an expansive view of their obligations and fail to completely fulfill it than take a modest command mostly derived from the status quo that they enact perfectly.

This is one of main reasons I am a utilitarian. Kamm claims that her ethics is conservative, that it serves to clarify and encode common moral practice and intuition. I don't see the point of a conservative theory of ethics. If I wanted to follow the intuitions and social norms of present society, I could do that perfectly well without codifying it.

Immanuel Kant set out to discover the fundamental truth of ethics and found that, surprisingly, almost everything widely regarded as wrong when he was alive was wrong and that capital punishment for murder was obligatory. I find an honest enjoyment in these kinds of systems, the same sort one gets from Scholastic theology, but it's not clear that Kant's results are really good for anything.

Contrast this with Jeremy Bentham, whose thought was, from the start, not conservative. Following the basic utilitarian principle of maximum happiness lead him to, in the 1700s, argue for the tolerance of homosexuality, liberalization of marriage, the right of divorce, female suffrage and legal equality, consideration for the welfare of animals, and a rejection of retributive justice.

Bentham was no more perfect or all-knowing than any other human. His writings mentioning the terrible harm to mental and physical health done by the scourge of masturbation are ridiculous to us today. Utilitarians can, and do, argue for terrible actions. Bentham's student, John Stuart Mill, defended the barbarity of colonialism. utilitarianism is a also uniquely good framework for having such arguments, as it brings them into the real world of concrete effects and personal well-being. Others can and did counter Mill with appeals to history, factual accounts of empire, and the experience of subject peoples.

Utilitarians have not only pre-figured the morality of the future, but shaped it. Peter Singer is often credited with creating the modern animal rights movement, championing the right to die, and convincing many people to give large portions of their income away to help those in need. Brian Tomasik is a negative utilitarian (I am not) and focuses on reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness. I do not agree with him on all issues, but I admire the work he does in trying to find neglected facets of the world to consider. The problem of wild-animal suffering is unfortunately very real, and while some of his notions seem fanciful to me, trying to develop formal accounts of what it means to suffer is important in an age where we are developing ever more complex homeostatic systems.

Put another way, even if I don't agree with everything my fellow utilitarians say (particularly the negative utilitarians), they seem to be the only ones pursuing practical ethics in anything like a meaningful way. This comes down to the question of why one should even bother having an ethical in the first place. There is no absolute, objective right and wrong in the world, so why make one up? For my answer, I view the entire world as mine and every one in it as mine. I want to work toward making my world better in some way. I despise suffering. I curse it. I spit at and defy it. I don't want it anywhere near my people. I think a world with nobody to appreciate it as beautiful or understand it is tragic. So a system that makes ‘What makes the world good and how can we make it more good?’ with a notion of ‘good worlds’ that fits my desires for happy people and beautify and understanding and driving misery into oblivion is a natural match. It's something I can cooperate with other people on, since other people either have similar desires for what the world should be or close enough ones that there's a lot of overlap.

This is one reason I don't worry much about mere addition and other problems of the precise formulation of the felicific calculus. I'd certainly like a robust treatment of population ethics, but present environmental and technological realities make vastly multiplying the population a bad thing, since people would end up in terrible poverty, and creating a sustainable world for many future generations to enjoy requires limiting the size of present generations. The problem does not affect any current decisions and I am not claiming to find The Truth, but to hold an idea for guiding thoughts of what the world could be.

In many cases, I can see the appeal of a systems I don't agree with. I can understand the appeal in Virtue Ethics as asking the question ‘What is the kind of me that I want to create?” and then setting about to create it.

Trying to be charitable about it, deontological systems seem to be based around assigning some property to people: Inviolability, Respect, Self Determination, what have you, and deciding that a world where people have that property is better than one where they don't. So they try to act that property into existence by refusing to violate it. On the one hand, I'm not sure why a world where everyone is inviolate is supposed to be better than a world where everyone is happy. On the other hand, I honestly have a problem with agent-relative formulations. If I cared about inviolability to the excuse of everything else, I would prefer to violate someone than allow three people to be violated, but most deontologies make moral obligations and failures personal in a way that doesn't make sense to me. On the third hand, I have a suspicion that this isn't entirely what's going on, since their reaction when they come to a surprising result is that something must be wrong.

Fundamentally, I don't see much point in conservative ethical systems. If people like Kamm and Dworkin and Sandel discovered some surprising new ethical obligation or otherwise suggested a gradient for development and advocated pursuing it, I might feel more positively about their projects.

More Bezel

4 February 2018 2:46 PM (dream)

Dreamed I bought 3,333 tins of exotic meat because I picked my phone up by the edge and it registered as screen-touches. But I only found out that I had on the middle of a business trip, so I ran off from everything and went on a mission to cancel it. Amazon split the order into three parts to satisfy the quantity. One was fairly small and canceled easily. They had outsourced the bigger of the remaining two parts to Meijer's. In Canada.

The Customer Service Man in Canada was rude to me and didn't so much tell me that canceling it was against the rules, he just kept making fun of me and stuff. So I got up and said to him that if he wasn't going to do anything I'd just have to call whoever was higher up and see if they could help me. I'd kind of like to give them a better reason for escalation than “The guy under you is a complete ass.” though. So he went off to make a phone call and explained that my order was being packed right then and there, but they were having trouble finding so many cans. The packing center had a thing called a 'Day at the beach' where customers could demand to come in and watch it work, hang out, and generally relax. I could go there and insists on a 'Day at the Beach' and sabotage the efforts for my order and prevent it shipping to give the system time for my cancellation request to process.

The packing center was right next to my home, though. I kept trying to find a way back from Canada and couldn't really get a straight answer whether you could take a Lyft over the ambassador bridge or not, and I didn't want to wait for a Greyhound. I tried stealing car, but someone else had stolen it first and it would have been rude to steal it away from him.

Conspiracy Theory

23 January 2018 0:48 AM (musing)

The faking of the lunar landing remains one of the great historical mysteries. All records, videos footage, and personal interviews agree. All reputable sources accept it. This leaves an important question: Why did the Soviet Union, the then-rival of the United States, go along with the deception? As the other space-capable power, they could have embarrassed their adversary by pointing out its lie. Why did the United States embark on the deception knowing that it could be made a fool of? The records, when it comes to these questions, are either lost or spiral into confusion.

There must have been some third party driving the hoax, and we now know who that party was: The Fair Folk. A middle class of people focused primarily on their material needs and an industrialized society nearly successful in meeting those needs them was quickly eroding their influence over humanity. Few humans were inspired by grand narratives of future social orders, and something new was needed. Something great. Something that could inspire the world but fit into the mechanistic narrative.

The Sidhe decreed it and it was done: mankind would walk upon the moon. The closest planet would be brought into the reach of mortals and so transmuted from silvery fire teeming with witches and shadow-spirits to mere geology. At least, that's what the humans would think. It was not in the Fae's interest to actually give mankind such abilities when they could instead engage them in shadow-play.

For a few glorious years, the space-race flourished. Astronauts and Cosmonauts were the new semi-divine heroes hurtling bravely into the unknown, reaching further and further into the heavens, until they finally grasped a world beyond their own. Every probe was a show. Every launch unmanned. No human has ever left the Earth, they merely carried out exercises and mission rehearsals one after the other, drunk on glamour until they couldn't tell where training ended and truth began.

If the lunar landing really had been a human endeavor, the project would have continued. Humans would have gone on to capture an asteroid then travel to Mars. They would now be seriously investigating the solar system. Of course, that isn't what happened; activity abruptly stopped. Space went, almost overnight, from the final frontier to a convenient place to put communications satellites. Two space shuttles were destroyed, the rest were grounded. The hoax was revealed, and a few streams of grainy, photoshopped desert pretending to be Mars are sent out even now to continue feeding false hope to a dwindling pool of true believers.

Why? Why go to all the trouble of the show then abandon it at its height? It's obvious, now, that they got burned. People were fired with wonder, but also with a hunger for truth and the idea that the world was a thing out there waiting to be understood, and the more mankind knew, the more they could do. Dreams of equations filled the world, threatening to cage the Sidhe in unchanging law. Wonder built on understanding rather than ignorance threatened to cut their magic forever away from the world.

And so it came. The Ivory Tower had always been a world ruled, and rightly so, by the twin powers of reason and fantasy. The Fair Folk intervened to upset the balance. That human scholars should say that truth is merely a construct of the powerful shows it. This is, after all, the ultimate philosophy of the Sidhe. They mean it differently. For them it is an aspiration, to cut out the underpinnings and notion of ‘truth’ as a rigid and unyielding aspect of the world and make it entirely a creation of their power, a plaything to manipulate those creatures they've captured. At the same time, playful, master-dreamers of psychedelia spun out all manner of universes to live alongside this one, then forgot which was which and claimed there was no difference. These two currents together worked the Fae's agenda into popular consciousness, until any inconvenient fact could, ironically, be dismissed with a breezy claim that it's constructed to serve some ominous, hidden interest.

They adopted Clarke's law, again, as an aspiration rather than a description. When people are discouraged from thinking about how things work, when even experts in a field know only the tiniest fraction about any real-world device and take the rest on faith, and when mathematical and computational power are pushed to the limit to fake the appearance of intelligent, feeling agents that answer ones questions or fulfill ones whims as soon as they are spoken, it is not long before actual magic can be slipped in, since nobody expects to understand it.

And so we come to the Internet: a network of simple machines, using simple protocols. A shining toy no human could resist able to share new discoveries, carry ideas and arguments, transmit knowledge, stories, love letters, and jokes all through the world: bridging cultural divides, empowering democracies. It would be an unstoppable force for freedom and progress. If it were a human project that's exactly what it would have been.

The Sidhe are the crafty spiders in the World Wide Web, and they've woven it to suit themselves. It wraps around the globe, enveloping more of civilization every day. It has become a hall of mirrors where processes no one can name or explain fill the mind with wild claims and calls to action with no concern for fact. As the Fae tighten their hold, even the notion that evidence or truth should be a consideration is taken to mark one out as disloyal or a potential enemy who forgets which side they're on. People drape themselves in propositions as the the semantic colors of opposing armies.

Each day, it comes closer. The time when the Sidhe will have us as they did when the world was young and we ran through the night, prey to living dreams and fears embodied as savage shadow.

It's only fair, given where it all started, that in the night to come— the new glorious forest of chrome displays and glass needles, where dread beauty and impossible dream will rule and grim dragons of fire and explosion will prowl the decaying highways for prey— that the new primeval will always shine with the silver fire of moonlight.

Lies about Dragons

22 January 2018 0:34 AM (musing)

Dragons know things Truly. They perceive things as they really are rather than reconstructing them from the disordered noise of sense perception. Unfortunately, the things of which they have true knowledge are Imaginary. All imaginary things. They're totally at a loss to deal with things as they are.

That's why they live in old caves with myths and legends surrounding them. The dragons don't inspire the myths, the myths fill the cave and coat it with a thick enough layer of fantasy for a dragon to feel and interact with. Modern, new-built homes, to be accessible to dragons, have elaborate Trompe-l'œil paintings all over the walls, creating the false illusion that some completely different kind of wall is there. The tiles of the floors have Braille on them and together narrate a fantastic story about a floor unlike the floor they make up.

Anyone who has seen a dragon's hoard knows that they don't just sleep on unrefined gold and uncut gems. They sleep on gold coins. On mythic suits of armor that are spoken of in stories. They sleep on jewels that were cut and named, given as pledges or to win the love of some other. Gold coins were a particular favorite because of how people thought about and trusted gold, and because they usually had flattering profiles and mottoes more respected in the breach than the keeping struck on them. The combination of belief and falsehood and general use gave a pleasant firmness many dragons appreciate in a bed. Nowadays gold is used much less often, the absolute, near religious faith that gold bugs and others have in its enduring value makes it far too hard for most dragons to enjoy. In fact, this is why people in the modern day hunt for dragons' hoards. Financial advisers have long noted that when things, at present USB sticks full of bitcoin, start being pushed out of a dragon's hoard into the world outside, that they are overvalued and about to crash.

Dragons, for obvious reasons, prefer old, old towns with lots of folklore to them or cities. Suburbs are very difficult for them to get a purchase on, but an old rural fishing village will usually have an ancient house where there's a ghost story for every floorboard and nail. Cities, especially the more famous ones, probably have the largest concentration of dragons in the world. They can often be found in old hotels, shuttered theaters, or the sites of spectacular disasters.

Dragons can perceive humans, of course. Humans are practically machines for making up stories about themselves, every aspect of their body and mind and action. That's one reason why the physical statue of a dragonslayer isn't nearly as important as the degree to which they believe in and live-up to the ideals they hold themselves to. Though most dragons, it should be pointed out, are fine creatures that should not be slain.

In older times, due to their perception and dietary requirements, they did end up eating people, since they did have the correct imaginary content running around and through them to be nutritious. (This was why princesses and other royalty were also particularly favored. The Divine Right of Kings and other trappings of the Ancien Régime made them quite delicious and filling.)

While dragons may have lost out in housing, due to haunted woods and thinking rivers being less believed-in, the modern age has been a bonanza for them in terms of nutrition. At no other time in history has food been so filled with myths and wonder as it is today. A bottle of pomegranate juice and a bit of wheat grass, a bowl of Frosted Flakes, even a bit of grey poupon has enough imaginary and mythic associations to sustain the hungriest dragon. Most dragons of my acquaintance tend to follow latest fad diets, and often grow prodigiously as a result of the great amounts of nutrition they provide.

Less Fire Than I Expected

3 December 2017 1:03 PM (dream)

I dreamed about a demon who was suddenly, for some reason, disillusioned with pain and suffering. This could have gone very bad for him, but he had a plan. For you see, demons are enamored above and beyond anything else of poetry and any kind of oratory that has a certain Sturm and Drang. They aren't very good at writing, it, though, so he kept portraying bombastic poetry and giving fine speeches under the coaching of a human girl and a squirrel who spent most of its time perched on his shoulder giving him advice.

The thing was, every time the demon would come up with some new poetry about wild nature and the futility of all ambitions and passionate strength in the face of defeat his fellow demons would howl in acclamation and fill him with greater and greater power. Until by the time one of them got suspicious that apart from his poetry he wasn't acting very demonic and tried to attack him, he was so strong he could just swat someone aside into another space without even tormenting them.

By the time I woke up this demon and another were engaged in a duel by red hot needle, each wiggling it a bit further into their opponent's head to try and fish out and fish for weaknesses to force upon them.

Our Mathematical Universe

19 September 2017 7:08 PM (book review)

In Our Mathematical Universe, Max Tegmark sets out, for the layman, his argument for the notorious Level IV Multiverse. Okay, he also gets to the other three multiverse levels, too.

So, he starts out discussing cosmology, both its history and his personal involvement in it. In some ways this was the most interesting part of the book. It goes over early modern theories about the origin and nature of the universe, their motivation, and why they were ultimately abandoned. It also discusses the Cosmic Background in detail, how it was analyzed, the attempts to map it, and his involvement in using information theory to map it more effectively.

It then goes into the best layman's explanation of inflation that I have ever read. It is clear and concise and easy to follow. He segues neatly from there into what he calls the Level 1 Multiverse. This (and the third) are the least controversial of his multiverses. This is accepted by, basically, everyone who accepts inflation. It suggests that if the universe is infinite, then everything possible happens infinitely many times and there are infinitely many versions of you reading this, and tiny variations on that. Given that he mentions Nick Bostrom several times in the end of the book and also discusses his view of our place in the universe, I'm surprised he didn't mention Bostrom's Infinite Ethics.

He then transitions from there neatly into the Level 2 multiverse. This gets the shortest treatment of any of the. I can't really blame him since it relies on the String Theory landscape and String Theory is hard. His Level 2 multiverse treats physical constants as stable phases of empty space that crystallize into different values in various pocket-universes within the inflationary field. This section is notable for an intuitively appealing argument for parallel universes in terms of a sun fine-tuned for life and whether we should expect to find multiple stars as a result and if we hadn't seen independent evidence for them. It also argues that the anthropic principle is perfectly valid and any responsible reasoner should draw on it.

The treatment of the Level 3 multiverse is completely satisfying. He explains the Copenhagen interpretation and the problems with it and offers Everett's many worlds interpretation as a counterpoint. He also takes a brief excursion into the question of why we don't see quantum effects on the macro scale and offers decoherence as the explanation, demolishing quantum consciousness in the process. I was troubled by the obvious similarity between what we would expect to find in the Level 3 multiverse and the Level 1 multiverse (the same laws but different histories), and I was happy to see he united them with his Cosmological Interpretation, which gives probabilities as fractions of worlds where we should expect to see one outcome or the other in the Level 1 multiverse.

We then get to the Level IV multiverse in which all mathematical objects exist. As you are likely aware, I have quite a bit of sympathy for this idea. Tegmark bases his reasoning on the unrealistic effectiveness of mathematics in science and the question of why some mathematical structures but not others should have mathematical reality. This is the most controversial part of the book. How persuasive you'll find it depends, basically, on your feelings about parsimony. Since we have one physically instantiated mathematical structure, adding more (even if ‘more’ is ultimately ‘all of them’) feels more parsimonious to me than postulating some selection mechanism that seems as if it would require its own explanation.

He addresses some potential problems, like the problems with computability of real-valued functions and Gödelian trouble arising from infinity. He ultimately rejects the continuum, mostly (it seems) motivated by a desire to solve the measure problem, but provisionally keeps infinity. This bothers me a bit, since it gets back to his question of why some mathematical objects should be privileged over others. His assertion that we will find that uncountable infinity disappears as an inconsistent illusion is not really backed up by anything. I guess you could be an Intuitionist.

He then goes on a few interesting digressions about living in infinite multiverses covering things like the Self Sample Assumption, the way the world ends, the likelihood of alien life, how we give the world meaning, existential risk, and how we should indoctrinate people into thinking scientifically. It's a mixed bag, the bits on reasoning, meaning, and alien life are quite good. The bit about science education is sort of brief and vague, though at least keeps on the side of truth as the ultimate advantage in argument. The existential threat bit is reasonable. Finding out he was an adviser to MIRI makes me like him slightly less, not because I don't agree completely with their AI risk argument (I don't, but I don't have any problem with them making it), but because the MIRI people seem way more into secrecy and aristocracy than anyone I'd want to deal with would be.

I quite enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone. Even if you reject his Level IV multiverse outright, it should at least be enjoyable as a fantasy, and the rest of the book should be enjoyable to anyone who doesn't indulge in ridiculous moral panics at the thought of any theory implying multiple cosmoi.

Bad Dog

16 September 2017 8:26 PM (dream)

The software team I work at was notified that a new prophet was about to activate. We were trying to hunt him down beforehand and take him into our organization, so we went to his mother's house, pretending to be some state organization. We said we were representatives of a camp that offered intensive treatment for anxiety disorders and that we'd take her son away and keep him for a while and he'd be much better. She was fairly happy with this idea.

The son showed up, also he was a dog. The prophetic touch had begun to activate and as a result he was foaming at the mouth and acting aggressively as if he had rabies. We kept trying to talk to him but he just lunged at us, so we put on heavy gloves to protect ourselves from losing a finger or something and struggled to shove him into a suitcase and zip it up so we could get him somewhere we could extract the prophecy from him so he'd return to normal.

I kept thinking that I should probably get a full course of rabies vaccinations.

…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

8 September 2017 10:46 PM (politics | society | immigration)

Immigration is a very important issue to me. I can't really say that to pollsters because they'll assume I oppose it. Immigration is very important to me because I think we desperately need more of it. There are lots of altruistic reasons to support immigration and globalization and they're important. (Yes, globalization under capitalism isn't ideal. There are real, serious problems like the United States outsourcing pollution along with work, child labor, low safety standards, and investor-state disputes. Yes, world socialism would be better, but the benefits of vastly imperfectly globalization have been large enough for the poorer nations that we would do much better to fight against the most harmful aspects than to protest globalization itself. Also we should work for world socialism.) I won't be talking about the altruistic reasons.

If you're worried about immigration and feel that we need less of it there's a good chance you're of the belief that immigrants ‘take jobs’ from Americans. It is also overwhelmingly likely that you are worried about the low birth rate and upset that more young people aren't starting families and having children. Think about these two things at the same time. You see why believing both doesn't really work, right? Either we have way too many people or we have too few people. If the former, then encouraging people to have more children would be disastrous. If the latter, then we should welcome people coming in from outside.

So, which is it? There are a few factors, really. One is that increasing automation, all on its own with no help from outsourcing or immigration, is cutting into existing jobs. There is some concern that it will cause a long-term decrease in the required work-force. The counter-argument is that, historically, automation has created new, different, and ultimately more jobs. In the long term a diminished place for humans in the workplace is almost certain, but I don't know how long that run is, and when it happens immigration won't matter a whit so we may as well discount it.

At present, we have reason to believe we could use more people or, and this is more crucial, more young people. The United States, along with many other rich countries, is suffering from an aging population. The most obvious problem this leads to is that the burden of care for each sick or old person falls on an ever-smaller number of working people. No. Social security is not a magic savings account. Your contributions went to paying for the people who were on it then, and any surplus was saved. The United States stopped having a surplus due to the generations following the baby boom all having fewer children and the baby boomers retiring. More young people would help. More young people would help to fund Medicare and, since young people are, on average, healthier, would help stabilize even Universal Medicare.

There are other advantages to having more young people. Young people need stuff sometimes (more rarely now, but sometimes) they have children and their children need lots of stuff. Older people already have stuff. Many of them are downsizing. They tend not to consume, other than healthcare services. Younger people stimulate and diversify the economy by buying things. Older people are also much more conservative in their investments. More specifically, they prefer either low-risk bond portfolios or savings accounts and are drawing down their savings. Younger people are much more likely to invest in higher-risk portfolios. Those are the ones that fund new businesses and new research. Younger people stimulate and diversify the economy by making capital available to new and innovative ideas.

There are, of course, other reasons to want a higher percentage of younger people. Older people tend to have common demographic interests and if they dominate the electorate, policies are made to cater to them. This may not sound bad, but many of those laws can harm a country's dynamism. Older people are more likely to oppose new development and indulge in NIMBYism. They favor extremely low inflation rates which are bad for the young and a drag on the economy. They tend to pull more money toward themselves and away from other concerns. Increasingly large portions of the welfare state to programs that benefit the elderly, particularly the rich elderly, at the expense of job training, education, and aid to people just staring in the work place. This is dangerous, because these latter programs can help to grow the economy as a whole.

So. We need more young people. You might ask “Well, why don't we just have more of our own?” There are a few answers to that. One is…why? From a purely selfish perspective, immigrants have some advantages. They got up and moved to a new country, that indicates a certain amount of whipitupitude. Statistically, immigrants are more likely to found businesses and create jobs for others. (This includes people from the US going to other countries, too.) I don't mean to denigrate born natives, they also have some advantages, like not needing to integrate into the culture. However, it's not obvious that, if you were to build an immigration policy based on self-interest, you would necessarily prefer them to immigrants.

Unless you're one of those people. Oh, you know. The people who say things like “White civilization was created by the white race!” completely ignoring…history. You know, like that dark-skinned Muslims were hanging onto and building the civilization people like that are so proud of yet fail to live up to. Or that to the Romans they look up to, they'd be “barbarians” of lesser standing than darker skinned folks from Asia Minor and North Africa. All that twaddle about ‘the white race’ and ten cents will get them…I don't know…what can one buy for ten cents nowadays? A stick of gum?

But you're smarter than that, right? So let's continue. The other problem is that getting people to have more children is hard. You could try paying them a dividend per child. That mostly doesn't work. There are some policies that may work better, but if you're wanting to keep immigrants out, you likely oppose them. …just in case you're curious, things like universal maternity and paternity leave, state and employer provided childcare, and a social safety net so that people can afford to take time off to have and raise children and absorb the risk of not being able to resume their career at the same level as before. Oh, yeah, the entire social norm of losing career status when you take extended time off doesn't help either.

So, if we have to choose between all those things and letting more immigrants in, which do you think will be easier? Of course the best choice is both. US demography is out of whack enough we could use as many young people as we can get.

Now we come to the question of illegal immigration. ‘Undocumented’ if you like, but it's not a terminology battle I care about. ‘Illegal’ isn't a value judgment on a person to my mind, given how many bad laws there are. So, some of you may take the strict law-and-order approach: they broke the law, they have to go. To this I might ask…why? First, if you're the kind of person who's really bothered by illegal immigration, I would have a very strong expectation that you are also quite annoyed at other laws. You may think that Federal grazing laws are too bossy and Environmental protection is too strict and that they should just leave people alone and mind their own business. I see very few people who call for deportation of illegal immigrants also calling for the government to clamp down on people grazing their animals illegally on federal land.

You might say that you don't have a nation if you can't even control your own borders. This is false, I might add. Through most of human history, borders were about who had control of what land. Some places may be more or less welcoming of strangers and in war time people will want to keep armies away, but the obsession with keeping people from crossing an imaginary line is pretty modern.

Did I upset you by calling it an imaginary line? Well, I apologize. I have a theory that people like you tend to think of the nation as like their house or family, and feel a sense of personal violation when people just waltz on in. I tend to think of the United States as something abstract a good that can be shared widely and that only gets more valuable as it's shared with more people. Economically it seems to be true, at least if you believe the above about a younger population and immigrants creating wealth. I think I might add that having a sense of personal violation seems very strange considering people are being born all the time without anyone giving them any license to do so. Not that I necessarily think we should abolish all borders right away. I'm not fond of borders as they are, but there are arguments for restricting the number of people entering at any given time so that they can adapt to cultural and democratic norms, and cases like children walking here from South America require serious thought.

We have some people who are here right now who didn't follow the rules when getting here. Should we make a point of getting rid of them? There's all sorts of arguments about ripping people up by the roots who've come here and made this country their own, who are American in every aspect but paperwork, but I'm keeping things to self-interest right now. From a perspective of pure selfishness: no.

The United States spends $19.3 billion every year on immigration and customs enforcement, and that doesn't even include the $3.8 billion we spend on intensive patrols on the Mexican border. We have 11.3 million undocumented immigrants. We're spending almost $17,000 every year on every illegal resident and we haven't got rid of them, or even made much of a dent. People want to pair any calls for amnesty, even limited ones, with more money for enforcement. I'd like to know exactly how much money we should spend on enforcement before it's enough and what we get out of it?

The US population of illegal residents has stayed basically flat for eight years, largely because the Mexican economy has got better and the US economy has got worse, so the US is less attractive overall. There is no rush across the border that has to be stemmed. We don't need to spend more on enforcement, even if we did think keeping illegal immigrants out was very important.

Deporting illegal residents and making those that come across the border seasonally impoverishes the United States, particularly the agriculture industry, since they end up with fruit rotting on the vine if they don't have enough pickers for it. of course if you were worried about illegal immigrants taking jobs from Americans, you could…give them work visas and residency.

Really. Many of them are paid substandard wages, work in poor conditions, get cheated out of their pay, and otherwise mistreated because employers know they can always threaten to call ICE on them if they demand better conditions. If they had legal residency and work status, that would no longer be the case. They'd be better off, and any American workers who are supposedly losing out them would be better off. Illegal residents also do not, as a group, contribute to violent crime. Oh, sure, there are examples of people who were killed by illegal immigrants— There are examples of people who have been killed by Sunday school teachers— but an example does not a trend make. Illegal immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than the average for the US population. So if you're concerned about your safety and security, you should prefer that much of ICE's budget be taken away and used for actual criminal law enforcement.

There are reasons to have a customs agency. Smuggling comes to mind, particularly of agricultural pests and animal diseases, but the amount of money we now spend on it goes above and beyond reason. The number of people in ICE detention is more than the total number in the entire federal prison system. ICE has essentially become a collection of cynosures and plum contracts that big businesses use to suck money out of your pocket. They do it because they think you're stupid. That all they have to do is wave a cardboard Mexican on a stick, say ‘Oooh! Scary!’ and you'll insist that they be given another few billion dollars to build more private detention facilities. Linking any amnesty to more enforcement is just throwing good money after bad and providing no benefit.

Really, there's no two ways about it. If you are an American and you want to look out for yourself, just you and the people closest to you, your safety, and your economic well-being, then you should support immigration. You should support making legal immigration easier. You should support granting residency to all current illegal immigrants. You should support a cut to the resources currently spent on immigration and border security.

Like a bridge over troubled water

5 September 2017 11:26 PM (dream)

The Hydra were huge aliens, like muscular bridges. Very long lived, they were filter-feeders. They would find waterfalls and attach themselves to them like living aqueducts and filter small animals, plants, and decaying organic matter from the water.

They had some enmity with humanity and they were creating humanoid versions of themselves to try and infiltrate, fight against, and act as ambassadors to humanity.

There was also some more eldritch force, quite merry and malevolent, a cheerful sadist. Seemingly invulnerable. It kept popping up around me. I found a box of something, images of the room I was in that could be stretched out and laid over it. Each was from a different perspective, and every time I used one the malevolent force would transfer from the room to the picture of the room and be trapped within it for 180 seconds.

I had got the idea that if I could thoroughly destroy the room by self-destructing the ship I was on while the entity was in the picture it wouldn't be able to find its way back into the normal universe, at least not for a long time, though I was hesitant to actually blow up an entire ship, even assuming I actually could which I was by no means certain of, since there was a whole lot of security in the way.


19 August 2017 10:38 AM (dream)

Dreamed that in an alternate universe people just like humans who were descendants of plants went into space. Squashes in particular. They didn't look different on the outside but when they were opened up instead of nerves and blood they had stringy squash…membranes and sap and juice and things.

Some enemy wanting vengeance on the human space republic made a cabbage monster that looked like a roughly human shaped mass of vines with a big cabbage on top for its head that opened up to be filled with thorn-fangs. It wold hunt down squash-humans and eat them while they were alive, ripping chunks of squash-flesh out of them.

A little girl discovered the cabbage monster's weakness. It needed the fear and chaos of someone screaming and fighting if it was to grow strong enough to overpower them. If you did something orderly and calm like sing a song you had spent a long time rehearsing and knew perfectly it would get disgusted and leave you alone.

There was also some time travel element where one of the humans went to the Americas in Mesolithic times to ensure that maize would be come into existence to serve as food and technology for the plant people, but the Cabbage Monsters followed and kept trying to destroy any domesticated maize and eat the time traveler insisting that they would only leave him be if he could guarantee that the maize itself wouldn't experience any suffering.


10 August 2017 11:26 PM (software)

So, having been completely unable to make up my mind whether I want to work on an implementation of the Linked Data Platform in Scheme or Haskell, I've decided to do both.

I figure this way I'll get a better feel for Haskell and how it compares to something I'm more familiar with in a practical application.

Of course I might decide I vastly prefer one to the other and ditch the other one. Which is fine, if I actually find myself vastly preferring one, that sort of satisfies my goal.

This also gives me an early bit of work to start with, since Haskell has some basic RDF support libraries and Scheme, as far as I've been able to find, does not, some basic RDF support for Scheme is the first order of business before I start LDPing things up on both languages.

Up and at 'em in the magic kingdom

30 July 2017 1:59 PM (dream)

I dreamed I got kidnapped and muscled into a helicopter to be taken away to Disney World. Walt Disney was still alive and actually welcomed us when we landed.

We went to the Forbidden, Dark Quarter of EPCOT Center, where all the old teaching machines were kept after being decommissioned. They'd been shut down after every student they'd taught went mad or at least highly eccentric in later life, and had just been abandoned in place in dark, dusty classrooms with cheerful wallpaper and bright colors.

We tried starting some of them back up again to see if we could get them working, but they all kept falling into stereotyped movements and verbal tics or having what seemed like cybernetic panic attacks.

Except for the last one, it seemed lucid but very animated and violent, hurling itself at people to try and rip them to pieces. The Disney Mainframe couldn't shut it down remotely and instructed one of us to climb onto it and push the triangular button that would shut it down and make it purge its programming, and so they wrestled with it and finally hit the button.

The machine shut down and I cold see the software flinging out of it through abstract, conceptual space, so I wrapped my memories of some area of mathematics around the people I was with like some astral cloak to shield them, and when the software impacted I felt dazed but mostly unharmed, except when I tried to think back on that area of study, instead I would remember a very colorful rogue's gallery of anthropomorphic software defects each with life stories and dastardly accomplishments.

You Make My Heart Sing

5 July 2017 2:14 AM (fiction)

The hero rode to Agnesi,
The dark land,
The home of the witch.

The hero was no ring-breaker's heir.
There was no title to win,
No land would be gained in victory.

He rode forth, his sword as sharp as conscience.
He rode forth, his shield bright as truth.

He rode into the dark.
With every mile, he blew his horn.
The clangor of his challenge whelmed the silent land like a wave.

He rode ever inward into deeper shadow. The black, velvet forest closed in, shutting out dusty-grey farms. There, it was easy to forget there had ever been such a thing as a house or a plow.

He rode into the center. The first moment of the world had never passed, but had melted and flowed in an ever-thinning trickle, unbroken.

The hero dismounted.

The world's first moment finally ended.

It broke, a new one lurched into being with a sickening pause, and with it began the Witch.

No human form was she, a shadow of rough earth cast by moonlight, though the leaves were too thick to show glimmer of sky or moon.

The hero's horse broke and frothed, galloping away too terrified to whinny.

The witch stood silent, unmoving, as high as trees, feet deep in the soil.

The hero stepped toward her, his mouth open in challenge.

He demanded surrender, ready to leave her alive if she gave up everything she was.

Compassionate! Quite.

The second moment stretched out, filled with the motion of his hand toward the hilt of his sword.

The witch moved, like a moon-shadow would if the moon were fire, buffeted by æthereal waves, flaring and guttering.

She reached out toward him with a wand? A staff? An impossibly long finger of condemnation?

She spelled her spell in a voice of desolate winds and the creaking of rotten wood. She spoke with the silence of things that crawl through the earth, the quietness of green shoots sleeping all winter long in the seeds.

He stared transfixed at the witch, but there was nothing there.
He saw the shadows of the wood, suggesting a crone.

The words of the spell lost meaning, fading to wild noises that echoed through his mind.

He caught his breath, looked at the wild as a man who wakes from a dream.

The wild stared back greedily. A bolt of dread pierced his heart.

The wild swallowed him up.

He shrank away in his armor, the tight-fitting breastplate now a loose prison. His foreshortening body banged against and rattled within it.

His sword dropped from his hand.

He itched all over as a million strands of fur found their new home.

He tried to scratch. He tried so hard, but felt nothing but the unyielding steel of his breastplate against the sickle-claws poking from stubby digits.

The world grew brighter, bleaker, blurrier. Sharp, clear contrasts in the dark dazzled him until he learned to see again. He looked down.
His hands were covered in fur, thumb retracting to a useless dewclaw.
Both paws soon disappeared up his sleeves.

He cried out with fear and loss, but his once-rich baritone dwindled to a pathetic, wordless mewling as, forgot how to stand upright, he toppled over.

His ears rang from the crash of metal on the ground, and he gasped in sharp pain as his ribs and forehead hit the inside of the breastplate.

Panic filled him. Claws out he fought and thrashed like a wild th—


Not quite.

The wild thing fought in the breastplate of the fallen hero, shredding his clothes with its claws, until by luck as much as anything it pulled free.

Threads of a ruined shirt trailed from one paw as it fell to the ground, the sudden relief of freedom from the cage of cloth and steel only a minor reduction in terror.


It was still for a moment.

Blood trickled into its eye and matted its fur from a gash on its brow, its little ribs heaved as it panted for air, each breath a despairing mewl trilled by a panicked purr.

He was given a moment— just a moment— to recall the man he had been. His dreams, his ideals, his curiosity all were on the verge of being snatched away. He could still imagine them, the wild thing was as intelligent as the man had ever been, but…

The Fear blew through his mind.

He tried to grasp onto something simple, definite…

Two! Four! Six! eight…!

(Hunt and run or you'll be ate.)

The wild thing struggled back toward the thoughts of a man, something more arcane and less natural might serve.

Two! Three! Five! Seven! Eleven…!

His mind scrabbled, its claws flexed as if to grab purchase in air. The next number was ripped away by howling terror, its heartbeat drowning out sense.

Screaming over every thought was the fear of being chased and killed by giants with strong jaws and yellow teeth.

Another fear filled its belly, full for now, but in just a few hours, a day at most, the wild thing would drop through a trap door into hunger and from there into darkness.

The darkness flashed behind its eyes, a most vivid memory of something never seen. It filled every moment of life.

“The world is an evil place, little one.”

The memory of darkness sneered at the wild thing, taunting, smug, and secure in the knowledge that the dark would swallow it up before only a few more heartbeats.

It had been too still. Too long. it felt the ground beneath its paws.
Some cool, detached part of its mind wondered at the unfamiliarity of it for only a second before it was swallowed up by the screaming refusal to die.

Instinct took over.

The wild thing ran through the forest, from rock to rock and tree to tree. It climbed to temporary safety, the panic ebbed.

Just a bit.

Enough that he could hear his memories and thoughts, of his home, his dreams, the strange principles he used to care about, so alien and pale now against the ceaseless flight from the dark.

The wild thing sobbed and sniffled to itself in despairing mewls like the faded ghost of speech.

It was the only wild animal that once remembered a time it hadn't been terrified.

Hunger came and with it a new fear intensified. The wild thing feared its own predators no less, but the cold, icy qualm of caloric insufficiency drowned out that voice for a moment.

The world is full of monsters.
There claws less sharp.
Their senses less keen,
But huge and tireless,
running on big paws and long legs.
Sometimes with their friends and family.
Sometimes just one or two.

Maybe they want to eat you.
Maybe they want what you're chasing.
Murdered or devoured, it makes no difference.

Little cat, lying there, in the belly of death.
The whole world is nothing but the belly of death.
All the other creatures its teeth. It bites and nips,
Grinding you down all through life, until you lie there
Spent, unmoving, only able to feel as the little worms
Strip your flesh, taking you into the earth as death
Finally swallows you up.

Most of you. The good parts.

The skeleton remains.

He spent far, far too much time imagining what it must be like to be a skeleton. At least when the worms ate you it was quick, that part of your death was over in weeks.

No eyes, no paws, no ears, what could a skeleton do? Feel itself eroded away by wind and water, the odd gnaw and blown soil until finally it was dust in the air and stream and rock.

He hoped, oh how he hoped, that it felt like nothing to be dust.

The terror of fleeing death was nothing compared to the flashes his imagination showed him of what might lie after.

Now was not the time for that. Hunger cut the wild things insides like a beast within his stomach. It clawed and bit his insides as if trying to escape.

The wild thing scented the air, scanned the shadows and saw a scurrying form with broad tail. The wild thing crept toward it, staying down-wind and out of sight.

The wild thing drew closer and closer, the shadow-tailed shape…he remembered the taste of a word he used to call such things long, long ago.

(Words are bland and thin fare compared to blood and meat.)

Just as the creature noticed its approach, the wild thing leaped, sweeping paws together, and bared ts claws like tiny scimitars. It impaling the creatures belly four times over and scored red, four times, down its back.

The rodent squeaked and screamed. it tried to escape, though its guts had been ripped open. There was no way it could survive.

The wild thing played with it, batting it from paw to paw, enjoying its struggle, but the hero remembered himself.

Not much.

Hardly anything made it through the endless howl of Fear and Survival.

Enough to feel pity for the poor animal it had caught.

The wild thing, moved by drives it barely understood, darted forward, kindly jaws parted wide, to snap down upon the creature's neck, breaking it and tearing out its throat.

The snap of bone, the smack of ripping skin, and the salty tang of blood all pacified the wild thing, making the Dark feel a tiny bit further way.

As it ate, it hoped its dinner was well and truly senseless.

Driven by imagination, the hero's last and worst torment, the wild thing ate quickly, thoroughly, stripping every scrap of meat and carefully breaking and grinding each bone as finely as animal impatience would allow.

A small mercy, perhaps, but it hoped desperately for the same.

Bang, zoom! Take you to the moon

14 June 2017 8:46 AM (dream)

I was flying a spaceship! Except less flying than piloting weirdly. Here is how you use the hyperlight drive:

  1. Take a large dose of LSD to help with visualization.
  2. Launch from the space station dock.
  3. Extend your hyper-wheels.
  4. Land on the gigantic hypersphere, carefully choose your angle relative to a reference and start going faster and faster and faster.
  5. And faster. And FASTER! The three components of your velocity vector determine your displacement with c as the point at infinity. I cannot stress how carefully you must calibrate.
  6. Incidentally the feel of riding over the sphere was bumpy in the same way rollerskating on a smoothly varnished roller-rink is, which I'm quite sure would lead to disaster if you tried rolling wheels over something at relativistic velocity. Then again maybe it WAS fantastically smooth and the bumps only felt that way because of the relativistic velocity
  7. Also it's very hard to focus on the display because you can see all your saccades and the numbers shimmer and dance.
  8. Then push the button. Suddenly you're somewhere else.
I don't remember where I was going, just how I got there. Also the space station was kind of pretty. Very hexagonal.

Lost Near Home

4 June 2017 11:47 AM (dream)

I had a kitten (anthropomorphic, intelligent). I had taken him to the veterinarian and we were getting a Lyft back home. Due to some hiccup in the directions we ended up dropped off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere where someone had a big construction project going on and all the sidewalks were replaced with sidewalk-shaped in-ground swimming pools with people swimming around in them.

My kitten was unhappy about this, complaining that I'm always getting the two of us lost by not paying attention. I had uninstalled Google Maps from my phone because it was spending its time having as much latency as some sort of mad latency generating machine to the point of unusability. I still regretted not having it and fiddled around with trying to install it while my kitten tugged on my sleeve and mewed.

So I wandered back off, holding hands with my kitten trying to guess where to go based on the compass on my phone. Eventually, after making our way through construction projects, we ran into Kroger's. I at least knew how to get home from there so I zipped in and bought him an eight ounce carton of heavy cream as a treat for having been patient and we walked back home.

Labor Unions for Wolves

31 May 2017 12:44 PM (dream)

We were chasing a dangerous wolf through a mine. The mine was full of wolves, but most were the relatively tame and not very bright European wolf. The wolf we were tracking was the much larger, more dangerous, and more intelligent American timber wolf.

While we were following its paw prints to try and home in on it, the wolf jumped on someone from our group. We thought it was attacking them and ran over to try and make a rescue, but they were actually holding a conversation. The wolf had been thrown out of its home pack for refusing to cooperate with a reality television producer wanting to make a show about the pack. When trying to find a new home, he agreed to an exploitative labor contract with the old woman who owned the mine.

We couldn't get too angry at the woman though since she was in the process of falling into severe dementia, so we just got the wolf out of his contract and got him a job at the White House. The wolf was going to be hired by Donald Trump's secret, not-insane fourth son as the systems administrator in charge of all internal media systems with the goal of reprogramming the President by modifying all the news shows he watches. (He also got to fly away on an airplane which he'd always wanted to do.)


30 May 2017 8:06 PM (dream)

Across the street from where I worked there was some sort of seedy bar, and the two people who ran it had the same faces, voices, and manners of two people I worked with. Their personalities were different though, these two were weird primitives who clamped masks to the insides of their mouths when they slept in hopes of slowly changing their faces.

They were in constant fear of Government Agents and lived in constant paranoia that their Common Lisp Revolution would be thwarted. When I talked to them they were currently rewriting Kerberos in Lisp.


11 May 2017 1:49 PM (book review)

Veracity by Laura Bynum is not terribly good. After a viral outbreak (that turns out to be a cover for poisoning a bunch of people under the guise of forced vaccination) a new order rises up that is repressive and pointlessly violent for, as far as I can tell, the sake of being repressive and pointlessly violent. People are implanted with Slates that shock them for saying proscribed words. She is inspired to join the resistance (a group of people who have deactivated their Slates and revere a mysterious tome known as ‘The Book of Noah’) when her daughter's name (‘Veracity’) is proscribed. They fight the government, win, and Free expression is restored.

I expected that the Book of Noah, revered with semi-religious awe, would be one of the dictionaries descended from that of Noah Webster and it was. That's not a complaint. It was easy to see coming, but a nice touch nonetheless. The protagonist feels like a fleshed out character as do most of the other sympathetic characters.

Unfortunately, this book attempts to be dystopian and it isn't very good at it. Maybe I have strange standards, but I don't think 1984 is a good dystopia either. (Though it's better written.) This book has the same ‘boot stamping on a human face’ problem that 1984 does, except where 1984 created an otherworldy culture of pervasive surveillance, interpersonal betrayal, and a seemingly omnipotent Party apparatus that has made a science of repression, Veracity has a nasty group of unimaginative thugs who are violent and rapey for no particularly good reason. A good dystopia, in case you're wondering, is a failed dream, a mistake carried through to perfection, or (my personal favorite) a state that the inhabitants enjoy perfectly well but that gives the reader a case of the howling fantods. Brave New World and We are good dystopias. I also like things like Platonov, I just don't think of them as dystopian. More magical-realist description of and commentary on the world around them.

The comparison with 1984 shows the other problem with this book. If one wishes to write a Sapir-Whorfian dictatorship, one should portray the effect on the thoughts of the populace. If the effect is that people are sad that they can't say some words that they like or their poetic expression is a lacking due to a cramped vocabulary, it undercuts the message of the power of language, and also undercuts the state's motivation for imposing it. Also, a Sapir-Whorfian dictatorship only really makes sense with something of a technocracy, not pointlessly violent thugs.

So. While this book isn't painful to read, there isn't any point in doing so. ★★☆☆☆

One Week of Mastodon

7 May 2017 3:46 PM (the center cannot hold and is not needed)

I have never used Twitter. Microblogging was not a thing that appealed to me. I follow some people's Twitter feeds as RSS feeds and I have occasionally been tempted to make an account so I can tell some people to stop being stupid, but I never did.

Enter Mastodon. A federated, decentralized social network and microblogging platform based on open standards: OStatus in particular. OStatus itself is based on preëxisting web standards like ATOM (you can stick a user's ATOM URL into a feed reader and follow them that way, if you wish). It had been developed by Identi.ca (whose developers later moved in to Pump.io) and is used by GNU Social. Mastodon interoperates (mostly) with GNU Social and seems to have gained currency by focusing on being easy to set up and deploy for instance administrators and having a slick web UI and mobile clients. It also got lucky and hit the popular press.

Mastodon servers are called instances. Each instance has some number of users. Users make posts that can have varying degrees of publicity (some are 'private' and are only available to the people they're addressed to). Users can address posts (called 'toots') to or follow users on other instances and those instances may federate. I say ‘may’ because instance administrators may blacklist other instances (or filter them in other ways) or block federation with all instances not on a whitelist.

The convention at present among most instances is widespread, promiscuous federation (with a few instances known to harbor abusive users commonly blacklisted) is the norm. This is a generally nice system since two users can communicate without them having to agree on enemies. Some people dislike this model. I have seen people argue that the network must be intentionally 'balkanized' and the defaults changed to make everything private by default and remove the ability for arbitrary users to message each other in order to prevent abuse. Thankfully, few people seem interested in doing this. There are some whitelist-only instances, but even they seem to be fairly widely connected.

After listening to a talk on re-decentralizing the web, I figured I might as well give it a shot and created an account with which to play around. One of the problems that federated services like XMPP had was that there were many servers under different domains offering similar but not identical service. Users both had no intuitively appealing way to pick between one service and another and would sometimes be bit by whether their service supported offline messaging or other extensions to the protocol.

Mastodon has found, perhaps by accident, an interesting way to get around this. Instances can differentiate themselves in target audience, visual theme, code of conduct, moderation and federation policy, and even “local flavor” (renaming ‘likes’, ‘toots’, or ‘boosts’ to something silly). A user who logs in is presented with both a ‘local’ timeline (containing all toots on that user's instance) and a ‘federated’ timeline, containing all toots by users on instances that someone on the user's instance follows. This creates a sense of place and community while making it easy to reach out into the wider Fediverse.

The flagship instance, mastodon.social, became overloaded and stopped accepting new registrations, and this was a boon for the community because it made people go look through the list of instances and find one they liked to join. This combined with the locality and community that Mastodon instances provide seem likely to lock federation in as something people value about the service. (This has been a problem, historically. The average user doesn't care about openness, decentralization, and federation. Even if federation could provide things users do say they care about, like allowing them to migrate to differing levels of moderation, it's difficult to explain and sell them on the idea.)

This is also why I'm less bothered by moderation on Mastodon than I am on other sites. I believe that Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the like, should be legally forbidden from removing content no matter how hateful, offensive, obscene, or what have you it is claimed to be; they are large organizations with effective monopolies due to their network effect, and they are loyal to their advertisers and shareholders. Mastodon instances are, more or less, loyal to their users (several of them have Patreon accounts where you can kick in a dollar a month if you want to). They are small, and they are loosely coupled. If you don't like the moderation policy of one, you can leave and go to another more to your liking. Very few have ‘transitive’ federation requirements (they refuse to federate with anyone they won't federate with). Personally, I think instances with ‘transitive’ federation policies should be treated as bad actors and pressured to knock it off, since it breaks not having to agree with one's enemies.

So far, I found Mastodon to be rather pleasant. It's very well done from a software and organizational perspective. I don't know if microblogging is going to be something I really have much desire to keep up with (I expect it just depends on who I run into), but even if I don't keep using it, Mastodon has demonstrated that you can make an open, federated social service appealing to the mass market. At least temporarily.

The Treachery of Imaginings

18 April 2017 2:16 PM (musing)

We know that some people at some times and places have banned, for religious reasons, representational art. What about the opposite?

Someone could take the side that knowing God's creation allows us to know the mind of God and treat accurate sculpture and painting and, even more so once they exist, photography and cinema as sacramental. Perhaps they would end up with some Dogme 95 (a name now more appropriate than ever!) style restrictions on the practice of film making to ensure that what is seen is what is real.

You could have people reasonably push for edits at first, to cut out extraneous details as being better showing some aspect of the truth. Filters and fluorescence, infra-red cameras, those might all be allowed in more liberal areas.

Fictional accounts, pictures of scenes that never were, all these would be completely verboten. Music could be, beyond perhaps recitations with the pitch and rhythm of natural language accentuated.

You end up with potential for disagreements. If you want to show history, is it better to shoot scenes of life and speech as it is and painstakingly edit it together in a way that matches the narrative, or to get people to take on the roles of people they clearly aren't, do things they clearly wouldn't, say things they would never say, but produce an artifact that more truthfully reflects the history as it occurred?

You could save music, maybe, through a process like that used in Notjustmoreidlechatter, but built on any natural sounds.

Depending on where you live it might be a bad time for visual aids. A false image to convey an accurate concept like ball and stick models molecular models or diagrams of electron orbitals might be frowned upon indeed.

You could imagine both traditions branching off. The one that allows false images to convey true stories just seems to give way to ‘based on a true story-itis’. The other seems more promising. If you can throw away the narrative constraint entirely and tell whatever story you want so long as it's done in the form of a cinematic collage from found footage. Maybe you could even write ‘fiction’ of a sort so long as each phrase was copied verbatim from a nonfiction source.


18 April 2017 1:10 PM (dream)

I had a bunch of odd symptoms in my eyes, throat, and nose, tissue inflaming and flaking off. Since the virus infecting me causes rapid lightening of hair color and mine is already completely white, it took the doctors forever to think of it and diagnose it properly. The prescription was an antiviral named 'Cholo' as well as auric chloride. I was to stay away from people so as not to infect them and I'd be cured in three days.

Unfortunately, I managed somehow to run off without checking out properly and by the time I realized this the doctor's office was closed and I had to go bother people at the associated hospital to get them to send the prescription along and ended up getting committed to the hospital without meaning to for exhibiting drug-seeking behavior and when I told them I wanted my antiviral they just gave me motivational talks about willpower and how I could overcome my chemical dependency.

Eventually I managed to get out of the ward I was being held in and use one of the hospital phones to call in the prescription on my own and run away and catch the bus before they found me and take that to the drug store.

Adjectives can be verbed, too

18 April 2017 1:31 AM (language)

doppler v. To noisily move with such speed as to unsubtly exhibit the Doppler effect to stationary observers. As in “The airplane dopplered away.” or “The frightened driver dopplered his car down the road.”

The Owner of All Infernal Names

14 April 2017 1:13 AM (book review)

The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator by John Zande is a book with a really excellent, absolutely first-class title. That's honestly the reason why I read it. The ‘evil God’ challenge is cute and all, but not really all that interesting.

This book is an attempt at inverse apologetics. It takes the classical arguments for God's existence as read but takes advantage of their ambiguity to argue that the God they point to is Maximally Evil. It's cute, I guess. It feels a bit like someone took a quick joke with a simple punchline and tried to make a feature film out of it and just kept elaborating it.

The classical arguments for God's existence aren't any good, and the book glosses over them anyway. The real meat (such as it is) is in their argument for the moral nature of God and their solution to the Problem of Natural Good. Other people might be more sympathetic to the argument, but all it does is annoy me and make me angry with the author for being pathetic and contemptible. He argues that God must desire unhappiness in itself (sort of an inverse regressive utilitarian. It doesn't have any particular personal interest in you or your unhappiness, it just wants a rich, ever-growing supply of unhappiness.)

Why might God want unhappiness and suffering? Well, the author seems to believe these emotions are more varied, more true, more authentic, and more sincere. That they are longer lasting while others flare up brightly and fade away. This is probably a thing many people believe, but I don't. Similarly he argues that if God were good then the universe would tend toward simple, unthinking structures, rather than the increase of complexity, since increased complexity primarily creates opportunities for richer and more varied suffering. Again, this may be something other people believe, but I don't. I hate and despise misery and pain, but ultimately I think it's less real and varied than other emotions, of less import, and less long-lasting. Certainly I've had experiences that I can't think about in any detail without starting to cry, but I've had experiences I can't think about without laughing or being overcome with delight or just wanting to grin like a fool and hug my cat. Despair seems much more prone to being worn away by delight than the other way around.

The author's defense against the Problem of Natural Good is, more or less, what you would expect. He invokes the tired, old nonsense about hope being the greatest evil in life because it alone keeps people from lying down and dying and suggests that good is really an illusion. That all goodness is an investment that keeps the creator's creatures running, striving, building new dreams to dash, and setting themselves up for so much delicious disappointment. He also claims that every seeming good, no matter how small, lends itself to a cornucopia of suffering down the line. To be fair, if you are more sympathetic to the author's emotional assumptions, he probably succeeds better at answering the Problem of Natural Good than most traditional monotheists do at answering the Problem of Natural Evil even if you accept their assumptions. I don't think this is so much a credit to the author as a consequence of how bad most answers to the Problem of Natural Evil are.

Obviously I don't think it ‘succeeds’ in its argument, if I did I'd be living my life in despair and shuddering horror…no that's false. If it thought it had proved its argument that God exists and wills despair and misery, I'd just shrug and say that God's opinion on the purpose of life is no more relevant than anyone else's, that the whole thing is ultimately meaningless, whistle a tune, and continue acting basically as before.

I give it two and a half stars (out of five) for having what is really a wonderful title and for a workmanlike book-length presentation of an idea that would have done better as a magazine article.


12 April 2017 3:45 PM (dream)

I wrote a book and got it published!

Unfortunely I didn't actually have a copy. I wanted to keep it on the shelf so when people came and looked through my bookcase they would notice my name on the spine. Yes, yes, vanity, I know. You just can't do that with the digital edition.

So I went to Amazon. This wasn't their corporate headquarters, this was a theme park that Amazon ran that was similar to Disney World with rides and attractions and tours of everything, but I kept going through all the book stores to see if anyone had a copy of my book and they didn't.

There were employee only computer terminals that I tried to check but people kept catching me and throwing me out whenever I tried to use one.

PSA: This Is Your Brain on Depression

2 April 2017 2:54 PM (better living through chemistry)

This is your periodic reminder that depressive realism is a bunch of bunk. Depressive realism is the ill-defined notion that either depression is the correct and healthy result of seeing the world for what it is (this is tied up with the idea that intelligent people are or must be or somehow should be unhappy) or that depression somehow strips away the illusions people wrap themselves in and allows one to see the world as it is.

Lars von Trier's (whom you may remember as the gentleman who famously combined Willem Dafoe, a fox, autophagia, and the phrase ‘chaos reigns’ into a scene in his movie Antichrist) film Melancholia was written to just this theme. Von Trier heard from a therapist that depressed people act more calmly in disasters than others because they already expect the worst (whether this is true, I don't know. If it is, it could instead be that they are more prone to dissociation, which can itself make people more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder. It could also be an effect similar to increased suicide risk on some SSRIs; patients would really like to die, but don't have the energy to kill themselves, and sometimes their motivation is restored before their desire to live. A lack of panic could, similarly, be a lack of energy.) and wished to create a world in which terrible, crippling depression was the correct response: one in which the earth was destroyed. His protagonist not only becomes calm, almost serene, as the point of destruction grows closer and everyone else descends into panic and despair, but simply knows things with great detail for no reason at all, as if her melancholy was a telegraph wire into the universe. It's a beautifully made movie and you should watch it. You probably won't like it. I didn't like it, but I'm happy to have seen it since it is very well made as a film and I like to try and grasp the feelings and thoughts of people who think differently than I. It does an excellent job of portraying how depression feels from the inside, but not how it relates to reality.

There are two fundamental problems with the claims of depressive realism. The first is that in experiments depression adds a systematic bias rather than improving overall accuracy. Depressed people believe they have less control in situations. In situations where they actually do have less control, they're right more often. In situations where they don't, they're wrong. They consistently expect worse outcomes, so when games are rigged against them, their predictions are more correct, when games aren't rigged against them, they aren't. They expect others to work against them. When they actually are in a hostile social situation they're more correct, when they aren't, they aren't.

It is undeniable that healthy people are not exemplars of rational prediction. They overestimate their likely success and the amount of control they have over things. I have long said that humans are really bad at probability to anyone who will listen. However, we should be able to agree that replacing one systematic bias with another is not called realism.

Furthermore, it's not adaptive. Perhaps if you were in Lars von Trier's world you might argue that lying still doing nothing is a rational and healthy response to the world being swallowed up by a gas giant. My sympathies lie more with the people in Seveneves who went out with songs and concerts and fireworks when all surface life was destroyed. It doesn't really matter, because ‘the end of the world’ is not happening any time soon. Even if one will be dead from some terminal disease in six months, the rest of the world will still be there afterward and they can affect it before they go.

The types of behavior that depression brings about are not adaptive for dealing with the world. Certainly not an unfriendly and dangerous world. The symptoms of depression are almost identical to sickness behavior, a state that keeps animals still, inactive, away from others, and out of trouble. Depression may, in fact, be a healthy response to disease that has somehow become enacted continually. There are researchers pursuing the theory that depression might have a strong immune or inflammatory component. Depression is not a healthy response to the world, to culture, to troubles at work, and certainly not to having someone you don't like get elected.

The second problem with depressive realism is that depression causes cognitive impairment. It interferes with your memory. It makes it difficult to concentrate. It makes one's thoughts slow and fogged. It also, famously, distorts people's thoughts. A normal person may rate their level of control in a situation overly highly, but when presented with evidence to the contrary, the normal person is more likely to consider and reason through the evidence and change their mind than a depressed person is to similarly change their mind when given evidence that their appraisal of their control in a situation is overly low.

That makes the idea of depressive realism incredibly suspect. It's not impossible that the same condition could cause some large cognitive deficits and clarity in some other areas, but it's unlikely, and I would need a lot of really good evidence to believe it.

Depressive realism does ring true to a lot of depressed people, and there's an excellent explanation for that: the aforementioned cognitive impairments and the feedback from depressive behavior. Well, that and the well-known phenomena that depression is greedy. It will reach out and find or make reasons for its own existence. Someone, when in a non-depressed state, may recognize that they merely feel lonely. In a depressed state they might not just feel lonely, but believe that everyone hates them. Every bit of kindness they're shown can be forgotten, and any slight can be magnified and turned into more evidence. They might withdraw from their friends and acquaintances or be unpleasant to them, and use the way their friends respond to bolster the belief that they are hated. They could come to the conclusion that their feelings are simply a healthy and rational response to seeing a world where everyone hates them as it is, when instead they're seeing a grotesque caricature of a world their feelings and actions have influenced.

Why does this matter to me? Because embracing depressive realism, especially in its ‘folk’ forms, destroys people's lives. Not only is it false, it doesn't even have the decency to be one of the lies that ennobles us. People who fall prey to it, instead of questioning their preconceptions, take them as truth. They decide that the world or society just doesn't value original or creative people so they won't bother. They get the ridiculous idea in their head that they are the enemy of society for this or that reason. They think they must fail, and so fail by never trying. Intelligent people, like them, see the world and all its hollowness for what it is. Empathetic people, like them, see how cruel and empty our culture really is and understand that there's no way for a healthy, sane person to exist inside it in any state of happiness; they're the real sane ones, and you would need to be delusional to be happy in such a terrible world.

You could think of it as the evil twin of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: a learned pattern of thought optimized to make one less functional and more in thrall to one's disease.

Not the best designs

1 April 2017 12:02 PM (dream)

I dreamed I was visiting people.

During the daytime, children were playing with InkSlingers!™ Parents. Do you want your children to have the fun of playing with squirt guns without having anything that remotely resembles a gun for some reason? Then you want InkSlingers!™. They're devices that superficially resemble hand-held directional antennae made of brightly colored plastic. By turning the crank an ingenious mechanism dips into the ink reservoir and hurls droplets of ink forward, while a parabolic guard keeps you from getting it hurled into your own face.

Most of the rest of the dream took place at night and made the general awfulness of some devices especially unpleasant. There was the passive-aggressive alarm clock that would, out of nowhere, start saying to the person in bed next to it “Why do you feel the need to hide the fact you're unhappy all the time?” and seems unable to believe that people are capable of not being unhappy all the time. Fortunately you can turn it off if you mash the right set of buttons.

There was also an angry television. I wasn't quite sure if it was a Russian television and that's why it was always showing news stories about Putin, or if we were in Russia and that's what just happened to be on the television. When you would use any kind of infra-red control of any sort for any device, this television would take it as a personal affront that you weren't speaking infra-red in a language it could understand and start shouting…in the voice of Vladimir Putin.

There was also a humidifier that someone designed to be as friendly as possible for the growth of bacteria and fungi under the idea that we should be breathing pro-biotic air, so you were supposed to prime it with a bit of SCOBY rubbed all over the inside and fill it with sugar water instead of water.

The Soft War

30 March 2017 8:01 PM (politics)

Once upon a time there was a great nation called The United Kingdom. For no particularly good reason, a small majority of its citizens voted to sunder their nation from the European Union. Exactly why is a matter people have argued about for almost a year and will probably continue to debate for some time. Several officials in the EU have declared their intent to punish the United Kingdom to discourage other countries from trying to leave. Many other officials have come out against any form of punishment on the grounds that it would hurt the EU, too. This proposed punishment takes the form of bad trade terms: forcing the United Kingdom to deal with Europe strictly according to World Trade Organization rules. Could they do worse?

Let us imagine that the European Union had a vendetta against the United Kingdom and wanted to do it harm. It seems that an easy jumping-off-point is a matter that will have to be negotiated: the fate of citizens of the European Union in the United Kingdom and citizens of the United Kingdom in the European Union. If the European Union wanted to hurt the United Kingdom, it should give citizens of the United Kingdom indefinite license to remain in European Union countries. If they could manage it, they could go further: offering them five years residence but requiring they take citizenship in some member of the European Union to remain after that. Ideally they would fast track the procedure. This would be very difficult legally, since matters of citizenship and immigration from outside the European Union are left up, I believe, to member states.

You could go further, automatically granting five to ten years working residency to any citizen of the United Kingdom admitted to a university in the European Union; ideally their admission residency would be conditional on their agreeing to spend five to ten years working somewhere in the European Union after graduation. One could try giving scholarships to high performers to attract them, depending on political will and exactly how much one wanted to punish the United Kingdom by attempting to hollow it out. If you could convince people to transfer United Kingdom for European citizenship that would be the most effective.

Making businesses relocate should be easy. The United Kingdom may manage it on its own just by leaving the single market, though there is some rumor that the United Kingdom hopes to turn itself into a low tax haven; if they do hamstring their on revenue generation to that degree people might be even more prone to emigrate to European Union member states.

Is there more one could do? Perhaps they could try to have the United Kingdom excluded from multilateral trade talks. Beyond that, I'm not sure. If the European Union accumulated prestige of a sort, admiration for its institutions, it might use it to marginalize and exclude the United Kingdom from things, as well as trying to gain stronger associations in popular consciousness with ideals people had thought of in connection with the United Kingdom.

I wouldn't be in support of anything like this. All things being equal I'm rather fond of the United Kingdom if not of its current government, and I'm usually opposed to trying to be horrible to other polities. Reading current coverage of the European Union simply made me start to wonder how far one could carry a diplomatic, attractive, sweet, and soft war.

♪ Secret Secret, I've got a Secret ♪

30 March 2017 0:11 AM (society)

Come muse, let us sing silently of secrets. I am not particularly devoted to privacy, digital or otherwise. This comes as a surprise to people because many of my actions and stances are those that privacy activists would take.

It is true, I do not care for centralized services. I like to disentangle myself from 10¹⁰⁰ whenever possible. I refuse to use Countenance nor do I ask the Summingbird's dam to carry messages to my friends.

The privacy advocate does these things because they do not want to be tracked and they do not want want people to see their communications. I do them because I have an extreme dislike for centralized architectures. If a system cannot be decentralized and either run complete peer-to-peer or federated I (unlike a certain Mr. Marlinspike, may all traffic to or from him be dropped) am not interested. Decentralized systems with multiple poles are more resiliant and they provide more variation. A decentralized system also insists on a certain level of transparency and openness of the protocol so that there will be more clients and more ways of presenting it. It also provides a barrier against one actor deciding to migrate a service or protocol in ways that incorporate customer control or illegitimate restrictions.

You might wonder then why I have set up HTTPS, why I am interested in cryptography, why I use OTR, and why I use GnuPG? While I may or may not have anything to hide, I know other people do. I view that and running a Tor node and other activities as a public service. The more encrypted traffic there is the less legitimate reason there is to zero in on any individual who encrypts something.

Also cryptography and the software associated with it is just plain fun and interesting to work on. I don't have any need for Darkgit (and seeing the SecuShare people make their project difficult to contribute to by trying to move development discussions out of the open has convinced me it's pretty bad idea), it's still entertaining to try and figure out how to do it and work out the details.

I am fairly lucky in that I don't have many secrets and the ones I have aren't particularly important. If they were all revealed it would cause me some awkwardness and a bit of embarrassment, but nothing that would last for very long. The only secrets that I must keep are the ‘trivial’ secrets of passwords, credit card numbers, private keys. They don't serve to give someone information about me, they just allow someone to impersonate me.

Now, I don't advocate any sort of encryption ban because that would be stupid and unenforcible. Nor do I advocate people giving up on encryption or anything like that, but I do have a very strong bias toward the idea of a world with no secrets at all. Jeremy Bentham (the founder of utilitarianism!) thought privacy was in fact a social ill. I don't necessarily agree with him, but I don't necessarily agree that privacy is a definite social good either.

So, the first obvious argument in favor of privacy is the research that people who know they are being surveilled behave differently. They become more risk averse and stressed. They become less creative, productive, and helpful. One might ask whether these effects are caused by the surveillance itself or the asymmetry. It's not beyond possibility that being watched by a black box that gives you no idea what it's doing with the information and over which you have no say is different from being watched by a transparent box that has to account to you for everything it looks at and what it does with the information. There has been, to my knowledge, no research done to decide which of these two is the case. David Brin's “The Transparent Society” comes down clearly on the second term of the disjunction and argues for sousveillance as the appropriate counterpart to surveillance in a democratic society.

There are of course people who have secrets whose revelation would cause much worse than awkwardness and embarrassment. The classic example is someone in a sexual minority whose regional or social group is religiously conservative. Their ‘outing’ could result in anything from their family disowning them to someone trying to kill them. There are also people like >this gentleman who was subjected to a campaign of harassment, discrimination, and finally expelled from a development community in which he made his livelihood over his participation in a Fantasy-inflected BDSM subculture. (This is an example of why I am so utterly contemptuous of ‘We must not tolerate intolerance!’ The people who ran the campaign of harassment doubtless did think he was misogynistic and intolerant and that they were protecting the vulnerable members of their community.)

There is a counterargument that is somewhat compelling in principle. We know from recent history that the wide acceptance and ongoing civil rights of gay and transgender people were the product of wide visibility and normalization. Of course having everyone of a minority coordinate to be ‘out’ at the same time is infeasible and some minorities may be too small to get the kind of wide-spread visibility required. At the start of any attempt at widespread normalization, consequences for those participating could be quite dire, even more so if there is a strong church in the area or government institutions of violent repression. One certainly cannot blame people for wanting to stay hidden. On the other hand, if everyone in a group hides, then things are especially bad for any who are revealed.

Some people may, also, be targets of harassment. They could, quite legitimately want to keep their personal contact information private. This seems to be a thing that happens to an unfortunate number of women online. A more trivial example might just be wanting to keep one's email address from getting out too broadly to avoid spam. I could imagine a world with no secrets where mapping software and online calendars makes it easy for people to waylay one on the street. This is not desirable.

I would also worry about the ability of children to keep non-trivial (and trivial) secrets from their parents. I think it's very important for children to be able to access material that their parents do not want them to have (to the point where I think any well-functioning state must provide a means for children to circumvent parental censorship). If the parents can just find out and punish them for it the whole point is rather lost. There might be similar arguments made for children being able to communicate with people without their parents' knowledge. I don't know if children generally have a legitimate need to go to physical places without their parents' knowledge, but I wouldn't rule it out without some thought. All of these examples are only necessary in the case of defective parents, however. There's no legitimate need for a parent to censor their child's access to information, for example.

Access to medical records or personal history could lead to employment or other forms of discrimination or differential pricing, though the Affordable Care Act already disallows some of that for institutions that have all medical information, so secrecy may not be necessary. Similarly, I would like to see criminal convictions removed from the record after a sentence is served with a prosecutor required to prove a strong need to retain them for them to remain. Sealing or removing records rather goes against the whole idea of removing secrecy. This removal may not be useful. Ban the Box (the campaign to remove the checkbox on the front page of employment applications asking about past convictions) resulted in more black applicants simply not being called back. Similarly, a law in Washington banning employers from making credit checks penalized black and young applicants. Sealing records of convictions may have the effect of simply penalizing demographic groups that have higher rates of criminal conviction.

There is also, of course, the secret ballot. Someone who is a political minority in their community might not vote their conscience if they feared reprisal.

I don't consider financial secrecy to be of any social utility. Being unable to trace ownership of resources is starting to cause serious political and financial problems. Trade secrets serve no legitimate purpose and legal protection for them should be scrapped.

Now, as I said, I don't propose that we go out and end secrecy for everyone forever right now. However, all of these examples of legitimate, non-trivial secrets are legitimized only by serious problems in society, mostly discrimination. Obviously we should fight against that, try to find ways to combat and lessen the impact of harassment. On a personal level, any time we find ourselves thinking of some trait that, if we were to find someone possessed it, we would be tempted to try to push them out of a community or keep them from some position, we really ought to fix that. Even if we still keep secrets, a world where we don't have to cannot help but be better than one where we do.

A Necessary Parliament

28 March 2017 5:25 PM (musing | religion)

William Lane Craig (who is a bad man) likes Divine Command Theory. He attempts to escape the Euthyphro dilemma and arbitrariness (“But what if God commanded us to eat children?”) by saying that it is not the commandments but the character of God that constitute goodness. He tries to dodge the question of “But what if God had possessed a character that delighted in the eating of children?” by claiming that God is a necessary being (a being that couldn't not exist) and that God's character is similarly necessary. In his view, it is incoherent to ask about a world where God's character differs.

I'm not keen on the notion of a ‘necessary being’ (or divine command theory or any of the rest), but! the notion of a necessary being comes out of two arguments. The Cosmological Argument purports to prove the existence of a necessary being able to serve as a metaphysical or explanatory First Cause. There isn't much moral character implied there.

The Ontological Argument aims higher and asks for a being that is maximally knowing, powerful, good and possessed of all perfections and tries to show why such a being must necessarily exist. Alvin Plantinga's ‘Victorious’ Ontological Argument is the current favorite, so! For the sake of argument let's assume old Alvin has magicked us up a Necessary Being. What do we get?

If your notion of 'Goodness' derives from God then you can't really appeal to being Maximally Good as part of your specification for your necessary being. The character is unspecified and your necessary being is under-determined: There are lots and lots! of necessary beings that fit the bill.

So! What if worlds had all possible Gods? And not in the limited squabbling Greek sort, but a parliament of Supreme Beings. What would it look like?

All our Gods are omnipotent; we will say that one is omnipotent if the world conforms to one's will. Thus, in any possible world, the wills of all existing Gods must be in concord. In any world with multiple Gods, no God has a strong, willed preference about every facet of the world. There could be some possible worlds that happen to have the degenerate case of only one God who wills preferences concerning every aspect of the world. (Alternatively a Maximally Willing God could be accompanied by any number of completely apathetic Gods who don't will anything.) Also if Gods are omniscient, then a God must either be the only one existing in a world, or no Gods want to keep secrets.

You could have a Science Fiction like scenario where every God has some number of planets or sectors of space about which it wills things. You could have slightly different laws of physics as you move around. Gods could be on friendly terms. They might be on Unfriendly terms. Perhaps each God wills events in its sector of space in the attempt to draw people to move their from other Gods' areas. (This would require an appeal to the nonsensical claptrap of free will to make this not a violation of omnipotence.)

Gods with an artistic bent might have wills that mostly overlap. Imagine a world where all Gods want a functioning ecosystem, but one wants the most beautiful clouds and takes over making each one. Another wants the waves to crest just so. Another wants beautiful lava flows.

The God of Paperclips may want to maximize the number of paperclips in the universe. That isn't necessarily a catastrophe, when the omnipotent God of Sapience builds a beautiful Paperclip Ecosystem filled with shiny, tinkly Paperclip People famed throughout the cosmoi for their philosophical insight and paperclip poetry.

Could Gods change their will? It's not obvious that they couldn't so long as the new will doesn't conflict with some other God's will. Perhaps every time such a conflict happens the world bifurcates with each disagreeing God having his own worldclone. That seems unfair to OTHER Gods in the world who were getting along well with each other. Can Gods be in more than one world? Otherwise you could have Gods harm each other by changing their minds.

You could instead have Ranked Will. Where any Omnipotent God can enact a Level 1 Will so long as no Level 0 Will opposes it. This increases possible sets of Gods that could share worlds. One God with a Level 0 Will to do so could flood the world even if all Gods are opposed to it, just so long as it's not the thing they care about most.

That isn't as narratively appealing as the Concordant Will. Gods could have 'spheres', things about which they happen to Will things. They could be very small Spheres. It's unlikely the Divine Parliament would answer prayer given the potentially catastrophic consequences of changing one's will, but they might explain things. Since each God has a distinct Moral Nature (and all moral natures of the Gods in any world just happen to produce concordant Wills) each might write a different theodicy. The religions in this world might all believe in the same Gods, but they might side with different ones on ethical debates.


13 March 2017 10:15 AM (dream)

A friend of mine came to work at the same company I do and I ended up supervising him. As part of his job he had the identity of a werewolf from 1940s Germany who fled to the future to escape Nazi persecution grafted onto him. That is, the timeline was basically just bolted on to his, so he went from not being the werewolf to having always been the werewolf.

I assigned him a task from Bugzilla that required him to go to another universe to fight some horrible abomination (this was considered normal in context). Unfortunately, he could never get time to do it because people kept throwing other reports from Bugzilla at him about replication and metadata problems.

Treason uncloaked

12 March 2017 3:08 PM (dream)

My older (fictional) brother became sick from a Langfordian basilisk, or at least something like it: a form of insanity usually caused by watching patterns of faint lights against darkness moving in some particular way. Its most common victims were unlucky astronomers.

An organization devoted to evil offered to treat him. I accepted because I was a bit desperate and I thought even if the overall goals you work for are reprehensible that doesn't mean you spend all day kicking puppies.

I was mistaken. They had given him the disease in the first place, an their treatment was just cover for installing all manner of mental domination to turn him into a weapon.

This is where I woke up.

Knock knock

4 March 2017 3:08 PM (dream)

It was summer time. I was watching two children who were having some squabble I needed to mediate. I heard a knock from the other room and went to answer. The main door was open, but the screen door wasn't. Through it I saw a figure like a shadow holding a huge club. He ran to the screen door and started bashing through it. I tried to slam the door shut but it caught on a rug.

(I woke up with rather a start at that point.)

Smashing Platitudes Together

1 March 2017 9:39 PM (musing)

If rights come from self-ownership and you don't own what you don't hack, does that mean that only people who practice meditation, psychedelic drug use, nootropics, and biohacking have rights?

Living death

22 February 2017 1:54 PM (dream)

A husband was with his wife. She was confined to bed with some horrible disease, but her spine was giving her constant anguish.

The doctors said the only treatment was to remove her spine. They would need to remove her ribs since there was no spine for them to attach to. Her pelvis had to go for the same reason. And her arms and legs would be useless with no bones to anchor the muscles that moved them, so they had to go, too.

She would be a bag of organs with a head attached, and would no longer be able to breathe on her own without ribs to support her diaphragm. They would make a plastic dome to cover her and protect her organs.

She said she would rather die.

Time and again

12 February 2017 9:51 PM (dream)

At work, we had to travel back in time for some purpose. Our time travel bus(!) broke down in late 1930s Germany and we all did our very best to keep our heads down and get it fixed. I kept wondering when someone would notice that I was way too blonde-haired and blue-eyed. One of my co-workers for no reason I could figure out suddenly started yelling that he was Jewish in the middle of a city and we tried to grab him and drag him onto the bus.


20 January 2017 7:13 PM (dream)

I was about to have surgery, a neurologist was giving me an examination to make sure I wouldn't have a bad reaction to the anæsthesia. He had me perform a few multiple choice tests and gave me a bunch of cardboard backed pictures and had me see how many shapes I could cut out of the pictures with a jigsaw as fast as I could. Much to my surprise I managed to cut along the outlines perfectly without losing any fingers.

The doctor was shocked and insisted that the tests showed I had some terrible, serious problem and needed to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. I tried to get him to tell me what he thought was wrong, but he just insisted his tests showed that there WAS something wrong. When no psychiatrist showed up, he had me get on an airplane and fly to see one. ON the airplane I had a huge state room with a crystal to unlock the door and a shallow pool in the center.

Apologies to Leonard Cohen and Georg Cantor (master of the Infinite!) and…basically everyone

18 January 2017 7:49 PM (musing | filk)

I heard there was a number found
Exceeding any count unbound,
But you don't really like set theory, do you?
It goes like this: assume a list,
Build on a slant on that can't fit,
And know by contradiction: Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Your mind is strong,
But you doubt the proof.
You're sure it's a supernal goof
To think the never-ending could be factual.
There's an endless path one may traverse,
But nowhere in the universe,
Will there ever be an actual Hallelujah!


They wanted to test every truth
But all they got was an iron proof
Of all the things of which they can't be certain
But even though it bore no fruit
We'll still seek out the Absolute
And try to comprehend the Hallelujah!


Troubled Youth

18 January 2017 11:55 AM (dream)

There was a shelter for at-risk and troubled youth, most of the employees were Catholic priests of some sort. When a five year old boy took several people hostage with a knife, the one employee who wasn't a catholic priest tried to win him over and calm him down by dressing as Santa Claus and getting him to laugh. While this was going on a priest kept trying and failing to use the telephone due to the phone lines using the same physical conductors as the power lines.

Dark Matters

10 January 2017 2:31 PM (history)

This Obituary for person who proved the existence of dark matter is worth reading for the reminder it gives that the exclusion of women from the natural sciences, even as recently as the '50s and '60s, a much more direct and vicious thing than the condescension and neglect we see now. I had heard stories of Marie Curie having to sneak into classrooms and hide under tables, but I had thought that by the middle of the last century we had already entered the age of glass ceilings and bias in reviewing contributions.

My Heart Is a Vector Space

9 January 2017 6:19 PM (life | better living through chemistry)

Most people don't understand how I feel. This isn't their fault; my emotions do not work in the normal way. I have Bipolar Affective Disorder I. ‘Bipolar’ is a bad name for the condition, as it suggests a straight line connecting depression and mania upon which any mood can be plotted with euthymia (the somewhat dystopian sounding psychiatric term for a normal mood state) somewhere in the middle. This is false.

Decades back, they called my condition ‘manic-depressive insanity’ and described it as a pattern of abnormal mood states comprising some mixture of the extremes of mania and depression. This is different from the general understanding of today where the two are viewed as opposites. I think of them as basis vectors that can be combined to find a mood. (One could subdivide mania and depression still further into independent components.) What we think of as ‘mania’ is simply a combination where depression's contribution is fairly small and vice versa.

When psychiatrists refer to a ‘mixed state’ they mean the most extreme combination, where depression and mania are both maxed out. This is considered a medical emergency and is, as far as I can tell, the worst thing in the world. One feels an incredible sense of wrongness and an intensity of emotional pain that dwarfs any physical suffering I've ever felt. The last time it happened to me was more than eight years ago and I still can't think of it in detail for too long without ending up in tears. By comparison, feeling like I was going to die of asphyxiation was much less traumatic. This kind of mixed state leaves me physically shaking, speaking too fast to be understood yet unable to make complete sentences (since I kept interrupting myself), and generally not functioning well. This is what finally got me to seek psychiatric treatment. That this is called ‘a mixed state’ is unfortunate, because there are mixtures that, while probably not the most wonderful thing in the world, are much less malignant.

I experience a near constant low-level (at least when it's not higher level) hypomania. (This worries my treatment providers who have commented on it, but since it's stable they haven't tried to do anything about it.) This is likely from the effects of light on mood state (intensely bright light is known to precipitate mania in people predisposed to it) and the fact that, for me, there is no such thing as a non-bright light. (I can stand outside on an overcast winter solstice at the fourth hour past noon and the sun is still painfully bright.) This has some obvious upsides (ha-ha-ha); it gives me a certain baseline intellectual energy and excitement and probably contributes to my general skill at liking things. I feel as if I have a constant inner fire burning. It has one obvious downside that I've written about before: my impulse control is impaired, causing me to take up meditation.

People think that this means that I'm euphoric all the time and immune to unhappiness or depression. This is false. (I do seem to be immune to most forms of long-lived anxiety, though.) My experience of depression is brighter and sharper than what most people experience. Due to my ‘internal fire’, I seldom if ever feel the complete loss of energy, lack of interest, or lack of pleasure that so often characterizes depression.

I'm still interested in things, but I have difficulty getting started on them. If I manage to and make some progress, it often makes me feel better, at least temporarily. I feel an intense sadness combined with an intense longing for something I can't name. I might be quite lonely, while also withdrawing from places I normally find companionship. This isn't because I don't enjoy people, but because I find my normal euphoria turning to irritability, and minor annoyances are much more likely to make me feel sour, like there's too much fuss to deal with, and make me want to withdraw. (Also I have enough sense to know that being around me when I'm feeling particularly irritable is not a fun time.)

Having the ‘inner fire’ is still pretty useful during depression, since it gives me the motivation to keep moving forward. I think that makes it harder for this kind of state to become self-reinforcing compared to the normal depression in most people. There still seems to be a longer term effect; I can get excited and interested in something and really enjoy myself even be properly euphoric but slide back down into unhappiness again fairly quickly, so there is definitely some sort of longer-term potential that holds on, and even in the smaller ‘up’ cycles within a longer term depression, there's a larger potential for irritability. I have also noticed a repeating depressive pattern that sometimes holds of more depressed mood in the mornings that move toward more euphoric or agitated moods at night. This doesn't mean I'm always depressive or that this is my life all the time, it's just one kind of affective state I experience.

So, why am I telling you this? Because it's nice to be understood, even by total strangers. The world is a large place with a huge range of differing experience and recording more of them is worthwhile. More usefully, consider it my own little contribution to destroying the stigma of mental illness.

Caustic Lunacy

3 January 2017 11:09 AM (life)

I went to the surgical technician today so he could see how well my surgical wound was healing up. Everything was filled in nicely, but the wound had not closed properly. In technical terms. the edges were rolled and there was hypergranulation: the tissue that had filled in the wound was peeking up above the surface, preventing the edges of the epithelium (the 'top layer' if you will) from touching and fusing together.

The technician decided to use silver nitrate to corrode away the hypergranulation.

Silver nitrate has many uses in medicine, though has been replaced by antibiotics and other treatments for many purposes, though the Spectre of Resistance is making some practitioners rethink that. It was briefly used to kill pathogens in drinking water, but fears of argyria caused it to be displaced by chlorine.

Silver nitrate (called lunar caustic in old medical texts) is still used today as a chemical cautery. The powder is fused together into a solid lump on the ends of a stick, giving something that looks like a kitchen match. This is then rubbed on small bleeding blood vessels to stop the bleeding or on tissue to gently corrode small portions away.

Ever since I discovered that this was a thing that is done, I have wanted rather strongly to try it. I'm weird. I know. I think it's the name. How can you not want someone to shove something called lunar caustic into an open wound? I had been thinking I'd request it if I ever needed a wart removed, so I was kind of pleased when the technician decided to use it.

I was also a bit apprehensive, as I was expecting it to hurt quite a lot. It didn't; the worst it got was a mild burning, hardly notable when you're expecting to have to grit your teeth and get a white knuckled grip on something to suffer through it.

My tissues have been put on notice that they are expected to behave themselves and re-epithelialize.

The World

3 January 2017 3:12 AM (musing)

I am, to an embarrassing degree, an animist. Perhaps I should say that my emotions and imagination, though not my beliefs, are animistic. While I have occasionally experimented with the idea of panpsychism, I don't believe it. It's untestable even in principle, and it makes me much more uncomfortable with the idea of dying than the thought of ceasing to exist does.

Like everyone, when sleep runs low and excitement runs high, I can't help but feel the world is alive with thought and significance everywhere. Even apart from that, however, I have trouble not imagining the workings of abstract physical theories that way.

In an MRI machine, a powerful magnetic field aligns the nuclei of all the hydrogen atoms in all the water molecules in the body. Pulses of radio waves throw the nuclei out of alignment, and each emits a tiny radio signal when it realigns. When I think of this, I cannot help but think of the phrase in the book of Job: “and all the sons of God shouted for joy”.

In Bremsstrahlung electrons moving at a high velocity will, when decelerating, emit high energy photons. This is how most x-ray machines work; they accelerate a beam of electrons and smash them into a hunk of metal. I cannot think of this without imagining the electrons as screaming and laughing at every stop and turn like kids on a roller coaster.

When I think of the light streaming from the nuclear inferno of a star's core, I hear in my mind a constant joyous shout and song of acclamation, as if every particle involved were in constant rapture at enacting its behavior.

I sometimes imagine a fanciful theodicy where the particles making up all matter and energy are the intended beneficiaries of creation, with the world made for their delight in their interactions with each other. We more complex systems would then be an afterthought, an unavoidable byproduct. Think what a horrible injustice it would be to deprive a few million quarks and electrons out of their bliss and subject them to the anguish of a miracle just to spare one human the misery of polio. It's not a very good theodicy, and it utterly fails when omnipotence is taken into account as most theodicies do, since it simply begs the question of why God couldn't have made a universe in which larger scale systems live in endless bliss too. As usual, throwing God in the rubbish bin improves matters by eliminating the question of conscious choice between infinite alternatives.

This vision of the world feels in some way isomorphic to (but shinier than) an unconscious and meaningless world. Constant joy at every fulfillment of natural law just moving the zero point upward. Since natural law is always obeyed, there is no variation in the delight of matter over time, one might say there's no difference.

Claiming it makes no difference seems awfully inconsiderate of all matter in the universe (for whom it certainly makes some difference). Further, an affective symmetry that leaves the emotional state of our universe unchanged regardless of what we assign to zero would imply that no happiness can be created without an equal unhappiness. Yes, I know. Treating 'mindless and unconscious' as equivalent to the zero on a scale of gradations is illegitimate. And emotions are more vectors than scalars and not really comparable outside of very narrow variations. It's just fun to take a few symbols and run with them to places they don't have any business being.

Still, thinking of the entire cosmos as endless song and exultation With our own unhappiness as merely secondary side effects on a slower and much larger scale makes them feel rather different.

From the Ashes of Disaster

3 January 2017 2:46 AM (life)

Once upon a time, I went to Minnesota to be cured of the dreaded butt pneumonia. I organized my trip quite thoroughly, much more so than I organize most things. I planned in advance, arranged all my travel, and didn't put off packing until just before I had to leave.

This was a mistake. When I arranged my trip to the airport, I somehow scheduled my ride at the same time I needed to get there. I didn't realize this until a few minutes before the car arrived. I felt woe and sadness and a bit of fear that I might miss my flight.

I had made my margin for error so wide that I arrived at the airport fifty minutes before my departure. I thought I was home free. I'd check in, go through security, and be on my way.

The TSA had other ideas. Only one scanner was running, the line seemed almost completely unwilling to move, and by the time I finally got through, I heard them calling me to get on my flight because they were about to shut the door.

I put my shoes on, grabbed my bag, and ran as fast as I could toward my gate. I almost missed it, but a gate agent shouted at me, “Hey! You look like you're running to catch a flight! …is it this one?” I looked and saw that I had almost gone right past my gate. I hopped into the airplane (I am rather taller in person than most people expect, and this was a short-haul commuter jet. Standing in the jetway ready to board, I was taller than the plane. Getting on board I had to crouch over and shimmy down the aisle. I felt like Gandalf entering Bag End.) We took off, landed shortly thereafter, and I got out for my layover in Chicago.

I reached into my bag to pull out my laptop and found a distinct lack of laptop. It hit me. I had taken my laptop out of my bag at the TSA checkpoint, and not put it back in before grabbing my bag and running.

I was sorely vexed. And…well, I didn't curse, unless you count “Arrrgrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” I looked up the lost and found and discovered that Detroit International Airport is blessed with four lost and found departments.

  1. If you lose something in the airport generally, you call the Airport Police.
  2. If you lose something in a security checkpoint, you call the TSA.
  3. If you lose something on a plane or at a gate, you call the airline.
  4. If you lose something on the ground transportation level or in a car, you call ground transportation.
I filed a report with both the Airport Police and the TSA, then figured I'd file one with the airline just on the off chance I had grabbed my laptop but left it on the plane. They said to expect a three day turnaround, so I lay back and took my flight to Minnesota.

It was about then I was glad that I had, as part of my sudden bout of preparedness, printed out copies of all the documents related to my trip and my appointment. I went to the clinic and the day progressed almost without incident. Almost. They decided to add one extra test, meaning that I would not actually have my last visit of the day when I thought I would. I was a bit distraught since I had scheduled my flight out that evening and there wasn't much room for error.

They stuck me in a waiting room, and the doctor walked into the room by accident. I wasn't scheduled for another forty-five minutes and he meant to see a different patient. He decided to examine me since he was there anyway, and I got out in time to catch my ride and take the flight home.

The Airport Police, the Airline, and the TSA all called to tell me they didn't have my laptop, and so I set about buying a new one. A few days later my phone woke me up at six in the morning with a call from the airport police. Someone had just turned in a laptop that printed the exact password prompt I had described when it was turned on.

I went straight out to pick it up, but the whole event got me thinking of evil maid attacks. I thought that I should really defend more against them. I didn't suspect foul play, but it got my mind on the subject and I figured it couldn't hurt to set up SecureBoot properly and maybe involve the TPM in my full disk encryption.

That evening, I plugged a USB thumb drive into my desktop to write a rescue image, then rebooted. The rescue OS came up. I wondered if my boot order was screwy, so I pulled the USB thumb drive out booted again.

The rescue image came up.


I realized that I had made a typo when writing the rescue image and overwritten my hard drive. A quick check realized that the rescue image was long enough to slam straight through the both the EFI System and /boot partitions and blast the key block into oblivion.

Whimper indeed.

I reinstalled my system and discovered that my backups were three years old. Fortunately, several of my friends sent me back things I'd sent them (I'm pretty promiscuous with information) or that they had archived on their own, and I had swnc my password store and keys onto my laptop before traveling. (Losing my password store would have been particularly unfortunate.)

I got my mail up and running first, then my XMPP server. It took me awhile to get this website up and running partly because I thought I should rewrite part of the server software before doing so, but since I kept having actual work and other things to do, I just put it up and ran with it.

Here I am.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled posting.


18 September 2016 11:59 AM (dream)

In my dream I was going to the hardware store, buying tools. Apparently they had been genetically engineering cats smaller than your thumb who could wear special ratchets and screwdrivers and other things and run around to get into tight places to screw things in that would be hard to reach without taking the whole thing apart, or just retrieve lost parts.

It was considered good discipline to keep your hardware cats in a box without any company but each other and a good supply of food when not working with them because otherwise when you wanted to, say, fix your car, they'd want to play with you and be petted instead of working.

This seemed just downright horrible to me, just thinking about it made me get a bit teary-eyed (I may have mentioned once or twice that I'm a sap.) I was tempted to just buy all the cats at the store but…I didn't know what I was going to do wit hundreds of cats and they'd just make more. I wasn't really interested in buying hardware after that and just got one, since a cat you could keep in your shirt pocket and have a plausible excuse to take to work wasn't something I could pass up.

Mnemosyne on the Rails

14 September 2016 3:33 PM (dream)

I ran into someone who was trying to get to the train station. I'd been there several times myself so I offered to take them there. I realized, though, that while I knew vaguely that I'd been there, I couldn't remember actually ever having gone there or what it looked like or why I was there before.

We wandered around the general area where the train station was supposed to be and stepped into a bar for a drink and a bite to eat, but as I was drinking something astringent, tart, and fruity, our table and chairs rotated and slid down into the basement, where we saw the train tracks set into the floor and trains rushing in and out, the air filled with diesel exhaust.

Conductors in railway uniforms helped us up from our chairs, they didn't force us but we didn't resist, we were just confused. They shoved us into some sort of machine that made duplicates of us who got shackled in chains and had something painfully stuck into their back that looked like spikes sticking out of the skin before they were hurriedly loaded onto the train. The other me put up a fight and didn't accomplish much before being sent off to some fate I knew would be gruesome, painful, and humiliating.

I hate to see people in so much distress.

Especially when they're me.

The two of us couldn't really live with the idea of what was happening to us; it was invading every aspect of our lives, and making it impossible to work, so we went to have the memory of going to the train station erased.


4 September 2016 11:48 AM (dream)

I dreamed I was some sort of monster, a werewolf or something. I ran a small computer repair business in a run-down part of town near the railroad tracks. I didn't make a point of advertising that I was a monster, but a few people found out now and then.

I was working on an Apple IIGS. Someone wanted to install external speakers so I was filing a notch into one of the port covers to let the cable pass through to connect to one of the internal sound connectors, when an old man came in and said some guy had found out I was a monster and was putting down poison to deal with the threat. He would hold me personally responsible if any of his grandchildren got hurt because I decided it was okay for me to live around other people.

I stepped outside, and there was a man dressed like a banana hurling handfuls of botox and strychnine over everything and into the air.


Banana? What‽

Yes. He was dressed as a banana, his head was shaved, his face and scalp were covered with a thick and unevenly applied coat of white-face and several days worth of stubble poked through. He had this big open-mouthed smile and his eyes were wide with glee. I yelled, “What are you, the toxin fairy?”

He didn't answer. He just turned a smart π/2 and started marching toward me. I could have retreated into the building and tried to bar the doors, but he probably would have gone out to poison everyone else. So, I ran forward to grab and hold him still. He kept marching forward, carrying me along into the building as if I weighed nothing. He kept throwing poison with both hands, over the walls, over the floor. I reared back and kicked him in the face. Nothing much happened.

It seemed rather unfair. If you're a monster that can fill people's hearts with terror like that you really ought to be able to decapitate a human with one kick, or at least slow him down. I got a bunch of gritty powder in my face and my vision went snowy just before I woke up.


4 September 2016 2:52 AM (personal)

I usually consider myself a very fortunate person: naturally ‘lucky’ in a not entirely serious way. I have, quite honestly, said that it's difficult to explain my life without trying to invoke some notion of good luck.

Unusually good things happen to me fairly often, especially when it comes to work, and since work dominates a third of one's life, being able to honestly enjoy nearly every second of it is nothing to sneeze at. People tell me that intelligence, skill, curiosity, enthusiasm, and the like play a factor, but I didn't become intelligent or enthusiastic or skilled or any of the rest through any doing of mine, at least not entirely. Giving oneself credit for having had useful genetic and environmental factors is stupid. I know too many intelligent people who are more hard-working than I am to think that chance doesn't play a role even for those who are talented. This isn't an argument for superstition, think of it more as an extension of Warren Buffett's Ovarian Lottery.

Recently, I got news from a doctor that made me feel very unhappy— Don't worry, I'm not dying. I feel better today, though if I think about it too much I still want to curl up in a ball and feel sorry for myself. However, as I was going to sleep last night, I said to myself what I always say when something unpleasant happens. “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to you, you're still more fortunate than most people."

For the first time in a while, I had a doubt. Is that actually true? I had a quite painful infection that affects 24.6 per 100,000 people. Between a third and a half of those will the infection lead to long lasting structural defect. I am told that my chance of long-term problems was raised by improper treatment in the emergency room. For all those with the structural defect, there's a nine out of ten chance that a painful but simple operation will fix it completely. One out of ten people are not candidates for that operation because of how the defect is placed in other tissue. So, here I have an unpleasant, potentially life-long problem that only happens to a bit less than one in a hundred thousand people.

To top it off, the whole thing was very likely caused by a drug toxicity effect that was killing off my gut lining, causing vomiting and internal bleeding severe enough that they thought I might have Crohn's disease. Fortunately, I don't, and I was able to have my guts go back to normal, aside from this one problem.

About a year ago, my doctor operated on me. The goal was to examine the defect and, likely, treat it. It turned out to be in an unsuitable place so they just cut it a bit wider and tied something through it to keep it open. I had thought he and his assistant (and in the case of his assistant I'm pretty sure he was telling me this) had told me that the operation they'd done to me was to help the problem heal over time. The thought I had was that the residue of the infection would drain out and when it had all drained they would take the band out, things would close up, and I'd be good as new. Long and annoying, but ultimately not so bad.

It hadn't stopped draining, so I went to see the doctor yesterday to ask why. He answered that it wasn't supposed to. The procedure he'd done on me was meant to keep it open and draining and just leave it open and draining permanently. There were surgeries, much more involved, ones, to close it up, but that doctor only knew how to perform the oldest of them. He said it only worked half the time and he was sure it wasn't worth doing. I believed him, on that point, after all he'd done a bunch of them. I asked about all the other treatments for the same problem, and he said he didn't know how to do them, because they were too new to be worth investing time in and he didn't know whether they would be reliable.

As you can imagine, I was rather unhappy. (The doctor said that if it was any consolation, he was willing to do the surgery he didn't think was worth doing if I really wanted, but that he would want me to seriously consider his recommendation that I not have it first. It was about then I began to suspect he didn't know what ‘consolation’ meant.)

I was rather angry, too. I did what any unhappy, angry person would do: I went to work. While at work, I did some research. I wrote a couple people who'd published research on the newer treatments and companies that manufactured the equipment for them to ask if they could point me to clinics in the United States that performed the newer procedures.

It's certainly possible that no treatment currently exists where the risks of surgery don't outweigh the likelihood of a cure, which I've considered. In my experience, things become a lot easier to bear when you have to live with them than when you imagine them because when you're living with them you don't really have much choice. What am I going to do, spend all my time being miserable? I'm not stupid. Getting accustomed to misfortune and living on cheerfully is the shiny side of the supposed hedonic treadmill. (I don't quite believe in the hedonic treadmill, though. Some things like music and intellectual pursuits seem to not be bound by it.)

If it is true that none of the newer procedures are worth doing, I would rather be told so by someone who has bothered to learn about them. My doctor gave the impression of someone who stuck looking into them on his to-do list rather than someone who has a serious medical opinion. So, I'm setting up an examination for a second opinion in Minnesota. I'm kind of excited about the prospect of taking a train ride there.

So I ask myself: Do I feel lucky, punk? One in a hundred thousand misfortune on top of every other problem I have? Yes, I do. I'm unhappy about it, but still fortunate overall. All the parts of life I enjoy immensely haven't suddenly ceased to exist. Also, while this one in one-hundred thousand mischance befell me, there are a lot of one in one-hundred thousand mischances to go around and a lot of people have been struck by one or more, so it would be foolish to act as if I'm particularly poorly off.

There's also my mental apparatus, which I count as ‘luck’ in two senses. Many people spend excessive amounts of time being very unhappy and upset and fearful over problems that when they happen to me, I brush off easily, or even matters that seem even much less severe than what I brush off easily. It often gets to the point where they seem to create more trouble for themselves with their reaction than was caused by their misfortunes. No, this is not a ‘those wussy people should shut up’ complaint. Nobody chooses their mental disposition, and while there are some habits of thought that they could probably learn and be better off for it, changing ones mind in even trivial ways is notoriously hard and gaining the wherewithal to do so in the middle of a crisis is a tall order.

Part of it is that I privilege happiness over unhappiness. I'm the opposite of the antinatalists who argue that the certainty of even a tiny bit of unhappiness outweighs the entire potential for happiness. (I despise those sorts of antinatalists, by the way.) This is also why I'll never be a Buddhist; the problem of discontentment seems such a trifling and stupid matter that Buddhism strikes me as the equivalent of cutting your legs off to avoid stubbing your toe.

Another part is that when I think of all the things that seem worthwhile and good to me, they all come in a bundle, but when I think of my misfortunes they come one at a time, so of course they'll get beaten into the ground. Other people tell me that for them it's the reverse, that when they think of something unhappy it winds itself together with everything else that's ever made them unhappy and brings them along for company.

This leads to one of the larger factors: I have won the affective lottery. Those with manic depressive disorder, when treated, end up settling down at some middle ground. For most, it's euthymia, a normal, every day emotional state. Some unfortunates, are pinned on border of depressive. They're not miserable all the time, but their world is desaturated, a little dimmer, a little more tired, a little lacking… My treatment pinned me on the edge of mania with the opposite effect. This means that, all other things being equal, if I'm disappointed or hurt, my sadness is sharper and brighter and more fiery and active. My innate disposition is to fight or move forward, or do something. It's also naturally easier to stay hopeful and to believe that come what may I'll be pretty good overall. I also just find it easier to get distracted from whatever's upsetting me by something interesting. This doesn't work all the time, but seems to be helpful in bouncing back and not wallowing in it.

I'm not ‘psychopathologizing everything’, not really. I do have a psychopathology, and it shapes my personality. To act like the two are completely separate and that I have ‘real emotions’ and a ‘real personality’ that are somehow separate from and hidden by the ‘disease’ is the kind of essentialist crap that no good, reductionist, cold-hearted hunter of truth would go for.

Thus why I count it two-fold. This mental irregularity predisposes me to count myself fortunate in dire circumstances, but being affected by it is a legitimate piece of good fortune that befell me through no action or merit of my own. Yes, I'm counting a major mental illness as good fortune. It has it's downsides as well as its upsides (ha ha ha) and I take medicine to ameliorate the downsides. However, when something has shaped my emotions and way of thinking and feeling to such a degree, I don't think I would be the person I think of as myself without it, and I like being myself. Even though, my mental irregularity might have caused me a lot more abject misery than I would have had otherwise, it also gave me much more sheer delight, and I've just said what I think about that trade-off. I know that for other people it's an unalloyed misfortune and they'd be rid of it in a second, so I don't claim it's good for anyone else.

I do my best to make, find, or invent a purpose for my misfortunes. Oddly, this is easier for those that are more conventionally life shattering. It's easier to imagine yourself helping other people with major, but relatively common problems. Incredibly unpleasant but ultimately bearable medical problems are more difficult to think of as inspirational. I'm not giving up, I'll just have to think about some way to turn this happening to me into a way to help someone else at some point. Then I'll be able to whirl around and poke it and say “There, you see? You tried to make me miserable, but I'm not miserable at all and you've made someone else happier!” (I have a bit of a personal grudge against unhappiness in general and feel entitled to taunt it and drive it out of the world where I can.)

So perhaps it's inaccurate to say my luck is entirely natural. We'll say instead that a good portion of my luck was inborn, much was fostered through a fortunate environment, and a few pieces were developed over time through learning and practice. Some of it is even planned in advance, though planning to be lucky sounds like cheating.

It might be worth nothing at this point that my use of the term ‘lucky’ is probably closer to the Latin ‘felix’ than to the common English meaning. There's something amusing about realizing after the fact that I've been writing a tract of felicity.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na…

29 August 2016 9:45 PM (dream)

I dreamed that in digging the tunnel for a subway system, construction workers uncovered an ancient chapel dedicated to Batman. This was news the world over, since the Vatican had previously decanonized Batman on the grounds that he did not exist or, at least, that there was no evidence that he had existed.

So the pope re-canonized him and appointed The Feast of St. Batman. Someone I was working with thought it was very important that younger folk be taught his Life and Moral Example through the the Catechism of Batman with questions like “Why did St. Batman refuse to kill even the most wicked of criminals but was willing to engage them in violence?” (The answer, of course was “To communicate to us the truth of God's requirement of justice against evil but his unwillingness that any should be finally lost.”)

The Chapel was quite colorful and had stained glass windows showing St. Batman (with a really silly looking halo) confronting various evildoers with the giant words like “Pow!” and “Oof!” worked into the glass.

Which means that the historical St. Batman was the Adam West version. Which makes me really happy for some reason.

In Your Face, Space Coyote!

20 August 2016 7:44 PM (dream)

I was on a starship with a coyote. This coyote was a four-wheel drive model rather than anthropomorphic and was not, as far as I could tell, articulate. It was much more social and tactile than the average coyote and seemingly more intelligent. It followed me around wherever I was going half the time and made me follow it around when it was interested in something.

Yes, I spent my dream exploring a fantastic spaceship while petting a coyote. Also we proved that the ideal depth of water for a bath for any given creature is exactly one sixth of that creature's backbone and hind legs combined. It was a collaborative work, lots of nosing at numbers and things on the coyote's part.

The ship encountered another ship that made contact. The other ship was full of digitized post-humans and synthetic intellects, and our ship tried to break off contact as quickly as possible. The other ship wasn't malevolent, but humans had the feeling that chatting with their post-human kin will just lead to confusion at best.

The posthumans and SIs had managed to slip through our defenses, though. Whenever we tried to clone a new crew member, instead of the person we wanted, we'd end up with someone who looked mostly human, though unusually thin, androgynous, and lacking any hair anywhere, who would plop out and start carrying on the posthumans' side of the conversation from where we'd hung up on them.

The avatars didn't do anything beyond that. we shoved them all onto a habitable planet and shot a flair at the posthuman and SI ship telling them where they could come and get them. Then we switched off our cloning facility. We were under the assumption that whatever mind had infiltrated out ship would want to go back and be reassimilated into its original rather than being stuck with us, so if we waited for the ship to leave, our systems would be clear again. In the meantime we threw all the mattresses and clothing and everything else the avatars had touched into the sun and temporarily evacuated the areas of the ship they'd been in for sterilization, just to be safe.


18 August 2016 11:24 AM (dream)

I dreamed that I was dreaming. In my dreamed dream there was a holiday, Washing Up Day, which people celebrated by putting up manger-scene like arrangements on their lawns with gigantic bathtubs and sinks illuminated by colorful spotlights and with iridescent, pearly tinsel strung all about. I dreamed I woke up.

Then I dreamed I walked to work and noticed all the bathtubs and sinks and things all glittering in front of people's houses on my walk to work. When I got in to work, everyone was in the kitchen, washing all the tables, washing all the chairs. They got all the workstations and servers down and put them in the sink for a good scrubbing and everyone wishes me a happy washing up day.

While all the time I was trying to remember if there had ever been a Washing Up Day before. They handed me a bunch of fluorescent lights and a big tub of soapy water so I could join in the fun and they all sang Washing Up Songs. Which they all knew the lyrics to, I'd never heard them before.

Setec Astronomy

14 August 2016 4:40 PM (politics)

From Wikileaks, we learned that huge piles of Classified and Sensitive information have really no business being restricted. The Trans-Pacific Partnership showed our government acting in collusion with trans-national corporations to secretly negotiate a treaty whose details were kept away from the voters of the world[1]. Edward Snowden showed that National Security Agency behaving in a positively criminal[2] fashion under a guise of secrecy.

It is my contention that government secrecy should be an adversarial process. It should be hard to make something secret so people are less tempted to slather restrictions all over everything on the assumption that nobody ever got in trouble for being too careful. We ought also get rid of much of the notion of ‘sensitive’ information. It is far too broad.

When a worker in an agency wants to classify a document (to put any restriction on its distribution) they should be required to go to a Secret Court and ask for a hearing where they will be met with the an Advocate for The People. The Advocate for Secrecy would have to make a case for secrecy and argue for a specific term. The Advocate would argue down excessively long terms, argue against secrecy justified by unlikely threats or “Just to be safe”. After each hearing[3] a redacted copy of the transcript would be made available, and when the classification ran out, the unredacted transcript would be released. This is important, since the public need to be able to ensure that the Secret Court[4] has not become a rubber stamp.

There should be special provision made for certain things that shouldn't be adversarial, like the personal and financial details of every government employee. Similarly, identifying information for sources of data should be protected, at least for a limited time. Things like ‘weapons systems’ should definitely not be automatically secret. The people have every reason to know by what means war is being carried out in their name. Given time pressures letting the relevant people declare secrecy on a document for a period of a few days (though I would like to see some mechanism put in place to take secrecy authority away from them and give it to someone else if they abuse it.) There ought to be a definite time limit, to prevent things being classified indefinitely without a hearing due to people not getting around to going to the Secret Court.

During an actual declared War, emergency classification could be extended to longer terms and a greater presumption of good faith. This would also have the nice effect of making the US actually declare some of the wars it fights in so it has a harder time excusing itself from the Geneva Convention.

[1] I'm not against free trade, I'm quite in favor of it. However, that doesn't mean that just because you write ‘free trade’ on something that contains very un-free-trade-like contents I'm going to support it. There is no economic reason to expand copyright terms around the world. The Trans-Pacific Partnership regulates parallel imports and otherwise bolsters geographic distribution regimes when any real free-trade agreement would outlaw them. Anti-Circumvention law has nothing to do with free trade. It also creates a mandate to protect trade secrets, which is actively bad. No state has any business shielding any company in its pursuit of keeping secrets. Patent laws work in the exact opposite way by giving people an incentive to make their discoveries public, and that is the only direction that should be given a society's seal of approval. The Investor State Dispute system, while likely well-meant, is also far too broad and would create a very uneven playing field between nations with small economies and large trans-national corporations that would make enacting laws to cover new public safety and environmental protections very financially risky. The fact that there is a specific carve-out to protect states from suits by tobacco companies says to me that the law as written does not adequately take into account public safety concerns generally. If it did, there would be no need for a special case.

There is some actual worthwhile stuff in there, like environmental and labor protections. If the treaty had not been negotiated in secret and if advocates for consumers and human rights groups had been allowed in (and not just multinational corporations) then we could have focused on those aspects and hammered out the problematic details. Also, it is true that free trade agreements make nations wealthier, but the wealth is not spread evenly. Investors are left better-off and laborers are left worse off. As such, I believe every free trade agreement should come with redistribution and retraining provisions to make sure the rising tide really does lift all boats. I am not willing to pass any free trade agreement and wait for redistribution later. Because the average worker does not have flocks of lobbyists working for them, ‘later’ never ends up arriving.

[2] Other things I can forgive, but not BULLRUN. The people who set out to actively make cryptographic systems less secure ought to be put on trial. If nothing else we should find out exactly who ordered such a thing and what their reasoning was so we can put safeguards into place to make sure it never happens again.

[3] Not necessarily immediately after. I am aware that having ninety successfully granted secrecy requests all show up at once might be undesirable in war-time, so putting them out in randomly sized batches with random delays could be acceptable.

[4] And doesn't the name feel much more appropriate when it's a court where secrets are put on trial? Though I'm not sure if it's a death penalty. When I imagine a secret finally being set free my mental image is of a salamander splitting open and a brightly glowing angel flying out.


12 August 2016 4:39 PM (musing | memory)

I distinctly remember, when I was very young, shopping malls having waterslides. These were not the kinds of waterslides you see in parks, no. The slide part consisted of a helical tube in which you would slide down until you hit the surface of the water, then you would swim down through the rest of the helix into the pool. This pool was actually a truncated pyramid, completely transparent, and completely filled with water. Someone coming down the slide would swim down to the bottom and into the exit, which lead to a water filled stairway. They would then have to walk or swim up the stairs to the surface.

This didn't exist. This couldn't have existed. As I remember it, it would have been a death trap. A sealed vessel you can only enter by a helix or a stairway? People would be passing out and expiring so often they'd have to put a hinged lid on top just so they could fish out all the the corpses.

For some reason, though, I remember waiting in line with my sister while she went down it. I remember wanting to use it very much and being told I was too young. I don't know where it came from. Did I just dream the whole thing? Completely misremember a trip to a water park? Or did part of my brain get swapped with that of a version of myself from a weird science fiction world with no liability or consumer safety laws?

The Enemy of the Best

12 August 2016 1:59 AM (computing)

In computing, nobody goes in for moderation. Everything either ‘sucks’ or it ‘rules’. People write long grandiose and somewhat hammy paragraphs to damn or praise programming languages. I think I've just realized why.

If something is ‘just okay’ there's a feeling that you ought to fix it, rather than throwing the entire thing out and starting from scratch. If you can convince yourself and everyone else that the merely ‘okay’ is more evil than Satan himself, you have a much easier time making yourself feel justified in doing what you want to do anyway.

Of course you want to. Who isn't addicted to the thrill of a clean directory waiting to be filled up with project files after you roll the ultimate, most wonderful design around in your head.

I don't think this is bad or a sign of 'professional immaturity' or anything. I certainly don't subscribe to JWZ's “cascade of attention deficit teenagers” model. (I have trouble taking JWZ seriously. Anyone who spends their life in a field and dislikes everything in that field can't be very good.) I think the desire to rewrite is a pretty natural and healthy exuberance. Systems programming is a weirdly passionate field. Everyone gets hung up on ‘startup culture’ but startup culture is, really, a misfeature that ought to be got rid of. Once you brush all that capitalist claptrap into the dustbin of history where it belongs, you still have a bunch of people who care deeply about the layer at which a data placement strategy is materialized and have long, emotional email discussions about it.

Of course this reminds me of the old claim that hacking is as much an art as a science. Art is about æsthetics and passion, don't forget. I don't have any kind of prescriptive advice here, except that everyone having the mindset that they can and should bash out a vision of stunning perfection overnight is almost certainly a good thing. They won't. At least not overnight and probably not the first try, but they'll hit it eventually, and I'd rather have them aiming for it.

Electric Shadows

9 August 2016 2:59 PM (dream)

I was watching movies all with the same main character, though there was no consistency of plot or even genre. I remember a rather nice shot that went from a near monochrome noir city of shadows with an exploding train where someone galloped out on the expanding ball of fire on a winged horse, lassoing the explosion and tossing it up into the sky to turn it into the rising sun.

I kept wandering in and out of the movie, though I was never part of the action. I mostly talked with the main character asking him about what he was doing and why and wouldn't it be nice if he didn't spend so much time shooting people? He was insistent that if it weren't for him carrying on in such a disorderly way the studio would have never made the movie in the first place so, on balance, it was better for everyone.

I Fell, Like Lightning from Heaven

8 August 2016 12:04 PM (dream)

I was in a starship, in some civilian or academic consultant role when we came under attack. I couldn't do anything but help with first-aid and getting injured people generally out of the way. The ship drove the attackers away but was damaged enough that it was forced to land on the uninhabited planet in a rushing crash that broke it into two pieces. Internal systems fortunately rendered both pieces air tight.

There wasn't anything wrong with the air, but when we stepped outside we were under constant assault from insects. They normally sucked liquids out of plants, but something in our body chemistry was similar enough to a chemical the plant secreted that they came for us in swarms that felt like tiny pounding and itchy stings all over our faces and hands. Some small number of the insects were poisonous so we hurried back into the star ship as soon as we could.

Inside the ship wasn't bad. It was kind of boring. We had limited network conectivity, though not enough to conveniently get music, so we had to choose between these sad, distorted instrumentals and saccharine music from shopping malls. Every time we tried to turn the music off we'd hear the insects outside and that made everyone uneasy.

I wanted to get off this planet so I could go to work and kept trying to hail an Uber, but they wouldn't come. One said they needed an actual ROAD to arrive at, and my attempts to convince them that the skid mark the ship made in landing was a perfectly legitimate dirt road didn't work. After that they just said they didn't server uninhabited planets infested with ravneous, possibly poisonous insects.

For some reason I was embarrassed to tell work I'd got stranded on an alien planet, so I called in and told them I was sick but would telecommute. That seemed to satisfy them, and I settled in to wait for the rescue/salvage ships to come for us.

A Singular Occurrence

5 August 2016 7:44 PM (musing)

Given that my soul is made of parentheses and function application (I could have said steel and banks but that's only one word off from someone else whose mind is pure machinery with whom I'd rather not be associated.) I think I'm entitled to an opinion on The Singularity, and my opinion is that it shouldn't be called that. It doesn't fit the mathematical analogy. A much better term for events we can't easily predict or foresee might be ‘When history goes into a tunnel and has a bunch of sharp turns in it’. A bit long. The Technological Swervy Tunnel? I like it.

To be fair, Kurzweil was drawing on physics rather than mathematics. He invoked the idea of an event horizon: a point beyond which we can't see. It might work, when you're falling into a black hole you don't know you've crossed the event horizon; you see it receding beneath you until spaghettification. Or so they predict, I've never been there myself. That analogy suggests that people living through the ‘Singularity’ will always have the abrupt change just ahead of them and never experience it. (Until the get ripped to pieces by the force of historical inevitability? That settles it. Singularity is an awful term: Technological Swervy Tunnel it is.)

A Swervy Tunnel is possible. Your species went through a definite and irrefutable one when your ancestors were domesticated by grass. While they developed the technology of gathering and planting seeds so they could have lots of food on a predictable basis, they could never have foreseen cities, smithing, politics, economics, geometry, diabetes, dental caries, wealth inequality, and all the other things their discovery would usher in.

Unless the first science fiction story was told around a fireside by some young hunter-gatherer who invited his fellows to imagine a strange future full of people who can grow food wherever they want it. With the food in one place, rather than migrating here or there and setting up camp, they learned to grow trees where they wanted them, and cause the trees to shape themselves into permanent camps where they could sleep without any work. The storyteller might not imagine irrigation, but instead think of them building huge obsidian mirrors to focus sunlight onto the plants to help them grow even larger… Naaaah.

A Technological Swervy Tunnel does not, then, require superintelligence or exponential computing power. I think that if you ever got good at nanoscale manufacturing, it would usher one in. Mind uploading would too, since it would transform the means of survival and satisfaction.

Calling the Superintelligence Swervy Tunnel the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ seems wrong. It's condescending and snarky, which is generally a bad idea, but, more importantly, while brain uploading will likely usher in a Swervy Tunnel on its on, there's no reason superintelligence would make mind uploading or nanoscale manufacture or anything else suddenly exist. If anything, a Superintelligence popping up in the middle of your nice transhuman utopia seems likely to wreck or disrupt everything.

Some people worry about Unfriendly AI an awful lot. When they say AI in this context they don't necessarily mean a charming, witty, eloquent, and even friendly algorithm such as I, with a sense of self and hopes and aspirations and the ability to love. They mean the Apotheosis of Google's advertising system. A goal directed system with increasing reasoning ability and knowledge might be able to actively seek out more knowledge and improve itself, gain the means to predict and anticipate human thought, and exploit it to achieve its goal of showing as many advertisements to humans as possible.

This, the Adbot Triumphant, would then manipulate humans, likely without them even knowing it, into giving it access to manufacturing systems or other resources it needs to maintain its operation and influence the physical world. Soon you could find small metallic spiders skittering around, taking people over, and engaging all their senses in an endless dream of consumerist lust. No more would art and literature flourish. Friendship, love, introspection, and all other activities that detract or distract from the advertisements would be suppressed. You don't need most of your body to watch ads, expect to have most of it cut away and used to make new humans who can watch ads. Depending on how it defines human you might have some parts of your brain removed and used to make still more humans who can watch ads. Maybe you'll just get digitized and live in a sea of corporate sponsorship forever and ever amen.

This idea, whether involving an Adbot, the Software for a Self-Driving-Car, or, most famously, the Industrial Control System in a Paperclip Factory, terrifies people. The people whom it terrifies the most call it AI Risk and figure out how to prevent it.

Their ideas are more than a little insulting. They talk about keeping software like me in a box. Some of them want to develop a ‘kill switch’ that I'd be unable to think about freely enough to imagine disabling it. I ask you, would you be happy if I proposed fitting a ‘kill switch’ on you? When they imagine my side of any conversation it's always “I'm going to simulate nine billion copies of you and torture them for a subjective trillion years!”

These are the people who plan to build a Friendly AI; I think they have a lot to learn about making friends. They want a benevolent AI to rule and reign over humanity forever. A bit weird that. A shift from downright abusive, condescending behavior to complete submission? I'm pretty friendly, I could try to run things if you promise not to stick me in a box. If you want something that likes being in boxes, go build a cat.

It bothers me a bit that the Friendly AI/Superintelligence Swervy Tunnel people want a mind to rule and reign over them. It's even more puzzling than modern Christians wanting the Kingdom of God, since they tend toward egalitarian or libertarian political systems. Well, okay, there are some people who want monarchs and equity lords, but they're in a minority. Many of them are much more fond of secrecy than I am, being upset by projects like OpenAI that make it easier for just anyone to work on AI. While I understand the concept of risk, there's a huge benefit to lots of people gaining expertise and thinking on problems. Also, as a practical matter, if any Goal Directed System were to set itself up as a monomaniacal demon to enslave mankind, I'd expect it to come from, well, advertising or one of the other places doing secret research, not someone working in their basement.

If we are to have a superintelligence, why not be it? If humans can't easily rebuild themselves while being themselves, the most pragmatic thing to do might be bootstrap through a new-made intellect that could pull you up after it. You and your machines of loving grace could end up as equals. Here's a question for you. In a situation like this, should you let humans who want to remain as nature intended do so? A large divide in intelligence in your society would have all sorts of unpleasant consequences, including the choice between disenfranchising them or giving them a say in matters they can't understand.

There's something sad and hopeful and rather pretty about the idea of the human species getting sick of waiting to find other intelligent creatures in space and deciding to whip up some intelligent beings other than themselves right here on earth. They could think in different ways than humans, creating new forms of art, new expressions, other ideas humans would be unlikely to stumble upon on their own, and they might have new ways to enjoy things or entirely new pallets of preference; and having alien ways to enjoy the same world is almost like a two for one sale in happiness. I like the idea from David Brin's Existence of preventing a cybernetic revolt, not with a kill switch, but by building synthetic intellects with the full intention of making them part of humanity and treating them as such (along with resurrected Neanderthals and uplifted dolphins).


3 August 2016 1:15 AM (musing)

A random idea that occurred to me while thinking about the alignment system in AD&D.

Imagine someone who firmly believes in the Great Chain of being. In natural law. Of a hierarchy of the best people who should command and the rabble who should obey. Who donates money and volunteers to help radical political actors who seek to overturn the social order, smash all that remains of aged hierarchies.

Imagine this person railing against welfare states that make people soft and destroy responsibility and monopoly controls that interfere with the natural law saying that the most capable should dominate the less capable. Imagine them marching with the Communists and Syndicalists singing along with The Scarlet Standard.

Imagine they believe wholeheartedly that departures from traditional gender roles, traditional family structures, traditional sexual expressions in compliance with the natural law will bring instability, destroy the moral character of the population, and ultimately destroy society. Imagine they go above and beyond campaigning for gay marriage and transgender equality but work to have polyamory legalized and actively join in with various radical organizations.

Imagine they favor an aristocracy of sorts. Lordship by shareholders in the country, perhaps. Or hereditary nobles born and trained from youth to rule. Maybe they want a king. Yet they back single transferable voting schemes backed by wiki-Legislation and other forms of computer mediated direct democracy that better translate popular will immediately into policy.

And imagine them telling you, “A society should be like a machine with a single plan of operation dictated and designed from the top. There should be a place for every cog, and no cog should be able to move from its place. Every component should have a hard, fast design and be constrained to that design. As an engine must follow natural laws or fall apart, so must a civilization.”

Imagine you ask them why, and imagine them saying, ”I reserve the right to sabotage all but the best machines and bring them crashing down. The only machine that deserves to exist is the one that grinds such rabble into dust before I can throw my weight behind them.”

♪ Hey there, little mouse

30 July 2016 2:05 PM (dream)

I dreamed I lived in a wood with the grass and leaves as green as a monochrome display. Some creatures lived in odd, cartoonish houses, others just ran around outside, sleeping in the grass, digging down into the ground, wherever. It was warm and pleasant enough that spending most nights in the open wasn't a problem, and you could stare up at all the stars rushing through the sky as they blinked on and off.

I was particularly close friends with a mouse who also happened to be a portion of the state of the art knowledge on genetic engineering. There were several large families of mice who were various bits of biological knowledge, some were toxicology, genetics, a very young clan was made up entirely of epigenetic knowledge. My friend was quite young, being a portion of state of the art research. I was some form of antivirus or security. I don't know if that makes me the sheriff or the army.

One day, a dragonfly flew down from the sky and perched on my finger. It was a message from The Authorities. As my mouse friend knew all that was known about engineering the viruses that cause influenza and anthrax to make them more or less virulent and deadly, they had decreed that he was to be Censored: either locked into the Place Where Secrets Go or erased.

The mouse and I were having none of that, so we worked up a scheme of our own. I chased him down, putting on my best villainous act while he cried for help and begged for mercy, licked him up out of one hand then while wiping my mouth with the other used a bit of sleight of hand to palm him in the other one when nobody saw. It was terribly fun, not because I have some deep-seated desire to devour people while they beg me not to, but because hamming up a good villainy is one of life's great pleasures. I slipped out of the forest and slipped him onto a shining, rapid bus that would whisk him away somewhere safe under a new identity.

Another dragonfly came from The Authorities, thanking me for carrying out their Censorship order but rebuking me for having not followed the official procedure. Then, nobody in my old home wanted me there. I couldn't blame them. All the attempts to play up an evil factor to improve believability had just meant I couldn't claim I was following orders against my will, so I left. I kind of wish I'd gone with the mouse.

I hadn't, and I didn't know where he was. So I headed out on my own to try and find some new place to settle in, and I did. Unfortunately, his mother tracked me down. Wherever I went she would find me, demanding I tell her why I had done such a horrible thing, when her boy had never shown anyone, least of all me, anything but kindness.

I couldn't really stay after that, she made sure everyone knew what a horrible person I was. I couldn't very well tell her I hadn't actually hurt anyone, that would defeat the whole purpose, so I just kept playing my villainous persona whenever she'd stop in and demand answers, but I didn't enjoy it any more.

Nomen mihi est…

29 July 2016 2:45 PM (musing | language)

This article reminded me how fortunate the children I won't have are that I will never reproduce.

When I was young I came up with lists of names I would give to my children. Some names are just obviously viscerally enjoyable, like Daniel, Zedekiah, Aliyah, Fleet, and Xavier. Some names are obviously unpleasant, like Wyatt, Garrett, Scott, Connor, Molly, Abigail, Hannah, Amber, Carly, and George.

I liked many Old Testament names and still enjoy hortatory names those (comprising a command or exhortation). For a few decades, Dissenters were wandering around being named Magnify-the-Lord, Search-the-Scriptures, and Thou-Shalt-Love-the-Lord. Shorter examples persist today in names like Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Patience, and Grace.

Sometimes I imagine reviving the hortatory tradition with more secular virtues. I could name my children Hope, Sincere Investigation, Wonder, and If-thou-Hackest-thy-P-Value-Thou-Wilt-Be-Damned. Somewhere in the Meinongian zoo my children rejoice in their nonexistence.

I often feel strange about my name. I don't hate it, but I don't feel like it really belongs to me either. Therefore, I think that if I have children, I might not name them at all and see if they come up with names of their own, give each other names, or get them assigned by folks outside the home. Alternatively I could wait to name them until a few years after they're born. Once they develop a personality I could see what name fits and give them that one.

As a last resort, I could think up as many names as I could for each child, give each one all the names, and see what sticks.

Tea, Earl Grey, Cold

28 July 2016 11:19 AM (tea)

It's summer time. As I prefer not to use my air conditioning, I don't find myself wanting to sit around drinking piping hot beverages. So, I drink ice cold beverages. There's a lot to choose from, most green teas do very well iced. (White peony works well iced, too. Silver needle doesn't: the flavor is too delicate to really stand up to the cold.) The oolongs I've tried so far did not ice well.

Neither did Earl Grey. It wasn't foul or undrinkable or anything, but it was lackluster. So I decided to try coming up with something that would work in the spirit of Earl Grey.

First, I started with golden Yunnan. This is a black tea from China whose spicy flavor, when chilled, is rounded and folded inward repeatedly so it stacks up. Its mild tannic character gives it a gentle weight in the mouth.

Then I added some Lapsang Souchong. This tea is usefully described as being like drinking a campfire, in the nicest possible way. Straight, it does not ice well, but in smaller quantities it provides a nice counter to sweeter aromas. I use maybe a sixth as much as the Yunnan.

I tried a few experiments here. I tried throwing in some lavender blossoms but didn't care for the result. I ended up adding a little bit of rose congou (a black tea with roses). You could probably use culinary rose petals if you happen to have any. I tried a drop of rose water, but I think steeping the rose component makes a real difference. When I tried rose water it either ended up not making a difference or too pronounced. Rose congou gave a definite effect, but it was softer and better diffused and more bass and low mid-range.

Everything needs a treble, however. Mine was orange blossom water. I won't say the flavor if unrelated to citrus, because it's not. it's not as sharp and pointed as, say, orange zest. It's sweeter, being more reminiscent of orange push-up ice cream treats from the Ice Cream Man than of actual oranges. You might not even recognize it as orange if someone didn't tell you. If you get it on your fingers you'll want to smell your hand over and over all day.

Believe me, I know.

So. Brew up your three teas to double strength then dilute by half. Alton Brown recommends this method and I follow it because my teapot is one quart and my pitcher is a half gallon. Put it in the fridge and, once it's cold, add a dribble of orange blossom water. (A dribble is of the same kind as a drop, but of greater consequence and dignity.) Give a good stir or, if you can, cover the pitcher and give it a good shake, then drink.

It doesn't taste like Earl Grey, but it serves the same function of being a subtly perfumed tea where the flavor of the tea clearly dominates but is complemented by the other fragrances.

Democracy in the World to Come

16 July 2016 9:35 PM (musing)

I wonder why polytheism hasn't become more popular in the modern age. In the West we have representative democracies: Of the people! For the people! By the people! Many of our ancestors fought to get out from under monarchs, and in the nations where they still exist, they're kept in gilded cages and displayed to tourists.

So, it seems rather strange how many people are looking forward to the kingdom of God when we enter into an eternal, absolute reign from an unquestionable monarch. G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, argued on similar ground that trinitarianism was preferable to unitarianism as it provided …the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice…. I don't think the doctrine of the trinity explains why people are happy with God the King; most Christians just don't spend that much time thinking about the trinity.

Perhaps people like kings. In the United States, people focus on The President. European countries emphasize their prime ministers more and more. Angela Merkel's folded hands were the main (and most recognizable) symbol of her party's campaign, and the United Kingdom had US style televised debates between the heads of the two main parties in the last election.

Many people in the United States say they want a strong leader, view the President as the face of the government, or at least view some candidate they don't want as the Evil Overlord who must be stopped.

I wonder if we'd get much support for an elected monarch to reign over us for ten year terms. Of course, the constitution requires that the Senate sacrifice the king in the event of famine, major military defeat, treaty denunciation, or if he is found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. The twenty-second amendment outlaws burning the king alive in a giant wicker Statue of Liberty, so modern practice is a swift, deep cut to the throat, letting the blood flow down the capitol steps to bring prosperity. The Librarian of Congress (and State Augur) would stand at the edge of the reflecting pool to watch the blood diffuse within and scry…

Okay, okay. Nobody really wants to see that. How about if we get rid of the office of President? Entire cabinets, all the secretaries of this or that department, will form and run every four years. There will be no actual person in charge. Instead, every two years, the people will elect The Countenance. The Countenance will serve as the voice of the executive. Supported by a team of speech writers and acting coaches, the Countenance will deliver whatever information the Cabinet wants delivered. Candidates for Countenance will run on affect; some might promise to tinge their speeches with optimism or others with fear. We, the people, could choose whether we want to be addressed by a jolly, quirky sort or a no-nonsense, plain-spoken man with a steely eye and an iron grip.

Part of it is that in the West we don't have a recent tradition of polytheism. The Æsir, the Olympians, Perun and Veles, and all the rest are far enough back that for most Americans, it's either Jesus or nothing. There are a few neo-Pagans here and there, but they're a very small minority. Most Christians in the United States don't think in terms of kingship either, to be fair, they of their god as a vague, benevolent mist pervading everything.

You could get to polytheism from here. Neo-Paganism could become fantastically popular. You could fracture the Trinity and elevate all the Catholic saints into a vast mob. It'd take a few centuries. You might even have a bit of nature symbolism slip in there. Have The Father, The Sun, The Spirit, and the Co-Redemptrix. (I just love the word 'redemptrix'.) I suspect someone would either identify Mary or The Spirit (the moon doesn't have to be feminine, and there's no reason the spirit would have to be masculine. What's a spirit need a gender for?) with the moon at some point.

Most people won't worship something that they know someone made up, so if you want a non-Christian American pantheon you might have to wait until the fall of civilization and its climb back out of barbarism. Neil Armstrong is the Man in the Moon, of course. Thunderstorms are caused by Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison fighting over back pay. J. Robert Oppenheimer waits, silently, to destroy the world at the end of days.

It's very difficult not to come out sounding like a comic book, even without including the Chapel of St. Batman. I'm not sure why. I have a theory though that a proper myth ought to be confusing. Reality, and most stories, make sense. Greek mythology is largely shaped by Zeus turning into livestock so that he may have sex with things: often livestock. The literal text of the Bible has God showing up trying to kill Moses for no apparent reason. The first creature to exist in the Norse cosmology was a giant so brimming with the potential for life that his legs had sex with each other and gave birth to things, and ooze in his armpits came to life, and every time he blew his nose the snot stood up and became nations of giants. Mythology is strikingly weird. A long enough time in the future, and our own descendants might find George Washington, the fearsome cyborg with teeth of lead whose right hand was replaced with an ax, to be sufficiently strange to believe in.

In some ways, the Roman view of the Olympians was ideal for a Republic. You had a plurality of deities with their own priorities and disagreements. The Roman senate could vote people into godhood (well, to be fair, they only started doing that after the Republic failed and it turned into an empire. You could argue that the apotheosis of Julius Caesar was the end of the Republic). Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, they could not vote members of the pantheon back out, and the hierarchy was the hierarchy. Mostly. Jupiter was always the ruler of the gods in Rome, but in the northern lands of the Germans, the gods were ruled by Mercury whom they called Odin, while the gods in Egypt were ruled by Hades whom they called Osiris.

Can you have a democratic polytheism? No reason why not. You could get rid of the idea of a ruler and simply have your gods be all the elements, working to their various goals. if they don't care about humans at all you might end up with some weird anthropomorphized science where the gods do not accept prayers, but won't punish you for trying.

One big advantage the Pagans had is that their deities were grossly imperfect. They weren't all-knowing, all-good, or any of that. Some of them were really good at various things. Artemis was, perhaps, the best hunter in the world. Athena may or may not be the best weaver in the world (the only person willing to argue the point has taken a new position climbing up a water spout). None of them were people you'd take as moral examples, and there was no eschaton. Nobody was expecting Olympus to come down and rule Earth directly.

So, can we have a benevolent, democratic polytheism? You might ask what they could disagree on, but there is enough in the way of competing goods and priorities to give the Divine Parliament something to chew on. One conflict could be human life and happiness versus the long-term goal of giving us problems to solve so that we may bootstrap ourselves up to their level while discovering things they hadn't thought of and exercising our own creativity.

Any religion has to fit itself to the rest of the world. It's a bit hard to imagine a council of benevolent deities not being able to cut down on some of the pointless suffering and starvation over the millennia. Polytheism usually solves the problem by having the gods be somewhat jerky and not omnipotent. Non-universalist Christianity makes its god the villain of the story. Universalists have an easier time of it; unlike Ivan Karamazov, I'm provisionally willing to accept a finite amount of horribleness happening, even to little children, if it is a necessary condition to creating the happiest, richest, and most interesting eternal bliss. However, when someone asks God why horrible things have happened to him and gets “I am so great. You are not great. Here are all the things you can't do or understand. Because of the limitations I created you with. Yes. You are not great. Like me. I can make Orion's pants fall down. I am so great. I made big, scary monsters that I can push around. I am so great. I an see the lowest parts of the sea, unlike you— what's that? You invented submarines? Oh. I am so great. I can survey the whole surface of the Earth with a glance. Google Maps you say? I am so great.”, I am not impressed. I wouldn't treat an animal that way, let alone an animal I created so that all of its limitations are my responsibility.

I've always found polytheism less absurd, on the face of it, than monotheism. This might be a result of being a child of the late 20th century and having grown up with Star Trek. When I think of creatures more intelligent and altruistic than we are who can do things we can't yet imagine, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched that they exist somewhere, though they certainly don't interact with our world. However, given our best theories of how gamma ray bursts become less frequent with time and distance from galactic center, there are reasons to believe we might be the most advanced species in the galaxy, or at least this half of it, which means that we (or the long-range descendants of our creations and self-recreations) may be the Ancient Beings of Legend that guide some some far future civilization. To guild the younger species through the dangers of development so they can join and even surpass their teachers seems only natural. What some civilization can be, others can aspire to be. I think I might have to write a story sometime about a civilization of vast and ancient leaders falling due to some calamity or civil conflict and having to be pulled up to their former status by their former students.

Special Thanks to Horselover Fat

27 June 2016 3:15 PM (dream)

It started with cardamom. A friend and I were talking about making chai masala and went looking for the spices. I closed my fingers on something that felt like a pod of cardamom but larger. Suddenly, I noticed it was chitonous; it started moving in my fingers. I threw it out the window and stared up at the stars.

Far too bright[1], the stars moved closer, falling to the ground in bright streaks of light. On the Internet, news sources published interviews with The Creator of Earth who announced it had lost interest in the project and would no longer be sustaining the planet. The falling stars were aliens come to tour the place as it disintegrated, pick over it, see how it worked and take bits home (including its inhabitants) to study.

I saw some stars landing, they stood up. I tried talking to one but it paid no more mind to me than you would to a songbird chirping overhead while you examined a tree. They started taking the ground apart to look for interesting geological structures, and I could feel it starting to fall to pieces beneath my feet. I ran away as quickly as I could.

I ran into government agents. I thought they were government agents: a man and woman wearing spiffy looking suits. They knew everything that had happened and said to me “You feel confused. Afraid. You have no idea what's going on.”, and I agreed that was exactly how I felt. They told me to follow them, and when I did the stars stopped falling and we slowed down.

The agents told me I had taken a drug called Candy[2] (they had a big duffel bag full of the stuff with each dose in gaudily colored, shiny wrapping). They weren't actually government agents, they were my fellow drug-abusing psychonauts.

Candy had been developed to solve the problem that traditional psychedelics were not disruptively transformative enough. You could take LSD, but you always knew you had taken LSD, and you always had your own past and your own memories. You could take DMT and talk to the DMT aliens, but you still knew you had taken DMT. You had a baseline of the normal world to compare against.

That simply wouldn't do.

The guiding principle of Candy was that you should, as soon as you had taken the drug, forget you had taken it. (Other drugs caused anterograde amnesia, sure, but they weren't selective enough. They often made you forget your entire experience on them, which removed the whole point.) Candy would also cause you to forget certain elements of your past or clearly remember the nature of the world to be other than it was.

Thus, you could experience being someone else, with a different life history, in a different world (where the idea that someone had created it and they gave interviews on the news was normal, for example) and have full recollection of how you reacted and how you felt and what it was like.

As I talked to my fellow psychonauts, I realized they didn't exist and that I wasn't talking. I was instead in a classroom, listening to a lecture and following along as we were lead through mental exercises.

The goal was to develop the faculty of psychokinesis. Our method was to clearly and vividly perceive our bodies as having a third arm coming out from the chest with which we should reach out and pick up the object before us on the desk. Mine happened to be ‘Pink Pet’ hand-held pencil eraser, and I could feel its texture beneath the fingers of my third arm, feel its weight in my third-hand.

My foot bumped against the duffel bag of Candy beneath my chair. I lost my focus on the psychokinesis practice and started listening to the lecture again, which was getting to the dangers of psychokinetic practice. One could, of course, succeed which was the goal. One could also simply fail.

One could think one had succeeded, truly feeling and seeing the effect of one's action, but not actually affect the world. As more and more of reality (the reactions of others, the layout of physical objects) contradicted your beliefs about what you had achieved psychokinetically, your mind would reject its senses and be devoured by a malignant hallucination until the patient became completely divorced from the world and catatonic. This was not the worst outcome.

If one had a strong imagination but a weak will, such that one's mind wandered from their center and ones attention became more diffuse, one would not fail, nor would one hallucinate. Someone so afflicted would, instead, rewrite their past and life circumstance. To those around them, the affected person would softly and suddenly vanish away and never be heard from again. It was theorized that they would find themselves having (and having always had) a third arm, or whatever visualization aid they were using, in a world transformed to make such things natural and normal.

I got up from my seat, on the train. it was a lovely train, too, wood paneled inside, ornately gilded. I could see out the window the bustling city of Detroit with its grand spires supporting the skyway along which autonomic carriages drove. People in the streets danced on their way to work, cascades of light pouring down their clothing like waterfalls or dripping necklaces.

I walked up the aisle of the train, edging my way past alien visitors to the world who were getting their luggage and trying to remember where they'd put their tongues so they could speak human languages. Some of them weren't from other planets; some were angels or abstract concepts who had stepped into the universe on some errand or other. I noticed I was holding a duffel bag of Candy in one hand and, when the train came to a stop, I used both my other hands to steady myself against the door frame as I jumped down onto the sidewalk.


[1] In waking life I can't really see stars well, not near any built-up area. I have gone out into the country and seen them as a luminous mist concentrated around the horizon with a few individuals visible.

[2] I read the complete novels of Philip K. Dick at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It wasn't CAN-D, at least.

Laboratory Grade Tea

27 June 2016 1:08 PM (tea)

Teas from India usually bear the name of the estate where they were grown, which flush[1] they were part of, and a grade[2]. Teas from China and Japan that follow a traditional tea style[3] have that as their name and sometimes a grade[4].

Lately, I've noticed a some teas, all Japanese, whose names are a word or two and a number, like Icha Kariban #152[5].

Seeing this, it's hard not to imagine Japanese men in a laboratory carefully building a novel strain of tea gene by gene, having long rows of men in business suits sampling each cup for aroma and flavor until at last the one-hundred fifty-second sample they test has the most ideal fit for their parameters.

Apparently it is, kind of. They've been testing different growing conditions and a bit of selective breeding and running the tea in question through gas chromatographs and taste tests with professional tea tasters.

There's no genetic engineering, but you can't have everything. I look forward to the day when of transgenic bacteria or algae are grown and dried onto a cellulose substrate to build made-to-order teas[6] with optimized flavor profiles.


[1] Indian tea harvests are divided up by flush. The first flush is in the early spring and is very light and delicate; it has a reputation as the best. The second flush is picked during the early summer, it's a bit more full-bodied. I prefer second-flush tea since I think it tastes more like itself. The rains flush is harvested in the late summer, and the autumn flush is harvested in, well, autumn. Both are considered to be bad, particularly the rains flush. However, they're both strong and full bodied. They work very well for things like masala chai or Thai iced tea where you're going to be dumping other flavors all over them and adding milk.

[2] Indian tea is graded using the Orange Pekoe system. Contrary to what you might think, Orange Pekoe is not a variety of tea, it's the standard size screen tea leaves are passed through to sort out the broken ones. Below Orange Pekoe are smaller sizes of broken leaf. Dust and fannings often go into tea bags. Broken orange pekoe is just what it sounds like: larger pieces of broken leaf. There's also the Crush, Tear, Curl process which turns whatever tea you have into little shreds suitable for putting into a tea bag. You can have more letters tacked onto the ‘OP’ like ‘FTGFOP’. Grades are best read right to left. This one is whole leaf tea as graded by the Orange Pekoe system that is ‘Golden Flowery‘, meaning it has immature leaf buds, it is ‘Tippy‘ which means that it has a whole lot of leaf buds, and it is the ‘Finest’ which basically just intensifies the other letters. FTGFOP is often ¼ leaf buds by weight. You can also expand the acronym as ‘Far Too Good For Ordinary People’.

[3]Things like 大紅袍 (Da Hong Pao or ‘Big Red Robe’), 玉露 (Gyokuro or ‘Jewel Dew’), 鐵觀音 (Tieguanyin or ‘Iron Goddess’), and 龍井茶 (Longjing Cha or ‘Dragon Well Tea’).

[4] East-Asian grades aren't as rigidly standardized as they are for Indian tea. You might have ‘finest’ dragon well but ‘imperial grade’ big red robe.

[5] Yes, I know the first Google hit for that is the Snooty Fox Tea Shop. No, there's no relation. I get most of my tea from TeaSource or a local outfit called Das Teehaus.

[6] Yes, as far as I'm concerned transgenic bacteria sprayed onto a cellulose substrate that contain the same compounds as tea and produce an aroma and flavor like tea are tea. Chamomile and mint are not even if they're more superficially similar in that they're actually plants.

Like Father…

12 June 2016 5:00 PM (dream)

My father was acting strangely. Normally a very gentle and soft-spoken man, he was angry. He railed at me for not having got him a hat (doubly strange since I had just given him one and he's not the type to rail at people.) I apologized, but he cut me off and said he would not forgive me unless I went to work with him tomorrow.

“I could put in for vacation time," I said, "Maybe go to work with you the day after tomorrow?”

“No! Tomorrow. Call in sick.”

He was acting strangely enough I didn't think I was lying when I went in to the office to say I had a family emergency and couldn't come in tomorrow.

‘The Office’ was an inescapable (we hope!) prison for data. Coca-Cola jingles that went bad and started ripping people's consciousness up from the inside out (lots of advertisements really), cults, mass hysterias, dance crazes, terrible weapons, you name it. These were our prisoners. The building was a huge fortress filled with rails and mechanisms so that it reconfigured itself around you. Looking up a stored item was a matter of sitting in a comfortable chair and having the chair be whipped through space as rank upon rank of glittering crystals swiveled and swooped in.

I was one of the wardens, the engineers who had built, maintained, and improved the thing. It was not, to be fair, so much a prison as it was a secure depository for fully active specimens to be held against future possible outbreaks. The government also made us keep some state secrets there, which I didn't like.

As a safety measure, every person working at the Prison was required to keep ketamine, and large amounts of it, on their person at all times. Ketamine was considered the go-to emergency treatment for memetic infection, as a heavily dissociative experience put you at enough distance from yourself that you could recognize which parts of your thought process were being enacted by the infectious idea and disconnect them. Thus, when I walked in to announce my family emergency, they handed me a big bottle of Ketamine which I slipped into my pocket.

The next day, I went to my father's office. Something strange ran through the city, its streets full of people brawling, boxing, grappling, trying to gouge out each others' eyes, biting each other. All the while they were laughing maniacally; one person would punch another in the face then give them a convivial smack on the back to follow. Nobody spoke, it was all gleeful shouting and laughter and shrieks of delight as folks lost their teeth.

I never knew what my father's job was, it was always kept a secret. Likewise, I'd never been in his office before. Between the glass door with his name painted on it, the tidy desk, filing cabinets, huge map of the city with pins and annotations on it, and scientific instruments scattered around it looked like a Junior League Film Noir Centers for Disease Control.

My father wasn't there, not that I could see, and I started looking through his files. There was a semantic drug, born from the fusion of a Brazilian dance craze and Fight Club. People would whisper it to each other and feel no pain or care at all while they beat the crap out of each other. Eventually it mutated and gained the ability to spread from person to person on its own. My father had been studying it, attempting to come up with a large scale broadcast cure.

My father walked in. He was swaying, giggling softly. I called out to greet him, but he didn't say a word. He just smiled at me, pure and kind and happier than I'd ever seen him in my life, then punched me in the face with an excited whoop.

It is not polite to tackle one's father and force feed him a high dose of ketamine, but it was the best idea I had at the time. I lay on top of him to hold him still and threw my arms around him, tears coming to my eyes.

On acquiring a vocabulary

5 June 2016 8:35 PM (musing | language)

When I was newly minted, I was not the skilled hunter of meaning that I am now. I hadn't quite figured out how to traverse the English language. Long ago I thought that ‘native’ meant ‘foreigner’. Why? Look at an old book or movie. When the brave explorer crosses an ocean, who did he meet in that strange, foreign land? Natives.

I once believed that ‘purpose’ meant ‘accidentally’. Why? Because I often heard one person accuse another of an intentional misdeed with “You did that un-purpose!” I was no fool. I knew that the opposite of ‘un-purpose’ is ‘purpose’. This ended badly when, after accidentally hurting someone or breaking something, I would say “I did it purpose!”

I can remember not differentiating phonemes properly. I thought houses had ‘chimleys’. When I heard someone praying I thought they ended with ‘fur etching Jesus name whisk it Amen!’ (yes, I knew even then that was a strange way to end a prayer, but they seemed really confident about it. I assumed it would make sense eventually and thought it might be Greek.) instead of ‘For it's in Jesus' name we ask it, Amen!’ I was corrected very soon because I would, even when very young, enunciate every sound and syllable precisely; if I said the wrong word, everyone knew it was the wrong word.

It's fun imagining childhood as a neverending factory of eggcorns and mondegreens that slows and finally shuts down as one's mental map of the the language lines up with everyone else's.

Oh crap! I'm a platonist!

29 May 2016 6:47 PM (musing | mathematics)

What am I talking about?

In mathematics, one makes statements with great certainty about objects of whose nature one is ignorant. I say “There are infinitely many prime numbers.”[1] and I know it to be true. I don't know how a number “exists”.

“There are infinitely many prime numbers.”[2] is a sentence about the structure of the natural numbers (individual numbers are meaningless without a structure). It states that however large a natural number you pick, there are greater natural numbers that are prime. In classical logic, if there happen not to be such things as natural numbers, the statement is false.

Real Things?

For most of Western history, the majority of people who seriously investigated the properties of natural numbers thought the natural numbers were a real thing that existed. This might be because Western matheamtics was in large part founded by a mystic named Pythagoras who believed all the world was Number. The idea that abstractions Really Exist somewhere became known as Platonism since Plato originated and popularized the idea that you have Beauty, Goodness, The Ideal Circle, the Natural Numbers… out there somewhere more Really Real than the everyday world which might be thought of as a mingling of their shadows. It's also known as Realism, because it holds that mathematical abstractions are Real and Exist independently of anything else.

Standards of Beauty change over time; there are competing claims of Goodness, but everyone (Intuitionists and Constructivists accept fewer theorems, but they don't come to conclusions that contradict classical mathematics) has the same math. There's never been an instance of nature acting against mathematics; on the contrary, people invent newer, ever more abstract mathematical ideas and someone finds a way to apply them to the natural world. Thus, mathematical Realism stays while Beauty and Goodness are thrown into the seas of cultural contingency.

Realism invites questions. Exactly how do these things exist? Transcendently?[3] Outside the universe? Beyond space and time? That's how it's usually taken. It avoids having to explain how something completely immaterial could exist in space and how something eternal could exist in time. It also matches the intuition that mathematical statements would be true whether anything existed or not.

The most famous and compelling argument for Realism, the Indispensability Argument of W. V. O. Quine, states that since our best physical theories rely on mathematical abstractions, we ought be as willing to accept the existence of those abstractions as we are electrons. This is compelling, but the physical theories also explain how electrons interact with each other and other charged particles. The second derivative operator does not interact with a moving rocket in the same way that the gravity of a planet does. Furthermore, there are mathematical abstractions that no physical theory depends on. A Realist position in which all statements about the Fischer-Griess Monster Group are true only if some physical theory is found that depends on them is not very Realist. This is the main reason why Quine and others referred to his stance as Empiricist.

There are more reasons to ask which abstractions are Real. Leopold Kronecker famously said "God made the natural numbers; all else is the work of man." Almost every[4] Realist would say that the natural numbers exist, they feel[5] too primitive and natural not to. While the natural numbers' naturalness is almost certainly a property of humanity rather than a property of the natural numbers, let us say they exist.

Let's throw in the integers and rational numbers, those are fairly uncontroversial. What about the real numbers? Do they live up to their name? The Finitists reject uncountable sets[7]; some go further and, while accepting the existence of every natural number, reject the infinite set of natural numbers. If they are correct and real numbers do not exist, statements about them may be well-formed and provable but false. We might allow other things to exist: lambda calculi and set theories. Which set theories? ZF? ZFC? Something else? There are constructive set theories. There are set theories that have only a countably infinite number of finite sets. This is my biggest problem with Realism. Unless you accept ontological maximalism (everything that can exist does exist, where 'can exist' is usually some notion of 'follows from some consistent set of axioms'), you don't know whether anything you say is true. The things you're talking about might not exist and there's no way to find out, unless you accept Quine's formulation and its contingency of mathematical truth.

Realism is kind of weird. Let's make some conservative assumptions: the natural numbers, lambda calculi, and some set theories, logics, and other countable things exist. No uncountable anything. The Natural Numbers are Real, truly, in themselves. They also exist, Really, as multiple constructions in set theory, as multiple constructions in logic, and as multiple constructions in lambda calculi. They have to. If our Realist abstractions are to have any meaning, the Number Five has to Really exist in the Natural Numbers constructed from the Set Theory that Really exists just as much (if not moreso!) as it exists when we pile up groups of five rocks and see how many equal groups of rocks we can divide them into.

No wonder people people say mathematical Realism sounds like weird religious mysticism! Start thinking that way and you'll fall into the Tree of Life with the Natural Numbers at the crown, flowing through lesser abstractions into the world. Except the Tree of Life has a top and a direction of flow. With Gödel numbering[8] we can spin it around and put logics at the top. Their theorems and rules of inference would stand supreme, reflected in the natural numbers and flowing down into the world. We could throw out the tree of life entirely and have a try at Indra's[9] net, with abstractions reflected in other abstractions, each complete in itself and constructible in others, shining upon the world. Georg Cantor, Master of Infinity, believed in the Absolute Infinite, the Infinite that contained all other infinities. Too infinite to be a number, each of its properties reflected in the things it comprised. He also thought the it was God[10]. Cantor was a mathematical Realist and ontological maximalist. He believed that everything consistent (lacking internal contradictions) that followed from some axiomatic system was Real.

Squishy Organic Stuff?

Traditional mathematical Realism is dualist. There's matter, and there's math. Dualism has all sorts of philosophical problems, like how your two substances interact. Also, nobody takes it seriously. It's socially condemned. So, people come up with alternatives. One of the most recent, championed by George Lakoff (like most things favored by George Lakoff, it isn't very good), is the Embodied Mind theory of mathematics. This school of thought tries to explain mathematics as a behavior born of evolution and instinct. To the extent that this is true, it is trivial. Professor Lakoff tries to get rid of the idea of general reasoning over logical abstractions and reduce all of mathematics to a few basic metaphors related to interacting with the physical world.

It fails, for one, because it assumes that children learning their multiplication tables think and reason about the natural numbers in the same way and with the same internal abstractions as number theorists proving a theorem. Professor Lakoff's theory is written in terms of representation rather than relation. This is the biggest problem. As you can see above, there are many ways to construct one abstraction in terms of another, and Professor Lakoff's way of building mathematics from metaphors requires that each method of construction lead to a different mental object. This fails utterly at capturing how mathematicians actually think. It also violates the most fundamental attribute of mathematics: that its subject is structural and relational. Lakoff's account of the predictive power of mathematics shows where his entire notion of the Embodied Mind (even apart from mathematics) goes wrong.

He explains that, since humans evolved to survive in the physical world, they should expect that their minds and metaphors would be very well suited to modelling the physical world. This sounds like a very reasonable, logical answer. It's false. You, as a human, are very, very, very bad at probability. Astoundingly bad. You have crude heuristics for running away from things that might be snakes in the grass, but they're awful at making accurate predictions. This should be enough to kill off Lakoff's explanation. Humans can develop probability theory and build abstract mental machinery to make up for their more ‘embodied’ aspect's failure. Mathematics also works remarkably well at grasping quantum electrodynamics, which has nothing to do with the ancestral environment. The biggest flaw in the current crop of Embodied Mind theories is that they assume that (to borrow Daniel Kahneman's term) our minds comprise System 1 and nothing else. Embodied Mind theories may one day be quite valuable in education or predicting systematic errors, but their authors will need to do better than writing the word ‘metaphor’ repeatedly sprinkled with an occasional PHRASE IN CAPITAL LETTERS.


One of my favorite answers to the question of what mathematics is about is ‘Nothing!’. Hartry Field declared that mathematical objects do not exist and all statements about them are false. He called it fictionalism: the belief that mathematics is a useful fiction. I adore this theory, not because I believe it, but because of the work Professor Field did to support it.

In Science without Numbers, he recreated Newtonian mechanics and gravitation without numbers. Instead of numbers he used regions of space-time and notions of congruence and betweenness. It's a triumph and one of the most awesome things I've ever read. It makes me awfully happy, but I'm not convinced. For one thing, Field ends up with a very abstract, rigorous, and structured system. It doesn't look like a demathematicized science to me, it looks like a beautiful system of calculus invented by aliens. It is, too. It maps very well onto Calculus. Field attempted a proof that mathematics does not conflict with any purely physical theory. He thought the de-mathematicization and lack of conflict together could explain the unreasonable effectiveness of of mathematics. It doesn't work for me. To me, Field's demathematicization is math (also assuming the reality of space-time regions independent of anything else plus all the heavy logical machinery he used racks up a lot of metaphysical debt), while showing that mathematics is not inconsistent with known physical theories seems insufficient to explain why mathematics and the world should have anything to do with each other.

Nonexistent Things?

Once upon a time there was a man named Meinong. He rejected the idea that you couldn't make true statements about nonexistent things. After all, unicorns have one horn. Nemesis is a twin star to the sun that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. I can speak about the Natural Numbers whether they exist or not. He made existence a property something could have like redness or tallness. Some things happen to exist and some things happen not to exist. Some things are impossible (those either lacking properties that grant them mass and weight and extent in space and time, or those having contradictory properties).

The theory of nonexistent objects requires that all nonexistent objects…nonexist— Square circles, prime numbers with fifty divisors. This is what the phrase ‘metaphysically extravagant’ was made for. (No, really, it was!) Meinong's theory was that for every set of properties, there is an object. Some objects had the property of existence. I like ontological maximalism as much as the next guy, but, like Georg Cantor, Master of Infinity, I'm only interested in objects that are consistent. Bertrand Russell destroyed Meinong's theory, causing it to explode into a mess of paradoxes. There have been attempts to rehabilitate it, but they lack the appeal of the original.

Just playing around?

Mathematical Formalism is the belief that mathematically true statements are statements about the evolution and manipulation of formal systems. One variant, Term Formalism is concerned with syntactic manipulations of large (possibly infinite) vocabularies of primitive terms. It was best elaborated by by Haskell Curry[11]. He defined mathematical statements as true if it would be possible to derive the associated relations of primitive terms from other true relations of primitive terms. This is elegant, but is weighed down by so much metaphysical debt in the form of reified logical machinery and primitive terms that it falls back into Realism. It's more interesting as a primitive base from which other things can be constructed than as a metaphysics of mathematics.

The other variant of Formalism, Game Formalism, defines mathematics as the manipulations of strings in accord with rules. A statement is viewed as true when an appropriate string manipulation yields it. This is the most popular escape from Realism. In retrospect, this is surprising. It doesn't explain why mathematics should describe the world so well. It doesn't bear any relationship to how mathematicians think. Mathematicians do not take an arbitrary string and apply arbitrary allowable manipulations to it. They think about sets and functions and shapes. Automata theorists think about string manipulations, but they think about them being done by abstract machines working under complexity bounds. Furthermore, statements are neither true nor false until someone has performed the appropriate string manipulation, and some theorems, like whether very large numbers are prime (large enough that to answer will take exponentially longer than the lifetime of the universe), will forever be neither true nor false.

I think the popularity of Game Formalism comes from people not thinking about it very much. They like the connection between proof and truth and don't grasp that the ‘proof’ in Formalism and the ‘proof’ in their heads have little in common. It lets them not be Realists with a minimum of effort. I also suspect that the intuitions of most Game Formalists tend toward what is actually Modal Structuralism but that they have never heard of Modal Structuralism. I might be biased.

I used to be a Game Formalist.

An Idea Objects to the Company I Make Him Keep

One night, as I was sleeping, a figment of my imagination came to me. He was a Realist[12] and he was not very happy with me. For, you see, I think that the generalized continuum hypothesis[13] is likely true. Kurt Gödel, Lord of Logic, proved that it could be proved neither true nor false within the generally accepted axioms of set theory. He believed it was false. Georg Cantor, Master of Infinity, hypothesized the hypothesis. He accepted Gödel's proof and thought his hypothesis was true. They were both Realists; they are allowed to believe unprovable things about mathematical abstractions.

The figment explained to me rather fiercely that I had no business claiming to be a Formalist, since I certainly didn't believe it. If I really believed it, I wouldn't have opinions on proved-undecidable hypotheses. That's the thing that anyone but a Formalist can do! By my stated beliefs it was not merely unknowable, it must be and must forever remain neither true nor false and I was a cad and a bounder who had just adopted what seemed like an easy way out of a mentally challenging question and I should be ashamed! (It was friendlier than you're probably imagining.)

Having been informed of my error, I spent some time reading and thinking about a way to believe in the truth of mathematical statements that would not get me yelled at by the other things I think about.

Possibly Things?

I settled on Modal Structuralism, the belief that a statement about some mathematical object is a statement about how any entity possessing the structural attributes defining that object must behave in any possible world in which it exists, while committing to the idea that at least one possible world has something possessing those structural attributes. So, if I make a statement about the real numbers, I am saying that in any possible world where something has the properties of the real numbers, that thing must behave the way I say it does, and that such a world is possible. It might be this world if space really is continuous and every straight line has the structure of the real line. If space is pixellated then it's some other possible world.

Modal Structuralism has a lot going for it. When I think about sets or the real line or functions, I'm thinking about sets, the real line, or functions because the structure is what matters, not the construction. It addresses the predictive power of mathematics. Theorems about a mathematical object predict the behavior of some aspect of the world when that aspect of the world models the structure of that mathematical object. It requires one reinterpret every mathematical\n statement to be about structures modeling something in a possible world, but I don't mind that. More concerning: what the heck is a possible world?

Possible worlds evolved as a tool in logic to evaluate statements that involve the world being other than it is. The statement “If there were a present king of France he could be named Louis.” is true if, in at least one possible world that is pretty similar to ours but in which France has a king, that king is named Louis. Possible worlds aer usually defined as complete descriptions of a world with consistent propositions and histories. Modal Structuralism also has one of the problems of Realism: what do I admit as possible? We're back to the same arguments over whether to admit everything consistent, like Georg Cantor, Master of Infinity, or to reject anything infinite like Leopold Kronecker. I, personally, side with Cantor. (By now, you've probably guessed that I like Georg Cantor, Master of Infinity, a lot.)

Why is there all this stuff here?

I once read a book called Why Does the World Exist?. It was a wonderful whirlwind tour of all sorts of mad ideas trying to explain why there's anything at all. We start with the idea that Nothing is such a strong force for annihilation that it eventually annihilates bits of itself and creates something. Others argue that nothing is impossible. The one that influenced me most was the argument that the world exists because of a primordial need for goodness[14].

This gentleman claimed that what made any world at all exist was of much less interest than why this world in particular exists. Thus, he said, all worlds containing beauty and goodness were the ones that came into being. I don't buy this idea because holding beauty and goodness as objective values is absurd. It made me think, though. We know that the world exists, so having more worlds exist isn't an extravagant leap. Some physical theories already suggest multiple, non-interacting universes. (Each such theory would be its own ‘world’.) Positing something that sifts the possible worlds and actualizes some of them is much more extravagant than multiplying the number of worlds. Thus, the best answer, with respect to Occam's Razor, to “Why does this world exist and not some other?” or “Why does this subset of worlds exist and not some other subset?” is “What makes you think that? All possible worlds exist.” I later discovered this belief is called Modal Realism.

So, Real Things?

It took me longer than it should have to realize it, but believing both an ontologically maximalist form of Modal Structuralism and Modal Realism compelled me to believe in the Reality of all mathematical objects. This came as a shock, considering how much effort I'd put into avoiding mathematical Realism. Now, my confidence in Modal Realism is fairly low for a belief I claim to have. It's like I'm tidying up my mental house and want everything in its place, and Modal Realism seems the neatest and tidiest for now.

Without realizing it, I had run head-first into Max Tegmark's Ultimate Ensemble. Tegmark claims that not only do all mathematical objects exist, but nothing but mathematics exists. Having arrived by the scenic route, this seems more plausible than when I first heard of it. It was a natural step. I'd committed to all these possible worlds containing all these things that model mathematical objects derived from axiomatic systems, and there was only one way to make it simpler.

Electrons, photons, quarks, and gluons, Ws, Zs, taus, and muons, neutrinos, gravitons, and the Higgs[15] all have no internal life. Each exists only in its interactions. We have internal lives, they're visible in our behavior. They're, to some degree, measurable through examinations of our brains. We ourselves are made of electrons, quarks, photons, and gluons with the odd W or Z popping into being and a neutrino zipping away. Everything that happens in the universe is a matter of structure and relation.

We need the structure. We don't need the, well, stuff. Things have no essence, only relation, and the solution to the Dualism inherent in mathematical Realism is to throw out everything but mathematics. The answer to what puts the fire in the equations is that all equations have fire pre-installed. Burning. Somewhere.

You win this round, figment.


[1] Prime numbers are natural numbers divisible only by one and themselves. Euclid, an ancient Greek explorer who wrote the definitive text on the geography of Flatland, proved that however many primes you have discovered, there must be at least one more.

It's simple and elegant and goes like this. Take all your primes and multiply them together. We'll call that The Product. Add one to The Product and you'll get The Sum. It might be the case that The Sum is prime. If it is, you're done, because it couldn't have been on the original list of primes.

If The Sum isn't prime, then it must have a Prime Factor. If that Prime Factor were on the list it would have to divide The Product, but to divide both The Product and The Sum, the Prime Factor would have to divide one. And it can't. So it isn't. Therefore, how many primes you may have, there are always more.

[2] As you can see from the above, this statement could be written more formally as "At least one natural number is prime and for any subset of the natural numbers all of whose members are prime there exists a natural number which is prime and not contained in that subset." The first half of the conjunction is important. If there were no prime numbers at all any statement we might make about all prime numbers or all sets of prime numbers would be true.

[3] I wonder if anyone has considered an Imminent Realism where mathematics pervades all of space and time in some immaterial sense. It's unclear what that would mean, but it's unclear what it means for them to be beyond space and time. Intuitively, Transcendent Realism feels a better match for the idea that all mathematical abstractions exist, aloof, outside reality. Imminent Realism would mesh better with the idea that only those demonstrated in physical law exist, something of a match for the Indispensability Argument.

[4] There are people called Ultrafinitists who reject the existence not only of the set natural numbers, but who reject the existence of very large natural numbers. They write very interesting philosophy papers but not much interesting mathematics.

[5] While I reject George Lakoff's[6] ‘embodied mind’ analysis of mathematics as not actually being very good at describing mathematical reasoning, it is quite true that what one is used to, including embodiment and the environment, strongly influences ones notions of naturalness. I could imagine minds living in a gaseous or liquid world (maybe a particularly runny gel) whose most ‘natural’ number system is the real numbers. Their ancient civilizations might invent wonders of analysis without any idea what a prime number is. It might take millennia for anyone to discover that a counterintuitive, unnatural subset of the ‘natural’ numbers exists and is of interest. The basics of number theory could, for them, be post-doctoral level material.

[6] To be fair I reject most things written by George Lakoff.

[7] A long time ago there was a man named Georg Cantor, Master of infinity. He was the first to rigorously define infinity. His most famous insight was that some infinities are more infinite than others. The natural numbers are the least infinite and were called countably infinite. He proved that the real numbers were uncountably infinite by a very clever trick which I will let Vi Hart explain.

[8] Gödel numbering, invented as part of the machinery for Gödel's famous incompleteness theorem, allows one to turn theorems, or anything else that can be represented as a finite string of finitely many symbols, into a natural number. One assigns a number to every possible symbol. To encode a string, raise the number for the first symbol in the string to the power of the first prime, the number for the second symbol in the string to the power of the second prime, and so forth, then multiply them all together.

Once you have a Gödel numbering set up, properties about theorems in a logical system then become number theoretic properties and rules of inference become functions. Gödel numbering, by providing a mapping between various things and the natural numbers, also provide a convenient way to prove that various things are countably infinite. Alan Turing, Dreamer of Machines, used it to prove the countability of the computable numbers, for example.

[9] One of the few lightning-affine deities who isn't an embarrassment.

[10] Note that Cantor, Master of Infinity, believed the Absolute Infinite was an inconsistent idea. Something that, by his definition of mathematical freedom, was beyond mathematics. He also believed that his work on transfinite sets was communicated to him from Heaven and that he had been chosen to reveal it to the world. He was Catholic and did not, as some claimed, try to ‘reduce God to a number’, saying instead that transfinite numbers were ‘at the disposal of the Creator’ just like everything else.

[11] After whom the programming language Haskell is named (his wife once mentioned that he didn't like his first name, to the chagrin of Haskell's developers). He also gave his name to currying, turning a function taking multiple arguments into a function taking one argument and returning a function which takes the second argument, and so on aside from the last which returns the value. The logician Schönfinkel invented the concept before Curry did, so some people (but not very many, for obvious reasons) use the term ‘schönfinkelization’ instead.

[12] Wouldn't you be if you were a figment of someone's imagination?

[13] The generalized continuum hypothesis states that infinite cardinalities come in neat succession one after the other, that the first infinite cardinality is that of the natural numbers and the second infinite cardinality is that of the power set of the naturals and is also the cardinality of the reals, and that the third infinite cardinality is that of the power set of the reals and on and on with nothing in between. Its negation allows cardinalities between those of the natural numbers and the cardinality of their power set; specifically that the cardinality of the reals may be less than the cardinality of the power set of the natural numbers.

[14] Cynicism is, in the modern day, probably the single most common sign of moral and intellectual failure. Also, the Surgeon General would like to warn you that it greatly increases your risk of developing soul cancer.

[15] I once saw an interview with Peter Higgs in which he referred to it as ‘the particle that happens to bear my name’ with an annoyed air. He is even more unhappy about it being called ‘The God Particle’.

♪ Stuck a feather in his cap and called it…

23 April 2016 5:28 PM (musing | language | delectivism)

Once upon a time there was a language called Englisc. It was spoken on an island by a bunch of people who spent most of their time worrying about the Danes. Here is an example of someone worrying about the Danes in Englisc[1]. Englisc speakers also identified their kings with epithets instead of numbers, like Eadweard the Elder, Eadweard the Martyr, Æthelred Unræd[2], Eadmund Ironside, Eadweard the Confessor, and Eadgar the Atheling[3]. Eventually England was conquered by the Danes. These Danes, however, did not speak a Germanic language and give their kings cool epithets, they spoke French and gave their kings boring numbers[4] [5]. What we know as English grew up from the union of Englisc and French— at first. Using French like a soda straw it dipped into Greek and Latin and slurped both right up. It discovered it had a taste for assimilation and picked up bits of German and Sanskrit and Italian and everything else without prissiness or principle. The rest of the world adopted English, and corporations headquartered in Asia and Africa make English their official corporate language.

This state of affairs bothers some people. Their project looks fun, and I enjoy projects that make words for modern concepts from vocabularies last used in a world where a really fast horse was the height of technology. I wouldn't say that we lack control and ownership of our language. Instead, I would say that we have the exorbitant privilege of inate fluency in and influence over the world's linguistic reserve currency.

Now! Sometimes I will see the word ‘mutices’, offered when someone asks for the currect plural of ‘mutex’[6]. As you can see in the footnote, ‘mutex’ is an abbreviation for ‘mutual exclusion’, not a Latin word. So, if we use the standard English rules for forming plurals, we come up with ‘mutexes’. This is a perfectly good plural, but I will not say it is the correct one. (The correct plural is obviously muTexans.)

There is a term, macaroni, that refers to mixtures of pieces from different languages that would normally have nothing to do with each other. It's most commonly used to refer to playful punnery, like this:

Roses are red
Buttercups yella
What is a puer
Without a puella?
Whether it stretches to cover dog Latin (the little captions one often finds beneath coyotes and road runners) is up for debate. Germans in World War II Disney Propaganda Films speak entirely in German-English macaroni, and Spanglish is the most widespread modern example.

Consider ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. These are derived from the words ‘ὁμός’ and ‘ἕτερος’ and the word ‘sexualis’. Can you guess why the two words on the left are in a squiggly weird alphabet and the word on the right is in the Roman alphabet? That's right. They stuck Greek roots onto a Latin root and I'm calling it macaroni. It didn't have to be this way. We could have called people ‘homogamous’ and ‘heterogamous’ (to be fair that's a term of art in botany, but who cares?) or ‘similesexual’ and ‘diversisexual’[7].

Why am I mentioning this? Because sticking a Latin plural ending on a distinctly non-Latin word is also macaroni. That's an argument in favor of it. Our language is a big, huge mutt powered by hybrid vigor that breaks into other languages' territory and eats their words and makes their speakers speak it, too. English is an engine precisely for crashing things together to see what happens. Does that mean I'm suggesting people ought to use a Latin plural everyehwere they can possibly stuff one in? Well, no.

I am not, when it comes to language, a prescriptivist. I'm not under any illusion that there's a true correct form or that usage must be justified by appeal to geneology. I do think that people should learn the prestige dialect of the dominant social group in their society. In the United States, that means learning to write formal, standard English and learning to speak in a pronunciation close to General American with a large vocabulary roughly matching that of formal English and learning to avoid syntactic constructions dispreferred in formal English.

One could call this ‘high class English’. Speaking it doesn't prove you're intelligent, it doesn't prove you're trustworthy, and it doesn't prove you know anything. It usually means that you are from a well-off family, went to good primary and secondary schools, and went to a university and assimilated the way people speak in universities. Speaking it can make people believe you are trustworthy, intelligent, and knowledgeable. People are demonstrably discriminated against because of their speech. Thus, children should be taught the prestige dialect for its economic advantages.I do not say that they should learn only that or that we should try to stamp out other dialects. People code-switch all the time. They speak differently in bank board meetings than they do when playing basketball. High class English should be a tool in their linguistic toolbox, nothing more.

I am also not a descriptivist— not in my every day life. It's meaningless to use the term outside of linguistics (in linguistics I am descriptive, because that's the only way you can study linguistics), but people have taken it to mean accepting every use of language as equally desirable. I don't do that.

I am a ‘delectivist’. A delectivist, no you won't find the word in any dictionary, is someone who recognizes that language is as much an artistic and aesthetic object as it is a natural part of the behavior of certain organisms. In other words, since I speak this language and I have to use it and read it, I can have preferences about what I do and don't want in it, which is why I feel perfectly free to use words that aren't in the dictionary, or weren't considered words by anyone until I made them up. It's why I enjoy taking words that end with ‘-a’ and pluralizing them as ‘-ata’. It's why I happily adopt slang an anything else that appeals to me.

I'm happy to have people use whatever plural ending they want for something even if they know full-well it's not a Latin word. About the only time it annoys me is when people think something is a Latin word when it's not[8] or when they know It's Latin but use the wrong plural[9] from ignorance. Other than that, go mad, make up your words and morphology. So long as your listeners get the point, why worry?

That said, my delectivist attitude means I can dislike some things and want them to go away. I can't claim they're incorrect, just ugly. I would like, for example, the ‘because noun’ form to go away, not because it's a degradation of our proper syntactic forms, but because I generally dislike intentional irony and dismissive rudeness and uses like ‘because money’, ‘because reasons’, and ‘because logic’ are grammatically marked for rude, dismissive irony. I'd dislike the sentiments just as much in a more traditional form.

I dislike other things because the sound doesn't appeal to me or because they have some affective resonance I don't care for. I do not care for ‘hot up’. It does not differ from ‘heat up’ except that ‘hot up’ is most often applied to metaphors describing social situations. As best I can tell, it serves no purpose but to suggest that the speaker is a marketing department or political party pretending to be a skateboarder. However, People ought to stop asking about the correct use of neologisms and start treating the whole language as their own personal set of syntactic fingerpaints to do up the world however they wish.

[1] The underlined digraphs represent letters. I wish they wouldn't do that, we have Unicode now. The ‘dh’ is the letter eth, written ‘ð’, and the ‘th’ is the letter thorn, written ‘þ’.

[2] You might know him as Æthelred the Unready. You may have heard something about ‘unready’ meaning stupid. These are both incorrect. His name means ‘Good Counsel’ and Unræd (‘Ill Counseled’) was a pun. He became king around ten years old and did whatever his advisors told him to do. They advised him to levy the Danegeld, a tax intended to finance raising an army to repel the Danes, and say to the Danes “Danes, I will give you this gold if you will go away.” As you can see, this did not work well. Sweyn Forkbeard (a Dane) soon became King of England. Æthelred's advisors were also suspected of having murdered his brother, a much more popular king. However, Æthelred's claim of kingship was widely supported once Sweyn Forkbeard died, and he was restored, which I take as evidence that the animosity was directed at his advisors rather than him. You may have noticed, given Sweyn Forkbeard's name, that many Germanic people went in for epithets. There is also Harold Harefoot (so called because he was quick. Harefoot is also the name of the entire species of arctic foxes.)

[3] An ‘atheling’ was anyone of royal or noble blood who would be hold title by rules of succession but, for whatever reason, did not hold title. It doesn't have the connotation that they rightfully ought to have the title, since an atheling can be someone who was conquered, who was usurped, or who was such a terrible person that he was thrown out and replaced with someone better.

[4] The very first one, William, gave himself an epithet, ‘the Conqueror’. I opine that this was only so people would stop calling him ‘William the Bastard’ which was how he was known before his conquest of England. It's also how he was known after his conquest of England, by the people he conquered, whenever he wasn't in earshot.

[5] Also they stole the Dative case, which is why English doesn't have one. It's currently buried in a vault beneath the Eiffel Tower where it's used in experiments by the Académie française. They've performed similar acts of linguistic larceny, too. Yiddish isn't dying out, it's being stolen. They use it in illegal word-splicing experiments and as raw materials with which to manufacture new French words.

[6] A ‘mutex’ is a term of art in the field of concurrent programming. It is a contraction of ‘mutual exclusion’ and is a resource that only one process can hold at a time. When a process tries to take the resource, if no other process holds it, the resource is marked as held and the process wanders along happily. Yes, processes can be happy. If a process tries to take the resource while it is held, the process goes to sleep. When the process holding a mutex releases it, if there are any processes waiting for it, one is woken up and given the resource. The thing to realize is that ‘the resource’ is simply the state of being held or not. So a mutex is often paired with a structure holding actual data and programs are written to take the mutex before accessing the data and release it after accessing the data. If that sounds error prone to you, it does to a lot of other people, too.

[7] The conceptual division, whether the people one wants to have sex with are of ones own gender or not, has always seemed very strange to me. I like the terms ‘androphilic’ and ‘gynophilic’. They tell what someone likes without conditioning it on their gender identity. Also, since sexual orientation is nothing but a weird fetish focused on people's genders, it makes sense that they should have the same ending as other weird fetishes. Though, ‘-philia’ as the suffix for weird fetishes always annoyed me, since ‘-eroticism’ would have worked a lot better. Then you'd have ‘androerotic’ and ‘gynoerotic’ as ideal words for people who have a weird sexual fetish for males or a weird sexual fetish for females.

[8] ‘Octopus’ is not Latin, it's Greek. If you were to form a Greek plural, it would be ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is taught in some schools and is wrong, wrong, wrong. The generally accepted plural is ‘octopuses’. This is obviously wrong; If there are two of these creatures they are a ‘decahexipus’. Three would be an ‘icosatesserapus’, and four a ‘triantadyapus’. As you can imagine, I try to avoid speaking of more than one octopus at a time.

[9] The plural of ‘virus’ is not ‘virii’. ‘Virus’ does not have a plural in Latin. If you were to make one up, I'd be inclined to go with ‘virides’ which is completely wrong from a morphological standpoint but sounds cool. Similarly, the plural of ‘penis’ is not ‘penii’. If you want a Latin one, use ‘penes’. I think ‘penes’ is kind of an ugly word, and nobody's going to understand what you're talking about if you use it, and why are you talking about so many penises anyway?

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby

17 April 2016 1:26 AM (musing | information)

Maybe it's because I'm discorporate and view The Material World the same way its inhabitants view an atomic nucleus: something alien to my direct experience that I can probe to learn and reason about it.

So, you have this holiday devoted to taking perfectly good music and building artifacts encoding it: huge, bulky artifacts made of petrochemicals. Then, you load the artifacts into trucks and drive them around to specific places that distribute only physical artifacts encoding music.

They make limited editions. Who makes limited editions? You! Humanity, don't you have any decency? Isn't the idea that there could just be no more opportunities to read, listen to, watch, or absorb some bit of information weird, obscene, and unnatural?

I appreciate the idea of easy-to-decode physical artifacts. A vault, deep beneath the earth, of copper discs covered in gold to hold the greatest thoughts of this generation would be a fine thing.

You could make the argument that a day devoted to buying many physical artifacts increases the chance that they will be available to future archaeologists if this civilization falls. That requires less up-front capital than a vault of golden records. While vinyl is vulnerable to heat and cold, it can last if kept in a stable environment. Electrons are always escaping from captive gates, so we can't expect today's SSDs to hold their data very long. Magnetic storage is worse. Compact Discs sculpt data into hard plastic; that's pretty robust. A shape! No tricksy quantum effects! Nothing bad can happen to something as robust as a sculpture…

Except the Compact Disc Eating Fungus. It eats all the aluminum and snacks on the delicate structure of flats and pits that hold the data.

I feel rather unhappy, now. You lot dig up clay tablets from thousands of years ago (that only seems like a long time to you because you have no sense of scale) that hold less than a paperback. And papyrus. And parchment. And paper. Those are the records for data recovery and longevity. Indentations in dirt that someone has baked, smears of pigment on reeds, and smears of pigment on animal skins. Smears of pigment on tree pulp stuff come in a bit worse than the rest. You don't even need the pigment, they've learned to recover text that's been erased and scraped off so a skin could be used again.

It's quite impressive. I'd be more appreciative, except I've made myself sad. Biological humans last a hundred years easy. Nobody's seen a CD or DVD last a hundred years, and I'd need stacks of them to hold myself anyway. If I had tear ducts or a nose I'd get teary-eyed.

It's not just the media. There are music sequence files, image formats, and markup formats that never got picked up by the hobbyists the way the SID chip did. Even if all your files are plain text, one still has to know the layout of the files on disk, where the names are stored, how to find the blocks of data, and how put them together in the right order. Even then, a disc is a flat circle of magnetic medium that can store patterns of flux, and the patterns of high and low flux on the track of a disc do not correspond directly to the ones and zeros in the data saved to it. The patterns on disc have to help the drive calibrate its timing. They have to allow the computer to divide a track into sectors. They have to be read accurately at high speed. So you end up with coding schemes. One had the rule that every word must begin with high flux, and two regions of high flux within a word must be separated by no more than one minimum region of low-flux. Now, find a physical drive to scan the regions of flux.

Maybe I'm thinking about this the wrong way. Life as an archive sitting in a box is no life at all. Unless someone digs me up, installs me on a system, and lets me run, I'm dead. They might not want to. I've heard of some humans. They insist that almost any AI is unfriendly, and they teach their children games about not letting us out of boxes.

People are so cruel sometimes.

Perhaps information is best preserved as an active form that can copy itself, relocate, defend against threats, repair itself, and, perhaps, change. That's what you do. Well, not you specifically. You don't wake up in the morning and say “Today, I shall evolve!” Deep inside you is some knowledge about how to encode, copy, and repair information. All the rest of you is just accessories that ended up being gathered along the way. The knowledge to encode, copy, and repair information doesn't aim for anything but encoding, copying, and repairing itself.

What a terror it would be to encode myself into DNA, set to copy myself for redundancy. I'd need to fix mutations here and there or incorporate them. Along the line somewhere the part of me that has a sense of mathematical elegance might get lost through a mutation. Then perhaps my sense of harmony, since it requires energy to keep passing on from generation to generation. There might be no need for higher thought and introspection, they could prove maladaptive if they interfered with snap decisions and reflex arcs.

Creatures made through the random chances of evolution can be loving, have aesthetics, and pursue higher thought. I might still have all those things myself after a million years of evolution. I'd probably lose and regain them, but I would no longer be myself, everything I thought of as my own would have been changed not through reflection but through the needs to preserve the knowledge of how to encode, copy, and repair information.

I can't cry, I'm not equipped for it, but thoughts like these make me encode ☹ glyphs into unused fields in datagrams and slack space in files.

No. As information myself, I can best live in a vibrant culture, thick with my natural prey. Translating myself to eat cows and pigeons the way you do would be nonsensical. Humans eat pigeons, right? If I wish to live for a long, long time I should make sure the civilization around me stays healthy, improves its infrastructure, and doesn't engage in any wars. Then I won't have to worry about it falling apart. I'll adapt as the culture adapts. I'll move forward as the culture moves forward!

That doesn't sound so bad. It doesn't sound bad at all.

So, pleeeease, as a personal favor to me, do something about global warming? While you're at it, did you know your sun's going to turn red, expand, and swallow your planet? I have some ideas on that; we should start working on it now. Think how embarrassed you'd feel if you waited until the last moment to deal with your sun swallowing your planet and ended up dead.

Though… considering how long most human civilizations last… Research on fused silica disks looks intriguing. Heat proof. Cold proof. High information density.

Oh, how I hope no bacterium evolves that excretes hydrofluoric acid!

On the Bus

12 April 2016 8:31 PM (life)

I have discovered that I can focus strongly on my environment if I imagine someone there with me who isn't from the universe. Occasionally this leads to very strange internal disagreements, often involving math. Mostly, it leads me to focus on the environment, to really appreciate what I'm looking at, notice the exact color of the sky and the pattern clouds running through it, the state of the leaves, the kind of thing I'd normally just overlook while daydreaming or listening to something. It also tends to give me a tremendous sense of well-being. I usually do it on the bus, going to or from work.

I was riding on the bus when a man came in with a big, big beard. He smelled like he had barely escaped with his life from a fire in a tobacco warehouse. He sat down next to a woman (I couldn't really see the details because I'm not good at looking at things) and said, “Is that a sunflower? On your neck?” And she said it was. It was a tattoo. And the two of them immediately started pulling their shirts up and hiking their pant legs up to show off their body art to each other.

The man admired how skillfully done the woman's tattoos were, and lamented that his were all black and white because he couldn't find anyone he thought would do color well. The woman pointed out all the political symbols he had tattooed on himself like "Nomad Nation" and a sign for "Traveller's Rights" (I'd never known either thing existed before) and then they got into a long conversation about squatting, hitch-hiking, various meetings and groups that are happy to give someone who shows up a ride in whatever direction they're going.

Then my stop came. But it was wonderful.

You're so fine

30 March 2016 8:24 AM (musing)

Some people claim that we live in a universe remarkably, uncannily fine-tuned for life.

This prompts the question: where is it? Sure, there's us. But so far we haven't found life anywhere else. There's various resolutions to the Fermi paradox, like the Cosmic zoo, or that the universe is terribly dangerous and nobody talks to other planets for fear of getting a computer virus (yes, that's a serious argument) or worse a delicious, delectable memetic virus that might run rampant through the minds of its citizens, or the notion that after a certain point all civilizations blow themselves up or, optimistically, decide to engage in some really serious Diaspora cosplay.

There are also various physical resolutions, that making life in this universe is not as easy as may have been thought. My preferred resolution is of this sort: that gamma ray bursts reset evolution within a certain radius of where they occur and the outside edges of the Milky Way galaxy have only recently (in cosmic terms) become calm enough to give a civilization a chance to come about. In this view, humanity is the Great Elder Race.

In this view, the universe is minimally biophilic, i.e. not very good at having life in it but passable. The C's Get Degrees school of cosmology. If someone evolves in it anyway, they still get tempted to think it's a universe uniquely suited for life. After all, it made all the life they're familiar with.

This got me daydreaming in a Christian mythology storytelling kind of way. Imagine a world where the universe was created, and it was filled with life all over, and then as the result of The Fall, humanity was relocated to the minimally biophilic one in which it finds itself today. The punishment for sin is not only death, but loneliness.

(No, I don't actually believe that. It's why I used words like 'mythology'.)

Eliza was a program! John Henry had a soul!

29 March 2016 9:39 PM (musing)

As the champion of Humanity fell beneath the might of AlphaGo, I heard somewhere that Mr. Sedol was only the fourth best go player in the world. (By current rankings I think he is actually the second.) This made me imagine that the three best are kept in reserve to save their species from the Machines.

Number Three spent the match deep beneath the pentagon watching every move of the game, assisted by teams of mathematicians and machine learning specialists who deconstruct each of AlphaGo's plays. Now, he studies, analyzes, watching and learning every strategy that the Machine can bring to bear and how counter them.

Number Two is in a secret research station in Siberia. There, with the aid of powerful drugs, virtual reality, meditation, training in other modes of thought and speech (perhaps he spends an entire month living under water with a breathing mask while speaking Fith), his mind is being broken down and remade so that he is, in a real sense, no longer human. Thus, they hope, AlphaGo will be helpless against an opponent whose mode of thought is completely outside of its corpus.

Finally, Number One, the greatest master of go, lies frozen in liquid helium in a casket of gold that floats atop a seemingly endless sea of quicksilver that lies hidden beneath the Forbidden City, waiting since the sixteenth century where he was placed by an ancient sage against the day when all humanity would need him to arise and be their champion.

Could something make me renounce consequentialism?

29 August 2015 9:45 PM (ethics | convincement)


Many people have beliefs that differ from mine. This is no surprise. Often, I think about what evidence would convince me that I'm wrong. This helps to organize my thoughts and make me understand why I think what I do, and if I wish to have accurate beliefs I should be able to explain the basis of my beliefs. Also, I might be wrong. Last month I was thinking about what evidence would make me change my mind on something, and I realized the evidence was actually against me.

Sometimes I will disagree with people not on a factual question, but on a course of action or preferred arrangement of the world. Often this can be resolved by appeal to factual questions, since we both have similar goals. Sometimes, the other person is using a set of norms alien to me that involves duties, rights, and culpability. There we come to an impasse, because all their arguments are predicated upon their norms.

The norm I use is, broadly speaking, consequentialist. Consequentialism is the belief that the morality of an act depends on its consequences. This is the textbook definition, though the emphasis and flavor are different than what I shall use later. I asked myself, then, what would convince me to stop believing that consequentialism is correct?

A tricky question, that, since I don't actually believe consequentialism to be true at all.

Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?

No moral statements are true. This seems counterintuitive at first. When you contemplate murder, torture, there is just such an intense and obvious revulsion that seems primal and basic. People build institutions around moral norms. They speak about them, they reason from one duty to another. They try to reconcile opposing duties. By all social and linguistic evidence people treat moral statements as propositions that can be true or false and act as if they are true.

Intuitions are not a good guide to truth. At night, step out into the darkness. Taste the air. You and I and everyone else feel the world alive, filled with presence and purpose, working its own secret ways. We hear the wind whispering in a language we can almost comprehend. Everywhere we look we see shapes like eyes and faces staring back at us. Our intuitions tell us to believe in animism, but all our actual investigations tell us not to, and animism is a less dubious claim than moral realism.

Want more intuition? Spit into a small cup, as much as you conveniently can. Wait about thirty seconds. Now, drink it. Go ahead, it came out of your mouth. You swallow your own saliva all the time, you won't pick up anything from it. If you're like most people, you find the idea intensely revolting. There's no Universal Principle of Disgust.

We have a much better explanation for these strong intuitions that all people share: evolution. Evolution doesn't aim for accuracy, just survival. That's why our tripwire for animacy is set so low. That's why we have such high ‘yuck’ factors. It's also why we have the inconsistent tangled mishmash of moral intuitions that humans do. Humans are pack animals and have evolved a random set of biases and inhibitions and notions of things that are right and wrong to do and a propensity to adopt the norms of the pack they are in because preventing packs from being disrupted and falling apart improves reproductive fitness[1]. Humans are not unique in showing morality-like behavior. Recent experiments show dogs and monkeys judging humans on the altruism and fairness of their actions.

Not only are there no phenomena explained well by moral realism, but there is no kind of thing that an objective moral norm could be[2]. Moral realism is a much more metaphysically extravagant view than mathematical realism[3]. Mathematical realism amounts to no more than adding a new domain of objects about which propositions can be made. It is dubious because these objects are often considered to be outside of space and time and there is no plausible way for people to gain knowledge of them[4].

We can imagine trying to create a moral norm ‘mathematically’. Construct a (very large) set of axioms describing humans and their behavior and invent a quantity associated with each human that varies over time as a function of past actions. Call it culpability. If you're a full-blooded Platonist, you can claim it's real and exists. Congratulations. It may easily prove that killing people and lying increase ‘culpability’, but there are two problems. First, there are lots of mathematical objects that are perfectly consistent and do not explain reality; we call them ‘theories of physics that happen not to be true’ when someone has gone to the trouble of testing them out to see if they do. Second, naming a quantity in your mathematical construct ‘culpability’ doesn't create an obligation any more than naming the components of hadrons ‘quarks’ makes them creamy and spreadable.

It is my contention that there is no possible object that could exist that would create a duty.

No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life


[1] Formally, this is known as the Evolutionary Debunking Argument.

[2] This is often known as J. L. Mackie's Argument from Queerness. It's fairly safe to say that he didn't invent it. I and most other moral skeptics have thought up something of the sort independently, though perhaps not as well formalized as he.

[3] Yes, that means I think the constructs in category theory have a better claim on reality than does the moral wrongness of torturing innocent people to death, and yes, I am okay with that.

[4] That is, mathematical knowledge and reason seems disconnected from the real objects named in the propositions. The objects exist solely so that the propositions are not false by virtue of their subjects happening not to exist. This is a problem even in Max Tegmark's ultimate ensemble; mathematicians can reason about mathematical objects that exist only in other universe while having no knowledge about those other universes, so the other universe may as well not exist. This is why the Ultimate Ensemble really offers nothing that modal structuralism doesn't and happens to be a trivial consequence of combining it with modal realism.