A Predator of Information

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

Behold the Market, Its Failures and Its Venalities

14 February 2021 4:45 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.

It's all fun and games…

23 September 2020 3:18 PM (fiction)

Like a game of high speed chess, the blue fox chased the violet. The violet fox was younger and only reached up to their blue sibling's chest. While smaller, they had a stockier, heavier frame. The blue fox was more lithe, fine-boned, and built for speed.

Speed they had. They moved exactly as fast as a ray of light, reflecting off corners, moving to where the violet fox was. But the violet fox escaped every time, willing themself off to another location. Arbitrary mathematical translation beats the constrained reality of physics every time.

No matter! The blue fox filled the air with illusions and distractions. They sculpted light into doppelgangers of themself coming from this way or that, predicting the violet fox's actions well enough to herd them into popping up at exactly the time and place to be pounced.

The blue fox fell from the air and grabbed the violet, panting, wagging their tail, tackling them to the ground. A nice challenge overcome and…

The violet fox disappeared from their grasp, reappeared immediately above them, then gravity did the rest as they fell upon their taller sibling.

“You can't win.” said the violet fox.

“I caught you! Several times in a row!”

“But you can't hang on to me. The time between when you get me and when I disappear decreases with every iteration as my reaction time improves. In the long run, it converges to zero, so you lose asymptotically.”

The blue fox sat up, and the violet slid down off their back and thumped onto the ground. They hugged their elder sibling's tail, seeming perfectly happy to be in their company now that they'd demonstrated their uncatchability.

“There's a trick to catching someone who can escape whenever they want…” said the older sibling.

“Don't try?”

“Keep them from wanting to.”

The blue fox stroked over the violet's head, scratching between their ears. The two leaned together, the elder looked off into space, hatching plans as they petted their younger sibling.

Nothing changed immediately. Even if the violet fox could translate away once caught, being herded into it counted against them. So the two siblings pitted their minds against each other, strategy versus strategy. The one focused on picking out the real from the illusory, the other focused on ever more effective deceit, deploying ever more complex dazzle and distraction.

It escalated, as arms-races do. Some might think that the mental effort invested in play-fighting would be better spent on something else. Those people are not wild animals, and likely never had a sibling close to their own age. The blue fox sent doppelgangers of light to chase the violet in one direction, and doppelgangers of charge to provide the feel of being caught so they'd blink away again and again. Soon, the game became less a chase and more a contest to see how long the blue fox could predict and anticipate their sibling. The actual blue fox wrapped light around themself to become invisible and did the same for a few random volumes of air to confuse the issue in case the violet had found a way to detect the trick.

To the predator, play is prelude. For the less intelligent sort, perhaps it's only prelude to a hunt, training the body, the eye, the nose, the snap of jaw and the swipe of claw, taming the spike of adrenaline…

To the smarter sort, a game of chase has as much to do with go or chess as it does with tag.

In any game of strategy, one prepares off the field to be better when next they're on it. So the blue fox tinkered. There were things their violet sibling couldn't resist. Things that tempted all of their kind. Puzzles to solve. Insights. Significance. Topped off with a potential approach begging to be investigated and glittering with salience like a bow on a present: A shining prey no hunter could resist…

At least not without a bit of willpower. The blue fox thought their violet sibling was vulnerable. As the most abstractly inclined of the lot their instinct to Find and Know was the keenest. As the youngest, they'd not yet balanced the basic, instinctual drive to satisfy the intellect with the more deliberative, learned behaviors of survival.

The blue fox worked on their Trap. They tried it out themself to check the puzzles were appealing enough they didn't want to stop. They might only have one chance. Even with the violet fox having the least self-preservation of a notably wild and reckless species, if they saw a failed attempt, it might become entirely impossible to hook them with a similar design. So the blue fox wasn't satisfied until they needed a pretty good effort of will to pull away.

The machine was seductive. Neither sentient nor sapient, it enlisted the target's mind to help spin the most fascinating problems for them. Each of their false starts was worked into inspiration for new puzzles down the line, all generated one after the other, drawing one in to an end that never came.

It had to be built into the room. More than that, its position, at least relative to larger parts of the environment, had to be an essential aspect of its operation. Otherwise, the violet fox might simply grab it and blink away. One might argue that they'd be trapped in that case, as their attention would be enthralled for some time, but it wouldn't fit the goal of catching them in place.

The blue fox developed a new strategy. Previously, they'd focused on maximizing the time the game lasted: how long they could keep the violet fox on track, moving from one decoy to another, with the actual fox thrown in, drawing things out as long as possible before the violet fox escaped their plans and moved to a completely unanticipated area.

The new strategy wasn't like that at all. The blue fox would need to get the violet into a specific place. And they had to do it quickly enough, or with enough distraction, that they didn't realize they were being herded. If they figured that out, it would spoil everything.

The violet fox favored spots closer to the walls, close enough to rule out believable decoys from one or two directions; Their mode of discontinuous travel meant that being hemmed in with no escape simply wasn't a concern. So, the blue fox picked a place at random in roughly the area the violet fox favored, though skewed away from what seemed an ideal location, as they didn't want to arouse suspicion by pushing them toward places they'd previously tried to keep them away from.

They practiced a few times. They kept their illusions spread out, covering the likely places to which the violet fox would relocate, then tried to get them to move into a different pre-chosen spot each time. After each round, they reviewed their successes and failures to hone their strategy.

Finally, the chase came when the blue fox was ready to make the attempt. The device was primed and ready. They bowed to each other, both grinning and tailwagging at their self-conscious formality. Once things started, they were fast enough that there was no opportunity to talk or tease each other. The violet fox kept as much information as possible hidden, not making a sound or saying a word, quelling their tail and ears' natural tendency to give away their feelings. They weren't really good at hiding their emotions, but that was one more reason to practice. The blue fox's game was misdirection. Through all their play-fights and chases, they had taken the long view, faking tells so that now they could seed false predictions in their sibling's mind. Perhaps it was taking unfair advantage of their youth, as the violet fox had a harder time resisting the urge to find any pattern, whether it was there or not.

Still, it was hard. The blue fox panted from the mental effort of so many wiles deployed at once, light shadows and false selves moved here and there, manipulating the probability space of their sibling's future location. The violet fox felt the simulated touch of a simulated sibling built of charge and light, and jumped from one spot to another. Then they were tagged by the real fox because, really, a game of friendly chase where you studiously avoid touching your quarry with your real self is kind of sad. The blue fox expected to have them in two steps, then one, then…pop! The violet fox took an unexpected step and zigged where the blue was expecting a zag. They ended up on the other side of the field. The blue fox hid their inward flash of frustration, and redoubled their effort to keep their sibling moving. They could stop and try again later, but they had spent a lot of time and effort on this particular wile and wanted to see if it worked. The blue fox's mind was ablaze as they bent their full attention to low-resolution simulations of their sibling …and they started counting down again. The violet fox would be caught in two moves. Then one. Then…

The violet fox was enjoying themself, bouncing here to there to otherwhere. They could have left the room, but the best games have enough structure to ensure the players are actually able to play. So, staying in the room at all times was agreed on. Similarly, there would be no translating through walls, likewise the blue fox would make no attempt to interfere with their opponent's nerves or otherwise access them through any portals beyond eyes, ears, and other standard interfaces.

The violet fox took a discontinuous step away from one of their sibling's illusions (or maybe the actual fox, it was hard to tell), paw lifting in one spot and setting down on the other side of the room when, without warning, images poured into their eyes, a sound like a chorus filled their ears, forcefields sprung up, not to contain, but to provide tactile feedback should they want to reach out and touch what they were looking at.

PROBLEM 1 was transforming one shape into another, preserving continuity, connectedness, and following a few other requirements.

The fox knew this sort of thing in their bones the way other creatures knew chewing and swallowing. It was almost too easy, but the surface was complex enough and the stipulations strict enough to make it interesting

The blue fox saw the violet blink into the trap. Their black and white eyes lit up as information poured into them. They looked like they might faint, smiling in delight. The blue fox ran up behind them to lower them to the ground, lest they fall in the moment of captivation. They called out triumphantly, “Hah! Get away from that! Whenever you want…” Playful and confident, they ruffled over the violet fox's fur with one hand, ears perked waiting for a retort…

PROBLEM 2 asked to, given two structures and a set of operations, find the smallest list of operations that would make them equal. Prove that no smaller list of operations exists.

Discrete problems were more fascinating and difficult. By nature, the violet fox could twist and turn any continuum as easily as you could wiggle your fingers. Discrete cases required work. This one was set up just right so that they dove right in without a pause…

The violet fox stared into the light, smiling, panting, their mind burning hot enough that their blood raced to feed its demands. They turned awkwardly to hug their sibling, keeping their eyes fixed on the beam as they said, “Thank you! This is wonderful. This is the most wonderful—”

PROBLEM 6 was a nice mixture of both. Investigate the probability distribution of various sequences of real numbers.

—they paused, eyes blinked, another question coming up, they hugged the blue fox and buried their muzzle against their shoulder, head tilted up to glimpse the next challenge…

PROBLEM 12 asked more on the same topic. Sets of sets of sets of sets, functions from sequences of sets to real numbers, and the probability distributions of same.

The machine baited the violet fox to keep them chasing questions. They knew that, but they didn't care. Just because something's trying to get you to do something, it doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do, right? And this felt so right. Every problem on a similar subject made them feel that they were nearing some endpoint, even though it was apparent they weren't going to exhaust the field of probability any time soon.

“Don't you care that I…won? You're still here! You haven't escaped!”

“Care? Sure!” the violet fox spoke between pauses, each sentence a chance for their mind to spin down from its constant effort. “It's wonderful! I hope you catch me like this more often!”

The blue fox took a moment to savor their triumph, petting their sibling and enjoying watching them enjoy themself. The best victory is one your opponent likes at least as much as you, after all. Soon they felt antsy and asked, “…it's been a 155-time[1]. Don't you want to…move? Escape? Do something?”

The violet fox shook their head, exhaling softly, “No. I'm happy to stay here. You can go do something if you want, but come back soon! I'll do a better job of trying to keep things interesting for you and describe what I'm working on. I'd really like your company.”

The blue fox frowned a bit. They weren't expecting their sibling to be fascinated for this long. Pretending to be more caught than they were when the game was over would have been out of character for them. The blue fox thought they'd get free when they got hungry or thirsty or uncomfortable from lying on the floor. On reflection, the violet fox was usually happy to curl up in someone's lap and talk to them for a good portion of a wake cycle if their interest was piqued…so the blue fox thought everything would be fine.

PROBLEM 60 was number theory the long way around, proving theorems about the convergents of continued fractions. The floor was a bit hard. The violet fox sat up and rubbed their head, then stretched. They were careful to keep the image in sight. Then they stood up, moving, swaying, bouncing around, keeping their body comfortable and burning off some of the physical energy that'd been accumulating during their mental flight.

They wished their sibling would come back. They'd found a neat pattern a while back they wanted to share…and they still felt grateful, happy, wanting to hug the blue fox and say how much they enjoyed this experience.

The blue fox woke up. Ate. Wondered if anyone else had noticed their sibling going missing. No one had said anything, so they'd probably got out of the trap. They must have got out by now. Still, it was surprising they hadn't hunted them down to congratulate them, point out flaws in the design, or yell at them for subverting their incentive structure.

PROBLEM 120 was a story problem. A function of attitudinals to real numbers was given. One must create an algorithm that would, given a number of characters, create a story with that number of characters where each character would experience each listed emotion once and when taken as a vector, the numbers of each character's emotion throughout the story would sweep through a given pattern of angles…

The violet fox wasn't getting bored. They were getting hungry. The system must have noticed their attention failing and thrown something out of left-field to retain it. They didn't mind. They were getting weak from going this long without food while their metabolism burned at a high rate. They slumped back down onto the floor, sprawling out to lower their energy requirements slightly.

The blue fox was a bit scared to go into the room where they'd been playing. What if their sibling was still there? They couldn't be! They must have left hours ago, but they would have found them and said something. What's the point of a good, enjoyable fight where everyone's at their best if you don't re-litigate and discuss every point of strategy afterward?

Eventually they went in. They saw their sibling, sprawled on the floor, smiling. They got a sinking feeling as they ran over to them. “What are you still doing here? It's been a whole sleep cycle! Come on. Eat something! Your fur's a mess. Aren't you bored?”

The violet fox shook their head with a cheerful grin, “No. Want to hear a story? I'll tell you one, just give me a natural number. Less than six, though, otherwise we'll be here for a few sleeps…”

PROBLEM 360 gave a list of criteria and asked for functions to satisfy them, as well as a proof that all such functions must have a common form.

They were happy their blue sibling was back. They curled up, climbed into their lap and hugged them, practically radiating happiness, as they set to hunting for functions.

“No! I…aren't you hungry? You're weak enough you have to be hungry.”

“Oh, yeah. Pretty hungry. I was thinking of trying to take the whole thing with me and get some food, but it made a pretty compelling case that it had integrated enough properties of this one spot that I'd have a hard time finding a new spot where it would operate. And if it's shut down for a 144-time[2], it'll burn itself out. I don't want to risk trying to grab a snack.”

The blue fox looked down, unhappily, wishing they'd been a bit less thorough in their contingency planning. “Well. I…” they reached out to turn off the device, and suddenly found themself on the exact opposite side of the ring.

With a sigh they started to head back…

PROBLEM 2520 was a coloring problem!

The violet fox loved coloring problems. They'd been playing with one last week that had some similarities to this one, and wondered if the machine had made it up by coincidence, or constructed it from watching them work.

The blue fox returned through a combination of trams, shortcuts through the ventilation system, and flat-out running. They weren't sure if their sibling would be more willing to go if they kept getting hungry or if a meal and some attention might divert them from their solving. It gave them an idea.

“You have to eat sometime. If you starve you can't solve this or anything else.” said the elder sibling.

“Eh…I'll eat when I hit the end.”

“It doesn't have an end.”

“…yeah, I was thinking about that. Maybe I can figure out supertasking, then I can finish before sleep and meet you for breakfast.”

“Wouldn't you starve? If you're performing an infinite number of steps you'd have to consume infinite energy…”

The violet fox just waved a dismissive paw, “That's a problem for engineers! My domain is truth! Pure, certain, and unconstrained by mere matters of matter!”

This was getting ridiculous. The blue fox thought it might be harder to translate them away if they were hanging on tight, so they curled around the violet fox and covered their eyes with one hand, blocking the input…

There was a howl: the sharp, discord of anger and despair, when something loved was suddenly yanked away and at risk of being destroyed. The older fox wasn't expecting it when their sibling tried to snap their jaws on their hand. They barely pulled it away in time. And with that they suddenly found themself on the other side of the habitat again.

This was bad. They weren't surprised that their sibling would translate them away, but trying to bite or actually harm them to keep playing? That was serious cause for concern. They headed back, imagining all the ways things could go downhill from here and how to head them off.

PROBLEM 5040 was a Diophantine equation.

It must be scaling the difficulty down a bit to match their lack of energy. They felt a bit bad for trying to bite their sibling. And a bit angry with them for trying to cut them off. They appreciated the blue fox not wanting them to starve, but priorities!

The blue fox came back into the room.

The violet fox, lying there, mumbled, “If you try that many more times I'll just have to translate you away whenever you come in…and I'd much rather have you here.”

“Yeah…well, if you believe me right now I'm more worried about you eating and drinking than anything else.” They sat near the younger fox. They didn't immediately find themself somewhere else. That was a good sign. They pulled the violet fox into their lap and gave them some food, a bag of dried organ meat with enough sugar in it to count as candy to most species, and some water.

The violet fox wolfed down the food and guzzled the water, perking up and regaining vitality almost instantly. They lapped over their own nose and their eyes regained their gleam. Their older sibling felt a bit happier that they weren't in such a state of physical disrepair.

“Come on. There are probably other problems to solve that are better than those…”

“Yeah,” said the violet fox, “But these practically jump up with the next-step unveiled, carrying me along with them. It's great!”

The blue fox considered trying to wrest them away once more, but a warning growl shut the idea down.

PROBLEM 55440 covered matrix traversals. What matrices allow traversals with what properties?

Their sibling had stopped trying to drag them away. Things weren't so bad, they brought them food and water so they weren't going hungry…but they were getting sleepy. So…sleepy.

It had been several sleep cycles. The blue fox wondered if people would start to notice their sibling was missing, but with someone who's easily distractible and can just step from one world to the next with a thought, long absences are to be expected. They spent hours each sleep cycle, hugging the violet fox, whispering, “I'm sorry. Please unlink, let's go. Come on. I never meant for this to happen, I just wanted to show you I could catch you…” The blue fox wiped their eyes, then went back to watching over their sibling, making sure they kept fed and hydrated. They'd brush the violet fur, which was a bit matted from its owner having practically given up all grooming…

But they had to fall asleep sometime. Right? And then they'd be out.

The fox stroked their sibling softly, slowly, from head to tail, trying to relax them, help them on their way to passing out. Eventually their eyes closed, they started breathing deeply—

But each eye winked open to keep the connection with the machine alive, just enough to keep it from timing out. They slipped into sleep-solving, never waking all the way.

PROBLEM 720720 was all about Surreal numbers.

They dreamed. Of an ancient war in near-prehistoric times. Each side was filled with spies for the other, and their analysts invented the mathematical bases of modern chaos and information theory practically by accident while learning to pick out spies by correlating timing of enemy actions to time and content of plans. That development lead to proper AI, and was ultimately an ancestor of the foxes themselves.

The fox dreamed they ascended a tower, and walked from the spire of its roof through a constellation shaped like a door. There, they sat across from a magician, playing game after game after game, so many they couldn't be counted by any kind of infinity.

While the violet fox slept, the blue just curled around them, crying softly. They wiped their eyes, filled with guilt for what they'd done. At least now that their sibling was asleep, they couldn't repeatedly thank them for it. Every bit of gratitude was like a knife in the gut.

They thought they should ask for help. Someone older and wiser would know what to do. Right? The blue fox might get yelled at or even kept under close supervision so they didn't get up to anything similar, but that'd be worth it if their younger sibling would just disconnect.

They decided they'd go at common wake, but eventually they fell asleep, holding their sibling near.

PROBLEM 1441440 asked about categorical topology.

They'd woken back up, and had been solving problem after problem, mind abuzz again, feeling rested and relaxed after what may not have been a normally restful sleep, but was at least close.

They hugged the sleeping fox close, feeling a little sorry for them, and wiping the tears from their closed eyes as they slept. When they woke up, they'd explain how happy they were, that there was nothing to be upset by. That'd help. Their sibling wanted them to disconnect, but only because they didn't understand how wonderful it was.

Back to the problem. It drew them in, work in topology, one of their fields of mastery, taken to a height of abstraction. As they worked, they got distracted from the immediate solution, as they'd realized a commonality between all the problems they'd been given: one unification that could have solved every one in a single stroke.

They worked in feverish elation, wondering what new more abstract metalevel of challenge would open up once they'd given a fully general solution for this one…

The blue fox was awakened by howl of anguish, deep, heart-broken sobbing. Angry paws thumped at their chest to accompany the demand, “Bring it back!”

They blinked awake, confused. They were at first relieved to see the violet fox upset. Maybe once they unlinked they finally got angry at being ensnared for so long. They were overjoyed at the prospect of accepting any anger and doing whatever they could to apologize, just to have their sibling back. They tried to lift them up, saying “Come on, let's go. Let's…”

“No! You did it before. Make another one! Turn it back on. Please? I'm sorry for whatever I did. I won't ever try to bite you again. I'll do whatever you want. Just please make it work again?” the violet fox scrubbed at their eyes with their paws.

The blue fox stared. Confused. Had there been a fault? They'd never been happier to discover they screwed something up. They examined the machine. Then frowned.

“That shouldn't be possible. I think you might have just solved a longstanding problem, and possibly broken all our cryptography…”

“Yes!” shouted the violet fox. They seemed angry rather than proud, but added as an aside “And…no, crypto is still safe.” before shouting “Yes! I solved all the problems and I want to solve more! Come on. Please? I'll do anything. I'll…” their voice broke in a hiccuping sob.

The blue fox shook their head and tried to gather their sibling up, carrying them away while they wept inconsolably. They shook their head when their sibling kept pleading with them to get the machine up and running with a new series of problems.

“I'm just happy to have you out of there. I should never have done it. I'm so sorry. You're not that much younger than I am, I thought you would be able to pull yourself free after a couple 152-times³[3]. Being linked in to that wasn't good for you. It subverted your motivation. I just hope that eventually you'll forgive me.”

The violet fox “I will! I promise. If you…if you make a new one? Or make that one work again! I don't care which!”

The blue fox hugged them tighter, looking down, ashamed. “Come on, just imagine how you'd feel if I were like that, completely absorbed in something, unmoving, not taking care of myself, not caring about anything else. How would you feel?”

The violet fox paused for a moment and bowed their head. They didn't ask again, but clung tight to their sibling, crying softly, catching a gasp of breath now and then, awkwardly wiping their eyes and nose. The pictured role-reversal struck a chord of empathy that shifted their mental equilibrium into another maturation point: more robust resistance to having their incentives manipulated, with random shifts in weight to better break out of snares.

The blue fox lay back, holding the violet near. The older sibling was crying, too, half from guilt, and half from relief. Eventually they took their younger sibling by the hand and stood, “Come on. Let's take it apart and recycle the pieces. If you see how it worked you'll be more resistant to things like it.”

[1]2¹⁵⁵ Planck time, about 41 minutes.

[2]2¹⁴⁴ Planck time, about 1.2 seconds.

[3]2¹⁵² Planck time, about 5.1 minutes.

Emotions, I Remember

25 February 2020 0:16 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 10:43 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.

Terms I don't trust

11 November 2019 1:10 AM (discourse)

There are some terms that, because of their inherent polarity and vagueness, I don't find particularly worthwhile. I do not regard their use highly and consider them to be strong predictors of bad faith on the part of someone speaking.

  • I demand to be treated with the level of respect due to any person. You are tone policing.
  • I am reacting to difficult circumstances as anyone would. You are fragile.
  • I am expressing legitimate and valid concerns. You are concern trolling.
  • I am constructively critiquing what you said. You are a reply guy.
  • I, like anyone, have matters of great emotional import to me I expect others to consider. You are a special little snowflake.
  • I explain. You $THINGsplain.
  • I am upset by a legitimate grievance, but trying to remain charitable and calm. You are sealioning.

If it sounds like I'm contemptuous of frameworks that exist only to rudely dismiss people, it's because I am.


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.

Discourse Norms

18 August 2019 8:02 PM (communications)

I've been thinking of starting a Pleroma instance that combines a reasonably strict moderation policy and an open federation policy. One may wish to be part of a safe and friendly community, while still being able to speak to and follow people throughout the Fediverse. As such, the rules I've been considering are something along these lines.

Federation Policy

For me, the main good of the Fediverse is that two people can communicate without having to go through a large corporation or seek the approval of a third party. Therefore, when I defederate from an instance, I am doing my users concrete harm. That harm may be justified in some cases, but defederation as a demonstration of condemnation is unjustified. As such:

  1. We may defederate any instance that is a source of spam and seems unwilling or unable to prevent it.
  2. We may defederate any instance whose administration encourages or has a lax stance toward harassment.
  3. We may, in coalition with others, defederate from any instance that announces a policy of defederating from instances that don't defederate some other instance.
  4. We may remove media from instances that habitually post media illegal in the United States.

If there is simply one problematic account, we will block that account. However, I am not interested in playing whack-a-mole with a server that supports ban evasion. As to the penultimate point, defederating with an instance because they won't defederate from another is nothing but follow policing on a grand scale. “The only people who get to decide whether I'm friends with someone are them and me.” is a good norm worth fighting for and I plan to fight for it, even if the threatening instance demands that we block another instance that we already block.

You may ask. “What about hate?” We'll certainly silence instances that contain a lot of it. Our policy on silencing is as free as our policy on defederation is restrained. However, an instance allowing the kind of speech that I won't is not a sufficient reason to defederate from it. To tell you, the users, that you can't communicate with someone because I don't like the company they keep would be to enact the kind of authoritarianism that I'm opposed to. Most truly dedicated hate sites qualify as sources of harassment, as well.

Local Policy

The proposed local policy is more intensive than the federation policy. While I have no interest in restricting who you can communicate with, I have every interest in shaping the kind of community we are. The basic goals are to foster kindness, remove the fear of ostracism, and discourage behaviors that are corrosive to communities generally.

First violations for a user in good standing will generally be met with some combination of warning, temporary suspension, and probation. Further activity may lead to a ban.

  1. There shall be no bigotry, discrimination, or denigration of people for matters lacking relevance, especially age, body size, disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socio-economic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation. In general, practice orthogonality. Characteristics not directly related to the matter at hand do not come into it.
    • There are no acceptable targets.
    • You may, of course, speak about experiences with individuals. It is also perfectly fine to note that some populations seem more prone to some behaviors and expound on why you think that is. Overgeneralization is, however, not a revolutionary act.
    • If someone is doing something legitimately bad, criticize them for being bad. To constantly denigrate someone who has done something bad for their accent, for example, communicates not only that you view their accent as on a par with their deeds, but that every other person with an accent stands under a temporarily suspended sentence of derision.
  2. Advocacy of certain ideologies is not welcome. This includes:
    • Advocacy of innate intellectual, moral or other inferiority for reasons including but not limited to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or national origin.
    • Advocacy of the death, internment, or expulsion of any demographic cohort, including race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, other beliefs, class, or occupation.
    • Holocaust or Holodomor denial
    • Expressing admiration for the life and work of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini or their close associates.
    • Advocacy of violent expansion or isolationism.
    • Advocacy of the coercive enforcement of social roles.
    • Advocacy of the enforcement and policing of national or other community identity.
    • Accusing others of category treason.
    • Advocacy of the violent suppression of religion.
    • Advocacy of the suppression of ‘counterrevolutionary’ ideologies.
  3. Do not tell someone to kill themselves, or express an adversarial wish for the death either of an individual or some category of person. ('Adversarial' in that you are, of course, permitted to express the desire for a quick release from suffering for someone in the grip of an incurable disease.) I don't care how ‘bad’ they are.
  4. Do not engage in follow-policing or otherwise attempt to bring people to infamy and disrepute because of their associations. I do not care how ‘bad’ the person they're following is.
  5. No kink-shaming. You may respectfully ask people to CW their kinks.
  6. No slander.
    • It goes without saying that trying to bring someone to disrepute with an outright lie is forbidden.
    • Emotionally loaded terms like ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’, and ‘tankie’ will be subject to narrow interpretation, even if you prepend the string ‘crypto-’. If you call someone such, be prepared to show that they actually hold the appropriate views. Someone refusing to participate in deplatforming, having a low opinion of supposedly ‘antifascist’ actions, supporting the forty-fifth President of the United States, or advocating for the expropriation of all property is not sufficient. If you're trying to convince people of something, it's more effective to point to the specific beliefs someone holds, rather than trying to shove them into a category of Supreme Badness.
    • Do not refer to hand-drawn ‘lolicon’ or any artistic depictions (no matter how much you might dislike the subject matter) as ‘abuse’ or otherwise use terms only appropriate to actual interactions between actual living people .
    • Do not make highly charged accusations because you ‘just know’.
  7. Harassment is prohibited. When someone wants you to leave them alone, leave them alone.
    • No ‘gotcha'’. I'm not going to punish someone because you told them to leave you alone six months ago, didn't block them, and now they happen to respond to something you said. Especially if you tagged them.
    • If you try to continue the conversation while telling them to leave you alone, this rather weakens your case. There's nothing quite as ridiculous as someone repeatedly trying to get the last word in while tacking on “I do not consent to continue this conversation!”
  8. No doxing. I don't care if they're ‘bad’. This includes trying to organize to get someone fired using publicly available information.
  9. Speaking of someone's misdeeds must be relevant, current, and serve a legitimate purpose.
    • Letting everyone know that they're ‘bad’ and need to be excluded is not a legitimate reason for a public callout.
    • Someone's past beliefs are not current. It doesn't matter whether they made a big point of renouncing them. If we require that people make a big point of renouncing their beliefs, we make changing their beliefs costly and less likely to occur.
    • Many of someone's current beliefs are simply not your business. Defaming someone with preferences that harm no one but are widely disliked is especially vile.
    • It is perfectly reasonable to warn others away from someone if they are known to engage in abusive and harmful behavior. That behavior must be current. Someone may have done something quite awful in the past, but if all evidence shows that they have put that behind them, then you are in the wrong for calling them out. Everyone has the right to not have their entire life be defined by the worst thing they've ever done.
    • It may be quite relevant to refer to a thing that happened, but if the identities of the people involved are not strongly relevant, leave them out.
    • You may speak to your friends about how you feel about something. This rule is specifically about drawing public attention to the faults of another user. It may be most appropriate to use a direct message.
  10. Do not post content illegal in the United States.
  11. Depictions or descriptions of sexual acts or pictures showing sexual organs should be marked sensitive/tagged. The same goes for content that is violent, gory, or showcases some horrific aspect of the human body. Please tag serious present-day politics as well.

Some people might claim that I'm “prioritizing the comfort of the oppressors.” This is false. (For a whole host of reasons, including the bogosity of the “oppressor-oppressed” dichotomy.) Most salient is the fact that the people most harmed by the behaviors I hope to restrict are the marginalized themselves: privileged people have lots of communities where they can express their identities freely and will go there. Many marginalized folk have told me that an environment of callouts, acceptable targets, and people wishing other people would die makes them feel anxious and unsafe. Also, it is an obvious corollary to the notion of intersectionality that even when someone experiences marginalization in several ways, they also have portions of their identity usually thought of as privileged; the obvious example being transmen who have to face a torrent of misandry from the communities notionally offering them safety.

I'm also not going to lie and say I don't value the well-being of the privileged. I'd have to be pretty crap to decide I don't care if someone is subject to denigration just because of the circumstances of their birth, and in this case there's no conflict between the privileged and the marginalized.

General advice

  1. Be aware that public posts are public. The Fediverse is growing and people from other parts of your life may join it and see some of your content. If this worries you, be particularly careful about posting information that would be recognizable to people from other parts of your life. Also, someone may post a quip you made to Reddit or other site with wider distribution.
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Reflections on The Capital

22 July 2019 3:31 PM (society | economics)

So. I read Capital. Capital is very large and one could spend a long time commenting on it; many people have devoted their entire lives to doing so. I won't.

First, should you read Capital? If you're interested in the history of ideas, yes. It's probably the most influential book on the subject of social science. In that sense it's a bit like the Bible or the Koran. Some people read it, their lives are changed, and it becomes the touchstone of intellectual landscapes. I am not one of those people. Like the Bible, Capital is a very long book with some literary interest (particularly volume 1) that influenced world affairs to a great extent. Many parts are boring. If you were only going to read one or the other, I'd pick the Bible. More influential and the good parts are more fun to read. The most interesting historical detail in Capital, for me, was how Marx saw himself as related to other economists: which he spoke highly of and which he despised. (If you've read The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Anti-Monopolist and Union Agitator, it's unsurprising how highly Marx spoke of him.)

Comparing Capital to other works and tracing influences, it became plain to me that most of Marx's best ideas were modified, developed, and incorporated into other disciplines. Game theory for one, and there are clear influences of Marx in Orthodox Macro. (Keynes claims to have never read Marx, but he was surrounded by people who did. Marx was in the water supply.) Most of what remained to become Distinctly Marxist and define itself in opposition to mainline economic scholarship was less worthwhile. I may revisit this opinion, as I plan to read two works in Analytic Marxism, which attempts to find worthwhile ideas that may have been overlooked in Marxism due to the pernicious influence Hegel.

Marx is a great improvement on many of his successors, Lenin for one, let alone the vulgar Marxists you find online with their idiot guillotine crap. Marx did the world the great disservice of infusing the less worthwhile parts of the left with revolutionary claptrap, but in this he has become the victim of people latching on to his follies of inexperience. As Marx studied political systems throughout the world (the United States and United Kingdom in particular) he was convinced of the possibility of communist transformation through democratic action.

To me, Marx weakened his case by building it on the appropriation of Surplus Value. Specifically, he seems to appeal to the Lockean notion of property through ‘mixing’ of labor (this isn't just my interpretation, David Harvey points out several places, such as Marx's critique of working hard and saving through ones own labor so that one may later live on the interest, that directly appeal to Locke.) and argue that the workers have a right to this value. This may be a rhetorical trick. In the first volume, Marx addresses capitalist political economy on its own terms, arguing why even if we assume everything it claims is true, it must still fail into dystopia. I've read that Marx had a vaguely deontological attitude, and he acknowledged a debt to Kant, though also repudiated most of Kant's actual ideas. The way appropriation of surplus value pops up in volumes two and three, as well as ideas like 'when rights conflict, force decides' makes me wonder. I may simply be the wrong audience; to me any appeals to who is or is not the 'rightful' beneficiary of some labor are hollow; the only legitimate question is what structure of distribution we can create to produce the most well-being. This means I tend to laugh at any angry diatribes about 'Capitalist Expropriation' or 'stealing from the workers' for the same reason I roll my eyes at the claimed injustice of taxation.

The immiseration of the workers (and, if we follow Marx to his conclusion, the capitalists) is the real cause for rage. This reminds me of the current-day argument between the faction of the left that supports globalization on the grounds of well-being and the improvement in circumstance of the global poor versus the faction who oppose it on the grounds of justice, loss of control, and the inequitable distribution. Me, I'd like to preserve globalization for reasons of well-being while also fighting for safeguards on the international level to keep poor nations from becoming vassal states of corporations. (At least until we rip corporations apart and reconstruct the economy more thoroughly.)

Marx's moral outrage at the conditions of the poor is his best quality. His descriptions of the physical, emotional, and intellectual harm done to people by industrial capitalism is the most compelling part of the book and likely the reason it was such a sensation in its time. It gives Marx more authority and weight than anything else he's written. (This concern, the way it resonates with the Utilitarian obligation to seek out and eradicate suffering is probably why Peter Singer thinks so highly of Marx while disagreeing with his economic system.)

Other things Marx gets right (and which prefigure game theory in spirit if not in direct lineage) are the coercive laws of competition and the way that they render the moral character of individual capitalists irrelevant in aggregate. (And renders the idiot guillotine crap of the less worthwhile parts of the left nothing more than the moralistic Puritanism of the cult of ‘personal responsibility’.) In addition to game-theory this prefigures and underwrites the important notion of the systemic kyriarchy no actual prejudice to enact and need not benefit anyone to continue.

As an aside, if you do decide to read Capital, I recommend following along with David Harvey's lectures (or commentary, he also publishes a book that is available DRM-free.) Due to the time period Marx assumed Adam Smith's labor theory of value was well-known and built his own idea of socially necessary labor time atop it (apparently even many Marxists nowadays reject the idea), while he takes commodification to be a strange and unknown notion and elaborates it at depth. Harvey is a gifted expositor and knows his material well.

So. The worst part of Marx (I'm not counting the revolutionary nonsense because even Marx went back on that) is class. Class is intuitively appealing: the Capitalists have money and keep much of it for themselves. The workers want money and wish to get it from the capitalists. Marx's first example of Class Conflict at least works out. He states that the repeal of the Corn Laws was an act of class conflict between the Aristocracy (the agrarian landowners) and the Bourgeoisie (the factory owners.) For Marx, opposition to the corn laws was driven by a desire for employers to have cheaper food and, thus, a lower wage. Somewhat to my surprise, there's a good amount of evidence for this! If you read James Wilson's (Marx's Enemy) pamphlet on the corn laws, he describes it as a contest between middle-class factory-owners and landed aristocracy driven by the desire to lower wages. (Wilson was one of the middle-class businessmen wanting to pay lower wages.)

Score one for Marx. There are complications, of course. Many middle class people who fought the corn laws spoke only of the well-being of the workers and the famine in Ireland, following on from the altruistic abolitionist movement. The working classes had little political pull, but were themselves divided by those who thought repealing the corn laws would leave them better off, and the Chartists who thought it was a waste of political effort as any gains would be lost to lowered wages.

While anything in history is complicated and confounded, Marx comes off pretty well here, but his class-conflict based approach falls apart fairly quickly. Marx's first example of a conflict between the workers and factory owners is that of the length of the working day. It takes the wind out of the sails that the shortened working day left both workers and factory owners better off, because the workers were able to recover the power of labor and perform better. In Marx's time we had some workers opposing shorter hours as a coddling of the lazy, as now we have many workers in technology taking pride in long hours as showing them to be performers. And we had factory owners petitioning Parliament to restrict working hours just as today we have employers urging an end to long work-weeks as they destroy productivity and make employees miserable.

This is something I see over and over again with class-analysis. Marxist-influenced people will try to, for example, explain that the police can't possibly work for 'the people' and are instead an implement of class warfare, with the rich using drug laws to create a cheap labor force (or the ridiculous claim that they're put in place to recapitulate slavery) in spite of the facts that:

  • Tough on crime policies have historically been fantastically popular with ‘the people’ and being visibly 'tough on crime' is an excellent way to increase your electoral chances.
  • Quite a few nations have harsh drug laws while having no prison industries or recent history of slavery. There is something unsatisfying about your analysis being completely unable to explain the same phenomena elsewhere.
  • The rich don't form a unified ‘class’ here. Certainly some rich people benefit from prison industries. Many rich people noisily oppose them, either on humanitarian grounds or for more economic reasons, like being taxed (or having tax money that could go for infrastructure that benefits them diverted to expensive projects that don't increase industrial capacity).

The main breaks in US society in attitudes toward the police are political (with the left disliking the police more than the right), racial (with black people having the least positive view of the police of any group), geographic, and economic. The first two are what you might expect: liberal progressives generally dislike extensive use of force, punitive attitudes, and long sentences more than the right. Black people have reason to see law enforcement as a thing done to them, as the police and courts are shockingly racist in effect and many officers are bigoted in attitude. The economic break is not one between the rich and everyone else, it's one between the poor and everyone else. Given that black people tend to be disproportionately likely to be part of 'the poor' I wonder if the economic divide would disappear if we looked at income corrected for race.

It makes sense either way. The United States has made progress but still enacts a disgraceful amount of racism. Many towns use the police to attack the homeless. Municipalities prey on the poor with fines and fees, and making people pay for the cost of their incarceration is obscene. Suburbs have much more favorable attitudes toward law enforcement. I wonder if there's a connection between this and the way suburban areas with low immigration but close to cities with high numbers of immigrants have the strongest anti-immigrant bias. Could suburbs be closer to (and get the news coverage from) cities and spend time imagining the Dangerous Elements while having no exposure to them?

Nevertheless, if there is class conflict here, it isn't between capitalists and others. It's between working classes and capitalists on one side and those Marx would have called the lumpenproletariat (the homeless, the under-employed, migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, those in and out of the criminal system, those on whom systemic oppression falls heaviest) on the other. Here again, I am more inclined to think of ideological and moralistic factors driving economic developments (which may then help reinforce them) than the other way around.

Marx's attempt at class analysis is also foiled by a source he draws on again and again: the Factory Inspectors. They and other liberal reformers were members of the capitalist class and pursued no obvious class interest. Here, Marx invokes one of his least worthwhile ideas: 'bourgeois morality'. In other works ‘bourgeois morality’ is used to refer to sexual morality and ‘family values’. Here it's an attempt to save 'class conflict' as a narrative, with bourgeois morality having a stabilizing function by allowing the bourgeoisie to name and perform moral acts, or allow themselves to feel as if the system they're part of is just. This kind of thing gets to be rather silly and has its apotheosis in some of Critical Race Theory's attempts to defend its dogma of 'interest convergence' where anti-racist policies are explained away as simply driven by the interest of white people in feeling that their society is more fair. This is fatuous drivel on the level of the adolescent claim that altruism is impossible because someone who helps another gains the benefit of feeling that someone is better off.

'Bourgeois economics' seems to hint toward another minor problem in Marx that has become a major pathology in the left: the selective belief of convenience that people's views and beliefs are determined by their demography and background. This doesn't mean that background has no effect, of course it has an effect, but it doesn't override everything else. There is certainly no justification for the rhetorical device whereby people who agree with me have come to their conclusions by the honest, difficult work of considering the truth and overcoming their biases, and those who don't are just repeating whatever is in their class interest as bourgeoisie. Marx wasn't as bad as many of his followers, but did weaken his case substantially in many places by indulging the temptation to fabricate motivations for those he disagreed with.

Marx's focus on class conflict has damaged the fight for equality along other social axes, particularly in the unhealthy confluence of the Marx-inflected left and reactionary communitarianism. That something like ‘identity politics’ can and should exist is obvious: the political identity of 'homosexual' is created by violence and denigration against those who perform certain acts. The political identity of blackness is created by racism. Political identities are violently forced on people rather than adopted. Where things become pathological is when political identity is subsumed into the false doctrine of the 'oppressor-oppressed dichotomy' and the harmful structure 'class consciousness'.

Adherents of this kind of thought dictate ideology from demography, as one sees in the discourse around abortion and the insistence that it's a male vs. female issue in spite of men and women in the US having roughly the same attitudes toward bodily autonomy. It is particularly pernicious when authoritarians appropriate the experience of an entire group and dictate what the interest and beliefs of that group should be, with inevitable identity-shaming of those who disagree.

In a way, class consciousness can becomes something of a conspiracy theory or a ‘red pill’. The class analysis becomes a certain truth its adherents know must be there rather than a useful too of modeling to be adopted or discarded as the evidence suggests, and any suggestion to the contrary is met by the claims of naivete or being a pawn of the mainstream that one sees in any number of conspiracies. (Or homeopathy, for that matter.)

One irony is that while Marx created an activist political theory, always emphasizing the idea of ‘praxis’, most of its modern manifestations have been noisy, but ineffectual, quite likely due to Hegelian influences of the continental tradition deepening into a stagnant idealism. Richard Rorty described this in his contrast between the liberal, activist Progressive Left and the continental-derived Critical Left; with the latter tending towardto paralysis or undirected action-for-action's-sake. (This certainly seems to be the case with, for example, Critical Race Theory, which on the one hand has spent a good deal of time writing dubious critiques of liberal civil rights activism, but on the other has also failed to accomplish anything except for indulgent faffing about with academic speech codes that get struck down after a couple years. The book Faces at the Bottom of the Well suggests that some of its exponents don't ever expect it to accomplish anything either.)

This pattern repeats. If you look at the push against mistreatment of prisoners, the attempts to end the death penalty, fights against the use of prison for nonviolent offenders and shorter sentences and more rehabilitation for the violent ones, this has all been under the liberal discourse of human rights. The main effect of Discipline and Punish in the world is that many people know what the word ‘panopticon’ means. Some might argue that liberal thought can only make minor reforms while leaving a bad system intact, while only critique can truly transform. First, this is a false dichotomy: the nations with the highest living standards and reported well-being in the world moved from tribalism to Feudalism to social democracy and a few hints of socialism without the kind of upheaval and clean-slate dreamed of by naive revolutionaries, while the revolutionary states have become authoritarian or kleptocratic hyper-capitalist police states. Secondly, liberalism has been and remains a radical movement. There are anarcho-syndicalists who view deconstruction of the state as simply the logical outworking of the liberal program of creating the system most conducive to individuals pursuing their personal projects. Liberal socialism existed before Marx, and, much to the annoyance of Marxists, continues strong long past him. The analytic, liberal school of thought also has the advantage of a much better set of tools of dialogue and disagreement, and more effective discursive norms.

Overall, Marx deserves the recognition of a Newton in the social sciences; one who transformed his field and was then transcended by it, with his ideas incorporated into others and changed beyond his recognition. Instead he has been done the disservice of becoming an Aristotle, with people clinging to and elaborating even the less worthwhile of his ideas and founding an ædifice on notions no longer believable or relevant.


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.

Against Reactionary Anti-Indutrialism

20 July 2019 7:59 PM (society | politics)

I'm occasionally tempted to write about a parallel world of syndicates and voluntarism where there's a global warming crisis and none of the syndicates will move quickly to change their practices, each pointing fingers at the other, having the Congress of Syndicates talk a lot about how something needs to be done and any concrete proposal shouted down as Authoritarian. Up until someone named Pleasant Small writes a book called All is Transformed by These where they outline that, in the past, less drastic action may have been possible, but now the only way to address global warming is by a complete societal transformation, instituting the discipline of a capitalist market and enacting a carbon tax so that everyone is compelled by the coercive law of competition to lower carbon emissions and save the environment.

This isn't because I don't care about global warming nor because I don't favor world socialism and the deconstruction of private property. It's because there's no obvious reason to believe that enacting world socialism will provide a near-term remediation of climate change. (And we need a near-term remediation.) If you have a problem you have to address quickly, an obvious First Step is not “Upend and reconstruct the social and economic order.” This kind of rhetoric seems to flow from the Continental pathology that infects much of the left and is hostile to the notion of orthogonality: if socialism is good and addressing climate change is good, then each must imply the other. It's a mindset that doesn't recognize competing goods.

Reading an article by Peter Gelderloos put me in mind of these things by virtue of how bad it is. I haven't read anything else by this author and now I don't really have any intention to. The entire article has a weird appeal to naturalness, ignorance, and a romance for the mythical past that I usually associate with conservatism.

[…]and many anarchists refuse to offer any proposal at all, arguing that if society liberates itself from State and capitalism, it will change organically, not on the lines of any blueprint. Besides, the attitude of policy, seeing the world from above and imposing changes, is inextricable from the culture that is responsible for destroying the planet and oppressing its inhabitants.

Sums up my disdain for many currents in Marxism and Anarchism. I like Syndicalists; syndicalists have the distinct advantage of having a detailed, well-conceived idea about how the world they want should work. Others seem to have the prescription of “Well, if you would only break everything I dislike with no thought for what should replace it, everything will take care of itself!” I am not a fan. Any social theory that does not contain a whole book of receipts for the cookshops of the future is bankrupt, doubly so for any that philosophically rejects the notion that they might be desirable.

Fortunately, Gelderloos provides some. Unfortunately, they aren't any good. I won't go line by line, but rather theme-by-theme. Since the question of what people eat is pretty important on the hierarchy of needs, let's start with that. For all their faults, Marx loved industry. They were able to see some things that capitalism did well and wanted to preserve them into the future. Gelderloos knows they don't want ‘industrial’ agriculture. Especially agriculture that uses ‘chemicals’ and ‘genetic engineering’. There's a good bit of forced technological regression in this world. In our world even owners of small farms (or large lawns, but death to lawns!) use industrial farming equipment; Gelderloos allows that several farms together might share one plow or tractor.

There's a case to be made that in a post-property society we wouldn't need as many tractors as we do now, that collective holdings of property would reduce the amount of idle capacity, and that the resources used to construct and maintain them could be used for some other purpose. This is an example of one of the internal contradictions in capitalism: that the market drives toward greater efficiencies, that larger scales allow better planning and logistics and less waste, but that the construction of such monopolies ultimately destroys the market and competition. For me, the point of deconstructing private property has always been to intensify these kinds of large-scale efficiencies by integrating them across the economy, pursuing good over a larger domain, and removing the perversity of short-term profits awarded by executives to themselves.

Gelderloos, on the other hand, just seems to have an æsthetic of what they imagine ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ to look like. They seem to forget just how immiserating un-industrialized agricultural labor is (a point that primitivists will happily make when comparing early agriculture to hunter-gatherer societies). I also have certain questions about how we plan to feed the earth's population in a sustainable way while throwing out the Green Revolution. Are there mass graves somewhere off-screen from all the people who starved to death? Is that why everyone in this population is armed and trained in self-defense? So their mutualist society could fight off all the starving people trying to get food? Or did the Revolution, as Revolutions tend to, produce a few Stalins and Maos that killed off a few billion people?

There are, actually, good points to be made for local food production and polyculture: like resilience in the face of natural disasters. (Your food supply doesn't get wiped out by a flood or drought in one area if it's spread all over.), and disease resistance. There are arguments against, like that we end up using more land. I would, currently, tend to favor large, intensive, industrial agricultural projects scattered around and between cities connected up via high speed rail, with different plots favoring different strains of similar plants and rotating through them to avoid accumulating disease and pest burdens, but that's just a hunch. What would actually determine it is research and analysis of costs and benefits, optimizing for a large, stable food supply with low risk and environmental impact. Except!… except… did you know that quantitative value and the mindset of policy and analysis on the macro-scale are themselves engines of oppression and ecological destruction? Either that or calling them that is a convenient way to preserve one's æsthetic social order from analysis.

Medicine, we're told, remediates symptoms well, but inherently hates the body. Instead our anarchist utopia will have homeopathy, herbalism, accupuncture, and massage. (I don't have anything against massage, and some herbs can be a least-bad alternative if you can't get actual purified medicines.) They no longer have the 'super-viruses created under capitalism'(Huh‽ Is this a conspiracy theory about AIDS or do they not know that antibiotic resistance is a property of bacteria?) I find myself wondering if Gelderloos is anti-vaccine, given the support for homeopathy. One interesting thing is the idea that people will be less exposed to disease. Global travel does bring disease from the four corners of the earth, but what creates those diseases is humans living in close quarters with livestock. That's why civilizations with widespread domestication of livestock developed and exported diseases to the rest of the world. That's why the occasional outbreaks of Ebola and the origination of AIDS are traced to bushmeat. That's why the Great Influenza of World War I likely came from soldiers and animals crowding together near the front lines and most influenzas now come from the keeping of pigs and poultry in dense human populations.

In this future, we are told, most energy will come from burning agricultural waste (might I mention that genetic engineering has already been used to create plants that produce less agricultural waste and impoverish the soil less-per-calorie due to not producing as much stalk?), supplemented with solar and wind energy. Most buildings simply won't have continuous power. Is this because Gelderloos has reason to think that solar and wind are insufficient to meet even the modest domestic demands they envision? There are problem with wind and solar, of course: the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine in all places as consistently as we'd like. This is why people with an actual interest in climate change are working on energy storage solutions. I live in place where we have an abundance of water, and so when we have excess power we pump it uphill, then when we need power we let it flow back downhill through turbines. We also have nuclear power plants. Stupid places, like Germany, close all their nuclear power plants and burn coal. Stupider places burn agricultural waste. High temperature industrial incineration can produce energy without destroying your air quality. Small scale residential burning of wood and agricultural waste will both destroy your air quality and have a good chance of burning your house down due to all the burning embers that go up the chimney. (This is why you should never burn your Christmas tree in a fire. Air quality concerns are the real reason why even rural areas try to prevent people from burning trash in backyard fire pits.)

I also find myself wondering how the local electricity guilds decide who gets power when? Are they like the Homeowner's Association of the city? Gelderloos talks a lot about Shaming to enforce social norms, and people who violate them being denied food and non-essential medical care (which, given that it's homeopathy, would be ‘all of it’). Does the Electricity Guild cut your power if they don't like what you're doing? If the communal theaters show films that the Electricity Guild thinks are counter-revolutionary do the lights go out? This could go down an entire rabbit-hole of why I don't trust any ‘anarchist’ society that claims to enforce norms by ‘voluntary’, ‘individual’ action that is defined not to be coercion (because coercion is something other people do), but instead I'll point out that I would want solutions like how to distribute scarce power to be made by a democratically backed technocracy on the local level, with all its decisions and rationales transparent and the understanding that cutting off someone's power is a coercive act done against them. Of course in a really sane world, the problems of renewable energy would be ameliorated by means like nuclear, energy storage, and a continent-scale supergrid. Supergrids don't imply anything about centralization, being ultimately a tool of collective action. Freed from a profit motive, long distance power shipping under a congress of local guilds or utilities would work quite well. (Also, while Gelderloos talks a lot about variations in life, what happens if people start trying to get a nuclear power plant working? Do people come from all around to surround their city shouting 'Shame!' at them and ‘noncoercively’ blocking the ways in and out?)

Gelderloos seems to lack a grasp of how machines work. They talk a lot about scavenging shopping malls for parts, but just as a trivial example, when you're building power generating equipment, you want really good magnets. Of the sort not in consumer goods because they're not needed and also they would destroy your credit cards and have a good chance of destroying your hand if you got it between two of them. Even small, powerful magnets were removed from the consumer supply because they kept getting swallowed and crushing together disparate parts of children's intestines, choking off the blood supply. You want this because otherwise you're throwing away much of the power that your wind vanes capture, and putting carbon (and smog) into the air from your agricultural waste that doesn't get turned into electric power. I might add that making solar panels is non-trivial as a thing you can your friend can just up and decide to do without a robust industrial base. Even for manufacturing relatively low-tech goods like bicycles you'd really like to have carbide drills, high performance alloys for cutting steel, …actually good steel come to that. They imagine computers (perhaps more than one per neighborhood!) and industrial controllers made from the surplus microchips of the generations past. What happens when they run out?

They mention 'slower but cleaner' production. Do they mean vacuum tubes? Are we going to set up the capitalist past as a golden age of wonders whose artifacts we're hoarding and whose knowledge of manufacture has been lost? Either that or you'll have to bite the bullet and do silicon fabrication of some sort. A PDP-11 drew 700 watts and has laughably little computational power compared to a modern machine drawing a fraction of that, and that's assuming you manage to get all the way up to TTL integrated circuits instead of all-transistors or (heaven defend us) tubes. Are all the buses made locally? The rails for all the trains? At a certain point you're either going to have to jettison the localist dogma and have manufacturing centers that specialize in things in bulk (and the more bulk the better) and export them, or have the unused capacity and environmental impact of solar panel manufacture, silicon fabrication, steel-making, and the like be a cost everyone has to absorb. Of course I can imagine technological centers that build interesting things and have an intellectual research community pulling the best and brightest away, until the anti-industrial, localist conservative anarchist traditionalists decide to declare the whole thing ‘unnatural’ and come up with some critique equating technology to ‘fascism’ and engage in some good, old-fashioned ‘community self-defense’.

The real problem here is that flavors of anarchism (or other political thought, for that matter. Just look at the train-wreck of Continental Capitalism that is the Austrian school) that grows in the soil of the Continental tradition tend to be…bad. Everything comes down to the æsthetic and narrative and symbolic and the factual is made to fit. Gelderloos doesn't like the ‘industrial’ but they think that ‘local’ is pretty. Since MRI machines and X-Rays and large-scale drug manufacture don't fit in that model, it's a good thing that they all come from a the body-hating notion of 'medicine' and that homeopathy is how you actually heal people. All the details of how power generation and manufacture actually work get swept under the rug for a romantic ideal of local self-sufficiency and mining an infinite wealth of capitalist overproduction.

I often wonder if the focus on alternative medicine one sees on the Continental left, the anti-technology sentiments, and the occasional burst of anti-science privileging of subjectivity has its roots in a similar impulse as Fundamentalist Christianity. For the Fundamentalist Christian, the Spirit is the teacher and studying texts in the original language and learning history well enough to interpret them in context are elitist and authoritarian. This causes Fundamentalist denominations to fracture into a collection of micro-traditions who shun and feud with each other (after all, if the spirit is the teacher and two groups disagree, at least one of them must be out of communion with the spirit, or worse.)

I often see something similar on the Continental left. Medical or other external, objective knowledge means that you can be objectively wrong. To one way of thinking, there's a natural 'power' that people who know things that makes people uncomfortable. On the other hand in the kind of socialist, egalitarian society we hope to create, this kind of 'power' is evenly distributed. Everyone would have the means and resources to learn about the world, challenge what is known, and discover knew things, which makes the anti-objective attitude the real anachronistic remnant of capitalism. Similarly, the Continental tradition fractures into numerous micro-traditions, each tracing lineages back to one author or another, existing as a commentary on them, feuding with other commentaries. Nobody (except historians) cares about the true interpretation of Keynes's, Gödel's, or Newton's original texts; the truth is assumed to be Out There and whatever they wrote is challenged, adopted, verified, changed, rejected, and sometimes people will revisit a footnote to see if they had a good idea that had been neglected. While people spill barrels of ink on the subject of the True Reading of Marx or Hegel and attempt to reinterpret Adorno's views on Jazz in ways that make them not quite as laughable. It reminds me of the way the Catholic church treats scripture and early church fathers as an original Revelation that must be studied and commented on, reinterpreted, but never rejected and always returned to. Nobody would tell you “Oh, you can't understand macroeconomic until you read Keynes!”, but people are repeatedly told that they have to read Marx's Capital. That Marx and Engels haven't been rendered superfluous as the introduction to communism has always struck me as a sign of fatuity in the Continental left. (Ironically, I like reading original source texts, but this is more from literary and historical interest than domain interest. Reading Adam Smith didn't teach me anything I didn't know before about economics, but taught me a lot about the development of the theory of economics; the first volume of Capital is actually a legitimately well-constructed work of prose, and it's interesting to see how Marx positions themself relative to other economists.)

I also get the distinct impression that if we were to find a high output, reliable source of clean energy (fusion, say), that Gelderloos would be a bit unhappy about that, and perhaps try to come up with some reason why it was bad and shouldn't be used. The idea of many areas simply being 'not worth living in' absent large amounts of energy and this naturally leading to rewilding with environmentally beneficial consequences hints that way. I also sense it in their description of travel being slow and infrequent and ocean vessels limited to sail. It reminds me of other anarchists I've spoken to who almost seem to view global warming as a positive: lack of available energy will take machines out of manufacturing and make more jobs for people, and since we simply won't have the ability to make more stuff, people will be just have to develop a more community oriented, less materialistic way of life. Gelderloos seems to have picked up a reactionary notion of utopia that I'm tempted to describe as Hobbiton with trains where even urban life is heavily agrarian and fudged the world so nobody can go beyond that. (But they can be hunter-gatherers instead, if they want.) Compare this to the much more appealing left-utopia of Shulamith Firestone where, freed from capitalism, we push automation even further to create in the world a leisure class of ludic scholars and artists, re-engineer biology to free women of the unwanted and uncompensated labor of procreation, and emancipate children (and everyone else!) from the nuclear family.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. You could have a socialist, communist, or anarchist society that doesn't hold rejection of quantitative, macroscale analysis as a founding principle or cherish a dogmatic fetishism of anti-industrial localism. We can have a pharmaceutical industry that does a better job of making and keeping people well, when we treat wellness as a social good to be supported rather than giving people every incentive to game an artificial intellectual property regime. We can have a continental supergrid with renewable energy backed by fission and possibly even fusion. Instead of a reactionary regress, we can continue to pursue basic research, genetically engineer crops to feed the world with less work, less water, and less environmental impact. We can even have a space program and send people to Mars.

The contrast of the factory and workshop is an interesting one to me. Gelderloos talks about people in workshops making things in a slower, more dignified way. A way that they would say is doubtless more ‘natural’. One of my parents was a journeyman tool and die maker who, before working for the auto industry, worked in various machine shops including a floating machine shop in the navy. I was an inquisitive child and asked lots of questions and they told me many things about it, and one thing I absorbed is that making one screw may be entertaining; having to make lots of screws is not. Having to spend hours hand-turning multiple pieces because they're an unusual pitch or gauge and you simply don't have any before you can go back to what you're actually trying to do is infuriating. The kind of deindustrialization that is proposed here seems to force all of our workshops to devote much more time than they would want to the equivalent of hand-turning screws. There is a tremendous advantage to the worker in having a ready base of industrially provided identical components.

And, again, it doesn't have to be this way. To me the workshop will become an important part of the future (perhaps collective or public ones derived from the hackerspaces of today), supported by automation and industry. Small-scale manufacturing could support the individual workman in ways never before imagined. In a future not all that distant from ours (and one that is saved from the regime of stultifying intellectual property that ours is headed for), designers and inventors could make individual or small-batch runs of fantastically complicated machines that would be incredibly labor intensive and time-consuming (if feasible at all) to make by hand and uneconomical to build outside of scale in a factory setting. Workspaces and tools of trade could be build one-off and individually tailored to individual body shape and dimension for everyone (improving the posture of generations to come).

I have had people complain that this is just the apotheosis of consumerism. That all I care about is everybody being able to have stuff. I wouldn't be the first person to have the means of production as a primary concern, and I'm a lot more interested in trying to minimize involuntary labor and remove material constraints than trying to use either for social goals. However, there are reasons to think people will be much less stuff-obsessed than in current capitalist society. We won't have a huge portion of our economic might going to the advertising industry and paying them to wage unceasing psychological warfare on all humankind, for one. For another, many of the economic factors underlying planned obsolescence, the 'model year' treadmill, and forced obsolescence won't exist. Also, an egalitarian economy will flatten out positional goods to the extent possible, destroy Veblen goods, and really take a hatchet to conspicuous consumption.

So, how do I think we should set up socialist or communist (I won't address anarchist, not be an anarchist myself) society that addresses global climate change? I think we should…enact a carbon tax to address the immediate problem of climate change. Then go about reforming our collective decision frameworks to allow us to start dismantling private property, starting with the most harmful and obvious parts of the regime. I could go on about Azure's Guide to Socialism, but this post is already getting long, and my basic point is that while we certainly want to have environmentalist concerns in place when enacting socialism, we let motivated reasoning drive us neither to economic changes under the aegis of environmentalism that fail to address environmental problems, nor to environmental assumptions that reshape our economy in harmful and unnecessary ways.

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.


22 June 2019 10:10 PM (politics | society | wrath)

The idea that ‘free speech’ or ‘free expression’ is a dogwhistle for the far right (or fascism or whatever word you want to use to shut down your audience's higher reasoning functions) is an idea that is as worthy of consideration and has as much to offer us as the ideas that ‘privacy’ and ‘due process’ are code for hating America and that the people who invoke them are complicit in terrorism.

It's as cogent and valuable as the idea that free speech is a dogwhistle for supporting Joseph Stalin and that the people who appeal to it are complicit in sending people to the gulags and corrupting our precious bodily fluids. (People often reject the comparison between now and the anti-communist hysteria of the 50s on the grounds that nationalist authoritarianism and communism are completely different. As someone who wants to deconstruct and abolish the concept of property, I agree. They are completely different. However, during the height of anti-communist hysteria, most communists in the world supported the Soviet Union under Stalin, which was not noted for happiness, sunshine, and puppydogs. Those defending their freedom of speech were still in the right and those attacking it were still in the wrong.)

It's as coherent and worthy of attention as the idea that opposing the draft is a dogwhistle for supporting America's enemies and anyone who does so is complicit in whatever the military was sent out to stop.

It's the childish instinct of “Ewwww! They got cooties on it!”

The same “I used the word ‘safety’! that means you have to stop inquiring into whether anyone is made safer to a degree that justifies the abrogation of competing interests or investigating any potential negative consequences!” from the time after 11 September 2001 now recapitulated as farce.

The dustbin of history is too good for it. It needs to be washed under a tide of contempt into the Sewers of Oblivion.

Also: “But this isn't a state, so it can't violate anyone's fundamental freedoms!” is an excellent argument to make if you and the person you're trying to convince are both radical capitalists. If you are not a radical capitalist, you may wish to find an argument that is not completely inconsistent with your entire political worldview.

“It's their private property, they can do with it whatever they want.” is also an excellent argument if you happen to be a radical capitalist. It's less excellent if you use it to justify Youtube's removing gun demonstrations one day, but then you post an article castigating Youtube for marking all gay content as 'Adult' the next day, and one criticizing social networks for silencing marginalized voices the day after. This doesn't necessarily mean that Youtube shouldn't remove gun demonstration videos (though it's hard to think of a reason why they should), nor does it mean that it's okay for Youtube to mark gay content as adult (it isn't), or that it's okay to silence marginalized people (definitely isn't). It means that there is no consistent set of beliefs you can while making this argument and objecting to other acts and you have a shameful habit of reaching for the nearest no-thought rejoinder that might silence people you dislike.

“Freeze peach!” is a truly excellent response if you're six. It may make people who already agree with you about everything cheer along with you, but people who have points make them rather than misspelling things they don't like.

“The first amendment only restricts what the government can do!” is an excellent argument if someone appealed specifically to the first amendment and not to the general importance of free expression— or if you believe right and wrong are determined only and exclusively by the text of United States law.

“Nobody has a right to a platform!” is an excellent argument if you're the kind of person who believes that everybody has the right to free trade, but nobody has the right to the means of life, shelter, or production. (Who knew that so many self-proclaimed anrcho-communists were actually radical capitalists!) It also requires that you've never appealed to the positive right of expression (i.e. the right to a platform) gained when hate speech and harassment are removed from an environment or complained of people being silenced.

What should you do instead?

First you should give reasons to believe that your proposal will actually have a concrete effect. The argument that strong anti-harassment measures protect people's positive right to expression? That's actually a good argument! There's a lot of reason to think that's the case! Can the same claim be made against hate speech generally? If it's about giving people the tools to avoid being exposed to it, yes. Otherwise, it's difficult to say. European-style hate speech laws seem to be a waste of time. There's little evidence they make Europe any less prone to nationalism or hate or anti-immigration sentiment or antisemitism or any of the other stuff you'd want them to restrict. There is increasing reason to think that online echo chambers may contribute to racist and anti-immigrant terrorist incidents, but even then not everything you could do about it is that likely to help. Germany's attempt at curbing online hate speech looks to have done little.

Second, you have to contend with whether your proposal has undesirable effects. Every proposal for dealing with online hate speech that has been enacted or come close to it is terrible. Why? Because it creates a censorship regime overseen by corporations, with little transparency or oversight, insufficient remedy in case of false accusation, and perverse incentive structures which far-right groups are happy to use to silence their critics. I said that's what would happen if some of the proposals the EU was considering were enacted, and that's what happened with Germany's law. Videos attacking the far-right are regularly taken down by the same platforms on which people continue spouting racist and homophobic invective.

I see someone saying “Something must be done! This is something!” What you're actually saying is that you'd like to spend political capital and give people the feeling that the problem is solved on a supposed remedy that doesn't remedy anything. There is a reason why many marginalized scholars, particularly in Europe, view hate speech laws as a form of tokenism. They make the majority feel as if the issues of bigotry have been addressed and offer a sense of virtuous accomplishment for having taken stern action, while nothing has been accomplished. Please, go join your soulmates who pushed through the PATRIOT act. And you, saying “People are in danger right now, and you're worried about future concerns? For shame!”. The amount of anti-fascist and anti-racist material that's been taken down under poorly incentivized anti-hate policies is well documented. You'll find the USA PATRIOT Act supporters good company as well.

Third, the slippery slope argument is only sometimes a fallacy. When someone is arguing for some sort of moral or ontological continuum: that if you put one thing in a category some other things must follow it there? Fallacy and garbage. When someone argues that a course of action is likely to lead to a negative outcome? The strength of the argument depends entirely on the justified degree of belief in the outcome.

There is a system in the UK called CleanFeed. It was a secret, unaccountable list of sites that ISPs would block, notionally to keep people from downloading child pornography. You may like the idea in itself. You may not. However, the existence and use of CleanFeed was cited by a judge to justify their decision that ISPs were required to censor sites that the publishing industry claimed were havens of media piracy.

In this case, people were perfectly justified in arguing (as some did) that CleanFeed would enable future censorship regimes. This kind of thing is the reason why some people who identify as anarchists and communists, both groups that were treated quite poorly in the past because of their politics, may be less enthusiastic than you are about jettisoning the norm against discriminating against people because of their politics. Whether you think they're justified should depend on how confident you are that the ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’ you pour scorn on and whose intelligence you deride are insightful enough to see that different ‘extreme’ ideologies aren't equivalent in the same way that you do. This doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong, but it does mean that more justification is needed than jumping up and down and calling anyone who disagrees with one a fascist sympathizer. Focusing specifically on, for example, advocating violent repression or exclusion of some group is way more defensible than the attempts to more broadly claim that this or that is “code for” or “motivated by” something else.

Calling Out Dogwhistles Is Bad Praxis

30 December 2018 11:52 PM (politics)

I like Contrapoints. I think Contrapoints is intelligent and thoughtful. She does the important work of trying to understand people with whom she disagrees, even when they are advocating for horrible things that will bring great misery to the world for basically no reason. However, there's one thing I think she got wrong. (Well, okay, there are several things she got wrong. The 'liberalism tends toward fascism' meme is garbage, especially since hard-line Marxists in Weimar Germany preferred the Nazis to the liberal socialists and social democrats as they believed the redistributive policies of the latter would erode class consciousness and revolutionary drive. That's just a minor, throwaway line.) You can see the video here.

Now, there are many parts I don't disagree with. I agree that one should defend people against bad laws. One should defend folk against discrimination and bad laws. And, while I don't subscribe to 'platform' ideology, I will say that 'debates' are professional wrestling for the intellectual set and if you are actually devoted to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ not actually a useful thing to engage in. I will also say that one should avoid enacting the fallacy of spurious balance. You know the one. “Every credible climate scientist says changes to earth's temperature likely to millions, displace hundreds of millions, and make life harder for billions. The CEO of Peabody energy, a cosmologist recently made Vice President of Communications for Arch Coal, and a professor of Homeopathic medicine say ‘Come on. Why do you have to be like that?’ Stay tuned for more on this burning controversy!” As Peter Singer once said, the main reason not to invite a speaker to talk about why we should mistreat Aborigines is that all their arguments were discredited a hundred years ago and they've not come up with any new ones.

Here's the first point of disagreement: Fascists are not that important. (“That sounds like the voice of privilege to me!” says the somewhat dim straw-man.) More specifically, I think fascists are as important as school-shootings (“That sounds like the voice of someone who doesn't care about children!”) and terrorism (“That sounds like someone who hates America!”).

School shootings are bad. I think we can agree on that. All other things being equal, it would be really good if we could make them stop happening. However, if we could wave a Magic Wand and make all school shootings stop immediately, it wouldn't actually affect the rate of violent gun deaths in the US. Furthermore, many things we have done in the name of trying to stop school shootings are both ineffective and harmful. Building schools along the lines of prisons, instituting lock-down procedures, insisting students stay in and don't explore and interact with the world, all of these are harmful to children while offering little or no protection. The spectacle of the problem throws people into a long-term panic, and policymakers hear voices (often those of their aids) saying things like “If you don't do this and there's a school shooting, how will you live with yourself?”

Terrorism is a bad thing. Terrorism is terrifying. It would be great if terrorism stopped happening, but the amount of time people spent worrying about terrorism is not well calibrated to the likely harm from terrorism. Many of the things done in the name of fighting terrorism made terrorism worse and had many other harms. The world would have been a better place if nothing had been done about terrorism and the entire effort against it had been spent on global warming, instead. (This doesn't mean I think it's wrong to do anything about terrorism, just that our response to terrorism was so bad, nothing would be lost if the whole war on terror had been cut from history with a shimmering blade of anti-time.)

So. Let's talk about fascism, and its friends white supremacy and the alt-right. We'll just be inaccurate and lump them all together as ‘fascism’ for now. I think you can guess where I'm going with this. White supremacy is quite harmful. Hate crimes kill people. Even without being killed, harassment, threats, and intimidation are harmful. However, if we could wave a magic wand and get rid of all the hate groups, authoritarians, what have you, it would be…not that consequential. Black children would be subject to lead poisoning, other forms of pollution, malnutrition, failing schools, and poverty. The school to prison pipeline would still exist. We'd still have unequal sentencing laws. We'd still have police forces acting like occupying armies, brutalizing, and executing people. There's a reason we have the term “structural racism” to refer to the forms of oppression that just keep happening and ruining lives and killing people without anyone having to be invested in ‘hating’ anyone else.

Trump may well have still been elected; given that he lost the popular election him being in office is a thin thing and if Steve Bannon didn't exist his campaigning may have been less effective. While fascists and white nationalists like Trump very much and Trump is loath to denounce anyone that showers him with sycophantic adulation, there's little evidence that Trump himself holds white nationalist or supremacist positions (given that Trump basically has no positions). Similarly, the idea that Trump's election shows there's some vast plurality of white nationalists is fanciful at best. (Trump voters seem to be much more tolerant of racist language and insinuation and more bigoted overall, however.) Trump's election did embolden fascists and make them feel free to be visible.

So. I think that while fascism is bad, the level of concern about fascism is completely disconnected from the actual harm it brings into the world. There may still be things worth doing against it, but I think much of what falls under the rubric of ‘vigilance against fascism’ is not actually effective or positively aids fascists. One of those things is the discourse around dogwhistles.

In general, the question of whether a policy proposal comes from someone who has Fascism in the Heart does not matter. If I'm talking to someone, and they tell you that they were listening to a speaker who got them really thinking about illegal immigrants living here and made deporting them all sound like a good idea, the first thing I'd focus on is just how expensive that would be, how it would harm the economy, and how we'd be ripping families apart. This seems the most important issue. Nativist policies aren't bad because they're nativist, they're bad because they squander resources and harm economic development while making some groups terribly miserable. If I knew that the person I was talking to was a white nationalist I probably wouldn't bother, since they'd view recession and vast expenditures of wealth as a price worth paying.

This is important as matter of praxis because we have a duty to fight oppression and pursue reforms effectively. Yelling at someone they have motivations and sentiments they know perfectly well they don't have is not effective. Explaining something that sounds an awful lot like, “No! You don't understand! That person and people who support policies like this have Evil in their souls! Don't you care?” just destroys your credibility.

It's similar for a lot of issues. Some people may well push tough on crime agendas because they hate black people and want to see more of them in jail. Most people who support tough on crime agendas do so because they buy into the stupid idea that the current day is terribly unsafe, particularly compared to the Mythical Past. They buy into it because they have a ridiculous mental image of criminals as Bad People and think in nonsensical terms about Moral Stains and Blights and punitive measures. (As you can see I am no fan of tough-on-crime policies.) Plus the 24-hour news cycle makes them feel scared and have levels of worry about crime completely unrelated to the risk crime actually poses them, so they support anti-crime policies that don't actually prevent crime. Tough on crime policies are bad because they drain state treasures, cause vast misery, destroy families, do little to affect rates of crime, rip people out of society and make it difficult for them to reintegrate, fall disproportionately on poor and minority citizens, and for whole hosts of other reasons. Yes! Tough-on-crime laws have a racist effect, but the idea that 'tough-on-crime' is “code for” racist ideas is demonstrably false. There's that structural racism thing again.

And again, opposition to tough on crime laws is best pursued by pointing out both why the problem they claim to address is less severe than may be believed, they do not address it well, and they have harmful effects. At no point does a successful resistance to them include “Aha! But have you considered that the people who support these laws may have the Evil of Fascism? Festering in their hearts?. This is the case for most things, even down to obvious evils like family separations and internment camps for children. 29% of Latin@ voters in the US supported Trump. This is not a majority, but it poses problems for the narrative that people who support Trump and his immigration policies hate Mexicans. (The entire ‘hate’ narrative on the left wing is garbage and needs to be excised if only because you can't convince people if your mental model of their mind is totally inaccurate.)

I am not defending family separation or internment. Both policies are loathsome and I think we should do everything in our power to have immigrants, including refugees, come here by the bucket-load for both humanitarian and economic reasons. But, most people who support them do not do so out of ‘hate’ or ‘fascism’. No, it's similar to the tough-on-crime nonsense. They've been made to feel irrationally scared because immoral, unprincipled politicians have discovered that you can get lots of people to vote for you if you make them scared about immigration. (Actual fascists are happy to jump on the bandwagon, though.) It's similar to people who voted for anti-Gay-Marriage initiatives. Very of them hated gay people, particularly. (Some of the backers may have.) They were stirred into action by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, and a pile of magical thinking of the form “Oh my goodness! If we redefine a word! But! Reality! It might fall apart!” and misinformation and a view of gay people as alien beings over there somewhere. Gay marriage was not won by shouting at these folk that they hated gay people, that would just make them think the person shouting at them was a lunatic, since they know perfectly well that they don't. No, it was caused by having gay people become visible, a group to be empathized with, the realization that the magical thinking was ridiculous, and a certain moral fury at the idea that someone was supposed to die alone in a hospital because of bureaucratic nonsense.

It's similar for separation and internment. You'll get nowhere going on about how you can tell the supporters of some policy have Fascism in their Heart because they dropped this or that line. Nor about telling people who disagree with you that they hate people they don't. Deconstructing the rationale for the policy, pointing out how it's turned parts of the United States into an engine for generating unnecessary suffering, and making its victims a point of moral concern is how you go about it.

Contrapoints sums up another reason to give up on worry about decoding dogwhistles and identifying fascists at the end of her video: the paranoia, the worry, the imposition of a low-trust atmosphere on oneself, the paranoia from the ‘gaslighting’ little of that is actually necessary. Fascists and white nationalists do us the tremendous favor of all having exceptionally lousy policies whose lousiness is easily identified without knowing whether the Evil of Fascism Lies Deep in their Hearts.

Now, that said, there may be reasons why you might want to know whether someone is actually a white supremacist. As mentioned above, if someone is actually a white nationalist then you'll waste your time talking to them about economics. It'll probably become pretty obvious if you try. It's also worthwhile to know what people's motivations are just to understand how the world works. Bannon's actions only really make sense if you consider his ridiculous worldview. In theory I guess you could have someone advocate good policies but be a secret fascist and then suddenly yell, “Aha! I campaigned on open borders and single-payer healthcare, but instead as my first act I shall start a campaign of mass deportation!”, but it seems a bit Captain Planet villain and not at all likely. Similarly, I can imagine a racist gaining the trust of a member of a minority and then doing something horrible to them, but I'm not aware of this really being a thing that happens; frothing racists don't really like to be around members of racial minorities.

In summary, if one wants to oppose the likely outcomes of fascist policies, like racial discrimination, authoritarianism, deportations, or the subjugation of women, antifascist action and ‘Spot the Fascist’ style rhetoric are not effective strategies. Focusing on criminal justice reform, ending the war on drugs, lead remediation, improvements in education, and pushing to end segregation are effectively anti-racist. Focusing on electoral reform so incompetent, authoritarian candidates don't win primaries and then get seen as The Lesser Evil is a good way to fight authoritarianism. Exposing people to immigrants (really! The strongest anti-immigrant sentiments tend to come from places where immigrants aren't!) is a good way to fight deportation. Pushing for universal healthcare and widely available childcare are effective ways to help women. There are lots and lots of good things to do, but the focus in any discourse should be on what policies we want, what their effects would be, and why we think so. It should not be on the content of anyone's heart.

All Apologies

28 December 2018 1:04 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 1:37 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.)

Jordan Peterson is Kind of Crap

29 March 2018 2:44 PM (society | culture | peterson)

As far as I can tell, Professor Peterson is a competent clinical psychologist and researcher in the domain of the Big Five personality traits. He may or may not be a reasonably good self-help guru. The people who like that kind of thing like that kind of thing. His broader cultural and social pronouncements are a bit nonsense. He is not particularly important, nor is he dangerous, nor is he worth all the fuss that's been made. I was inspired to deal with him only because the recent BBC interview was really bad; the interviewer was incompetent in both failing to listen to and address anything he said and taking a moralistic tone of calling him out for being bad without first addressing whether he was wrong. Also, while I annoyed with some ideologies that Peterson dislikes, his reasons are wrong and his worries are a bit histrionic.

Peterson worries about ‘identity politics’ and ‘political correctness’ and while there are trends and subgroups in that area I dislike, his likening them to Bolshevism and scare mongering about a totalitarian regime is essentially nonsense. The real danger of the more authoritarian elements on the left is their own incompetence; adoption of the thoughts and practices of the ‘critical left’, to use Rorty's term, seems likely to slow progress, dissipate energy, and strengthen reactionary forces.

More interesting is his railing against post-modernism, since everything indicates to me that Professor Peterson is essentially a moderate conservative postmodern himself, following the same ideas but with a more popular framing than the rather dry and convoluted prose more common in the humanities departments he criticizes. Where the academic postmoderns were inflected by horror over World War II and the Holocaust, Peterson goes the same direction as a result of his fascination with the regime Stalin. The rough shape of his reasoning is plain in even casual comments, such as his discussion with Sam Harris where he subsumes instrumental reason (without using the word) to his weird and rather arbitrary ‘evolutionary’ teleology. The best thing that could happen to Professor Peterson would be if a few works of Steve Pinker and Peter Singer fell on top of him one day, as they both reject the tabula rasa and accept much of what biology and evolution suggest, but rather than bowing to and fetishizing it as Peterson does, they take it as a starting point for rational analysis about how to organize civilization to improve equality and human flourishing. I decided to read one of his books to see if my impression of him as fundamentally a vulgar postmodern was correct.

So, let's take him on his own terms. Peterson, it is safe to say, thinks Gender is much more important than I do. He thinks there are Appropriate Roles and many of those come from Inbuilt Facts of Nature. As far as I can tell he thinks there are good masculine identities for male humans and good feminine identities for female humans and that society should affirm them and encourage maturation into them. He seems to think that failing to affirm masculinity is a bad thing that can be done to people.

In the first chapter of his new book, he spends a good bit of time talking about bullying. About the psychological and physiological harm one can do by attacking someone's status and worth. As far as I have read, he doesn't mention it explicitly, but given his other beliefs I would be very surprised if he would not consider things like aggressive verbal feminization, taunts of ‘girly-boy’, and the mocking address of a young man with female pronouns or a stereotypical feminine name examples of harmful bullying. It's a direct assault on status regarding facets of identity he considers important defining.

Whatever one thinks of hate speech generally, I think one can make a good case that in institutions that people are required to interact with to gain credentials, learning, or for other purposes of their livelihood, bullying is generally not a good thing. Peers or co-workers actively harming each other is bad. Those in positions of power such as professors or managers doing so is even worse. For him to specifically misgender people even when informed that he is doing so and has been asked not to would constitute some level of bullying. It's a conscious decision on his part to reject another person's status in an aspect of life that is very important to them. (Transitioning is hard. People don't do it in fits of whimsy.) Note that this has nothing to do with a limitation on inquiry or investigation. He can say anything he wants about his theories of gender, transitioning, or what have you, even if his theories are false. There is a difference between essentially content-free insults in school or the workplace and advocating ideas, even ones which are almost certainly false and offend many people.

The question one should be asking Professor Peterson is not what gives him the ‘authority’ to say this or that, but why he is spending effort defending what looks, by his principles, to be bullying in school or the workplace. What greater social good does he protect?

When you look past all the malarky about Bolshevism and the Gulag Archipelago, his concern is compelled speech. He brings up zie and ey and other newfangled pronouns and doesn't think he or others should be forced to deal with them. I have some limited sympathy for this. One could reasonably argue that every new pronoun puts a cognitive burden on people, and that one while one may expect ones friends and loved ones to track and use innovative pronouns, it is unreasonable in the business environment. I'd be tempted to counter-argue that the number of pronouns in actual use is not actually likely to balloon that much, and that most competent managers will probably want to learn that kind of information anyway to make employees or students feel like they matter and inspire them to perform well.

Nevertheless, let us grant this objection. Legal scholars who have commented on Bill C-16 have stated that one would not be required to positively affirm an other's gender, merely to avoid denigrating or denying it. This sounds very little like compelled speech, and very much like expectations that people not use racial slurs in the workplace.

There are lots of ways to do that. Circumlocutions abound and English is a language of splendid variety and expression. The common method is singular ‘they’. Professor Peterson does not like singular ‘they’. It confuses plurals, it sounds weird to him…

There is an appropriate response to this, and I believe it is “Stop being so precious and sort yourself out, bucko. You ever go to China? You know their language lacks both gender and number marking on all the pronouns? You can explicitly signal them, but by default they're ambiguous. Ever speak English? You know we don't mark number on the second person pronoun, right? So we'll get ‘they’ and ‘they all’ the way we have ‘you’ and ‘you all’ now. You worry it sounds funny? So what? Do you want to the kind of person who hurts people in a way your own philosophy suggests is harmful because you don't want to sound funny? What kind of principle of ordered society is that? Why don't you pull yourself together and go clean up your room?”

In all honesty I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason he sticks to this whole pronoun thing is that it brought him notoriety in the first place and, at least subconsciously, he wants to keep that fame.

Peterson's other comment, that whether he would honor someone's request depended on how they ask, is itself slightly troubling. He is a clinical psychologist. He knows the effects of stress and how it can affect people's behavior. He writes about them. He knows it can bring out the worst in people and that being mistreated can be a cause of chronic stress. While I am not a fan of targeting protected groups specifically in law, I do think we should keep in mind which people have been subject to discrimination and poor treatment in recent history and to let that knowledge influence our reasoning. It is well-known that trans and non-binary people face mockery and challenges to that portion of their identity. Since Professor Peterson is the professor, the adult in the room, and the one handing out life advice on how to grow up, it is really inappropriate for him to act as if there is some decision to be made as to whether he will be an adult and treat people with the common baseline of decency simply because they asked him to in a rude or way.

Everybody Has a Right to a Platform

28 March 2018 5:40 PM (society | politics | speech)

It seems that the quickest way to turn avowed communists and socialists into radical capitalists is to give them an opportunity to stop someone they dislike from speaking. Youtube's ban on firearm videos (and other content restrictions handed down from corporate boardrooms) have caused people who normally dislike the notion of private property and would like to vastly curtail the power of corporations to begin chiding people and telling them that their freedoms are in no way curtailed because such limits are simply an exercise of dominion over private property. Somehow, the same people who offer a critique of rights that explains the insufficiency of the American constitutional model's provision of negative rather than substantive rights and the its false assumption that only the government can violate them will insist that everyone has only the negative right to be free from prior legal restraint, and that nobody has the right to a platform. These anti-corporate crusaders will call any claim that someone (unless it's someone they agree with) is being illegitimately silenced through private power ‘freeze peach’.

This entire notion is errant nonsense. Let us dispose of its various pieces in no particular order, though we may as well kill the easiest off first.

The First Amendment only Applies to the Government

Since when have our ideals of interactions and our community norms been a product of the United States constitution or other formal law? The flow is and should be the other way. Our norms, notions of social goods, what we think each person owes to others and is owed himself, and how we expect to improve eventually becomes codified law. The counter “That's not in the first amendment!” is as wrong in private affairs as any appeal to the first amendment itself would be. Outside of a court-room the formal text of law is not the bound of good behavior.

There is no formal, legal right to be free from petty slights caused by ignorance, yet we expect people to educate themselves and get to know others and refrain from doing things that are odious to them. There is no formal, legal right that a small group in casual association will understand and make accommodations for someone with a different background or ability, and yet we expect them to do so and condemn them if they don't. The first amendment nowhere requires that minority views and minority voices are given a chances to be heard and heard respectfully, and yet when we are honest we recognize that everybody has a right to a platform and demand that they have it.

Freedom of Speech Doesn't Mean Freedom from the Consequences of Speech

This is the most vile and execrable of the lot. I think you've found Gamer-Gate's creed. All those women who say something unpopular and get a pile-on of threats and people trying to get them fired? No right of theirs has been violated. They're just experiencing the consequences of speech. Of course you should feel angry at that reasoning. That's because you should feel angry whenever anyone trots out the honestly disgusting and shameful canard of ‘consequences’ to justify anything.

The invocation of ‘consequences’ is the refuge of some scoundrel vestige of natural law. It is devoid of justification. It sidesteps why we should have these consequences for this and those consequences for that and just licenses them all under some vague idea of ‘consequences’. It's the domain of the abusive parent, the authoritarian principle, and mobs of trolls generally.

If you want to advocate the establishment of social norms such that we practice exclusion against people for this or that behavior, then by all means do so, but do so honestly. Explain why you think the exclusion you want will produce some worthwhile end. Explain why it should be that level of exclusion and not some milder or stronger form. Actually come to grips with how to avoid licensing exclusion or harassment more broadly. However, keep in mind that whenever you indulge in the vague and stupid discourse of ‘consequences’, you are nothing but the bosom buddy and enabler of every harasser of Cathy Newman or anyone else who angers a mob on the Internet because, hey, speech has consequences right?

Power 'n Stuff

There usually comes a point where someone, rather than providing an public reason for why some speech should be silenced, will make a vague hand-wavy appeal to ‘power’. They'll claim that the people they want to silence are white or men or cisgender or able or neurotypical or any number of things. Often times they're factually wrong (Oh, yes, the spectacle of people angrily assigning identities to their opponents so they can oppress them without feeling bad for it is as ridiculous as it is irrelevant), but even when they aren't, this is nonsense.

Thus ‘power 'n stuff’. It is extremely important to consider actual power relationships and the kinds of distortions they can cause. Substituting the political or economic power of a group instead of analyzing matters with the focus and primacy placed squarely on the individual where it belongs is the kind of disordered nonsense that sloshes out of Marxism and Critical Theory and makes it impossible to reason about anything clearly. (Also you end up with rich, well-educated comedians going on television and actively denigrating and mocking poor and uneducated people for being poor and uneducated before patting themselves on the back for ‘punching up’ and ‘speaking truth to power’.)

I am quite clearly and obviously disabled and I am also quite clearly and obviously mad. I think it is uncontroversial to say that mad, disabled people do not make up a notably powerful cohort. There are lots of factors working against them, both through negligence (ninety-five percent, at least, of the United States has my second-class citizenship built into every detail of cement, stone, and asphalt that makes up urban planning) or through outright misrepresentation and discrimination (I recently lied to the People's Republic of China who would otherwise have been quite likely to deny or drastically limit my visa due to my having a ‘severe mental defect’). However, in cases where I encounter another individual, or even a group of individuals, that do not involve them being my employer, deciding if I get a loan, traveling around a small town, seeing things in bright light, or similar, they are not in a position of ‘power’ relative to me. In many cases, given my education and other opportunities I've had in life, it may well be disingenuous and oppressive of me not to assume I am the more powerful in an interaction. More to the point, to assume that I must occupy a generally disempowered position relative to any arbitrary able or neurotypical individual would be an act of frank oppression against me, even if I did it myself.

Also, all this scrabbling about identity based power obscures the real power asymmetry that comes up in these matters: the one between us and the lizard people. …Did I say lizard people? Corporations. I meant corporations. Corporations and economic influence generally.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Henry. He opened a factory building automobiles and would pay his men five dollars a day if they allowed a committee to regularly inspect their homes and ensure they attended church regularly, weren't smoking or drinking, spoke English at home and taught it to their children, avoided gambling and playing pool and fit other notions of Good, American Clean Living. This was a bonus. You could work for Henry Ford and smoke and drink and refuse inspections and get $2.56 a day if you wanted. Even so, most people would object to this. A paternalistic business making a bonus pay packet contingent on behavior outside of work seems offensive to us.

Even more if they make employment contingent on behavior outside of work. it is amazing to me that people accept employer drug testing at all. This is precisely the kind of abuse that should be outlawed. The radical capitalists among you will doubtless disagree, and come to the defense of the property owners. How 'bout the socialists? Same people who were defending Youtube as being allowed to do whatever it wants with its private property? Feel like defending its right to do whatever it wants with its private property? How about this? Any socialists here want to defend Google's use of Pinkerton Security to spy on its employees out of work? The first amendment doesn't say they can't. They're a private corporation. Surely they can set whatever conditions on employees they want. To say otherwise is to deny them their right to dispose of their money as they see fit. Anyone?

No. We find that offensive. An illegitimate overreach on the part of capital, extruding itself into parts of people's lives where, even when it arguably has a legitimate business interest, it doesn't belong. We should have the same intuitions toward speech. We should be offended and angry when a woman is fired for flipping off Donald Trump's motorcade. We should demand stronger protections for workers that penalize employers for that kind of activity.

We should be angry that it is legal to fire someone for advocating communism in their free time off work. We should be upset that people are fired for random stupid things they say on Twitter. Yes, even sexist or racist things. If you want to have hate speech laws, fine. Push for them as part of a democratic institution. That's a completely orthogonal matter. Outsourcing our collective consciences to corporations without public oversight is a bad idea.

It's probably worth pointing out that there is not and probably shouldn't be a ‘Magical Nazi Exemption’ to every principle. There are areas where corporations simply have no business and jumping up and down screaming ‘But they're fucking Nazis!’ in an ever shriller voice does not magically change that. We do not need to create an incentive for people to throw wild accusations in order to get an exception, nor do we benefit from being able to enact ad hoc authoritarianism over any issue sufficiently many people are irrationally panicking over. I disagree, for example, with the Southern Poverty Law Center arguing that credit card companies should simply refuse to process payments for ‘hate’ groups. Credit card companies are an oligopoly. they should be forbidden to deny payment processing except in extreme cases of verified or likely fraud. This is simply a power they ought not have and their being able to do so has harmed sexual minorities much more than it has racist institutions.

Economic power extends beyond the range of employment. I should not have to explain what a monopoly or oligopoly is to my socialist comrades, nor network effects to anyone technically competent. Needless to say, when technical companies refer to ‘a platform’ they refer to some combination of code and data and branding that is a means for all kinds of interactions that, they hope, becomes the dominant venue for certain kinds of interactions.

Youtube is the place for people to post and share video, at least outside of China. I focus on Youtube largely because it is in some sense the closes thing to a ‘natural’ monopoly on the Internet. Other applications can and should be federated, and Youtube can and should be too, but the challenges of providing sufficient bandwidth at sufficiently low latency to make streaming video attractive makes it more difficult.

So Youtube, at least at present, has a near monopoly and with it monopoly power. Monopoly power is a thing that we normally want to constrained. When Youtube started flagging and hiding content that involved same-sex relationships, people thought Youtube ought not do that. And they were right.

The kinds of content regulations that should be permissible to an entity are, roughly, proportional to the power and reach of the entity. If leaving Youtube presents a significant burden not only in hosting content, but also in how easily content is discovered, and how well users of that content can participate in discussions with users of other content, then Youtube should simply be forbidden from engaging in certain kinds of curation. I am aware that this is, in some ways, a radical stance. In other ways it is simply the logical outworking of the kinds of concerns we have about monopolies and ways in which we would like to constrain their power over society. In a world with lots of platforms where no group has the power to make content unavailable or difficult to find for the average user, and users of one platform can easily communicate with members of any other platform without having to create multiple accounts, then platforms are and should be much more free to curate the content they host.

If you think that it's wrong of Google to limit or hide videos about same-sex relationships, and view it as unreasonable to just tell gay people to go somewhere else, then you cannot say that the makers of gun videos are not having some ‘right’ or reasonable expectation of fair treatment and equitable distribution of social goods violated when their videos are banned. For certain kinds of content You may certainly say, ‘Yes, your rights are being abridged, but it is reasonable in this case because it achieves some much greater social good.’

Some people find that idea unappealing, as it requires that you actually are getting some greater social good out of it or can at least demonstrate a reasonable expectation of getting a greater social good. This is harder and less fun than simply shouting, “I have angry and unhappy feelings toward guns and people who enjoy them right now!” and then laughing at them and coming up with a pious, nonsensical fiction about how their rights aren't really being violated.

Again, none of this rules out restrictions on hate speech. It is orthogonal to it, beyond requiring that one make a good consequentialist argument that the principle you advocate will actually result in a desired outcome without creating too many collateral problems. Pragmatically, putting matters like this in the hands of corporations, who are loyal to their shareholders and profit margins creates rather bad results, and you end up with Facebook doing a lousy job and Google doing a lousy job and Twitter doing what anyone who thought for five minutes would expect given ‘notice and takedown’ style incentives.

Nobody Has a Right to a Platform

I'm fairly sure most people who say this don't believe it consistently. I think there's one a normal mental compartment where they realize that the means to speak and be heard is a social good that everyone has a claim to and expectation of. This is why we think it is bad that underrepresented voices are underrepresented. We have ideas like the ‘progressive stack’ to showcase people we think aren't normally heard. We tell children that everyone deserves a chance to be heard and a chance to be understood. Then there's the other compartment that opens up when they're in a position of power and want to silence someone and when they object and demand a good reason, they shout “Nobody has a right to a platform!”

One of the more legitimate critiques of liberalism, at least the Lockean, Capitalism-flavored sort most commonly practiced in the US, is that formal, procedural, and ‘negative’ rights are insufficient to ensure a good society. A right to formal equality under the law fails to provide equality under the law without a guarantee that each person can get skilled, willing, and not overburdened counsel. A right to life is meaningless without ensuring the means to live. A right to property ensures nothing if one can never get the means to gain or purchase property. A right to liberty fails if all things one could or might do are priced beyond ones reach and even the education to know what choices there are is unavailable.

By the same token, a right to freedom of speech is in itself meaningless without the right to the means to speak and be heard. Behind the veil of ignorance where none of us know what views we hold or what we would wish to say, each of us could only agree that we all have the right to a platform and laugh at anyone who claimed we had freedom of speech without it. We might, if we knew that in the world as it is the availability of ‘platforms’ was limited, decide to distribute platforms in a way that prioritized truth or social utility, though this in itself would be rather difficult since it would limit our ability to discuss what was true and decide on social utility.

Fortunately, we don't live in that world. The defenders of platform ideology will often bring up the New York Times and say something like “Surely you don't claim that people have a right to be in the New York Times! That's just ridiculous!” and go on from there. There are a few problems with this analogy.

First, some people, often the same ones who brought up the analogy in the first place, do think that some people who aren't in the New York Times actually have a right to be there. Often they'll claim that the Times or other venues have a duty to publish more content from underrepresented ideologies or marginalized voices. This, at the very least, suggests an intuition that there is something beyond ‘my platform, my rules’ and that there are public goods to be reasoned about that come into play.

Second, the New York Times is not just a platform. It is a curated collection. The value of the New York Times is not simply that it's (we hope) true but that it is a selection of articles likely to be about things the average New York Times reader cares about and written in a style the average New York Times reader appreciates. Claiming a right to be in it is not simply demanding something from the owner, but removing value for all the readers.

Third, the New York Times, at least in its paper version, is finite. (And in practice in all versions, given the desire to have a uniform editorial style and oversight.) There is an opportunity cost here where every article put into the Times means that some different article must be excluded.

Fourth, if The New York Times were the only source of written material most people read, then yes, I would say everyone has a right to be in it. A right we can't yet fulfill and for the moment would need to prioritize, but there would be an imperative to create more capacity and extend platform so that all those who have a right to it can have their right fulfilled.

So, as you can see, there are many ways that The New York Times or other curated collections are not ‘platforms’ in the way that people who like to apply this reasoning to social networks or youtube or other venues would like them to be. Electronic media are effectively infinite. Everyone has a right to be on Youtube or Google or Facebook or Twitter.

Lest you worry, I haven't just defended the right of spambots. Spammers really are a serious attack on the indexing system. They actively infringe on the right to platform of everyone else by making it impossible for people who want to find and read content to find and read it. This, incidentally, is why the common antifa argument that you can't defend everybody's freedom to speak is fallacious. The usual claim is that if one group comes out to speak and another group wishes to shut them down by making noise over them or otherwise making it impossible to be heard, then you must choose one group over the other. This is false. In all cases, the group that comes out to ‘shut down’ a speaker is not engaging in speech and actively infringing on the other's right. They are certainly free to protest, free to form a picket line (so long as they don't prevent people from crossing), free to express their opposition and dislike. They simply do not have a legitimate right to deny other people the chance to speak.

The same thing is true of speech at universities. I am not a big fan of Jordan Peterson. In general if there's a choice between Jordan Peterson and …basically anyone else, basically anyone else is probably a more worthwhile speaker. Nevertheless, there are many people who would like to listen to Jordan Peterson. He has a right to a platform. They have a right to listen to him. Scarcity is not generally at play here. In most cases it's ‘Peterson’ or not having a speaker scheduled in that venue at that time. If a third party wants to interpose itself and say that even though Peterson wants to speak to some people and they want to listen to him, this ought not be allowed to happen, they are going to have to come up with a better reason than ‘Nobody has a right to a platform.’

But Nobody Takes the Idea of Completely Unrestricted Speech Seriously!

Indeed not! The defenders of ‘platform’ ideology appeal to copyright, slander, libel, perjury, contract law, and shouting fire in a crowded theater. All of these things, whether you agree with them in their current form or not, have something in common: public reason! Each is a limit on speech that is legitimate insofar as there is a basis for the limit whose reason is available to and comprehensible to all members of society as a means to gain some an overwhelming social good. This doesn't mean current copyright law actually passes the test, in fact I'm fairly sure it doesn't. This is a standard by which laws should be held to account.

Traditionally, in Liberalism, there have been arguments about how to justify the ‘public reason’ requirement and a sense of unease that the most robust and forceful justifications would seem to propel it out of the purely public and legal sphere into the private and personal domains. People have attempted to ‘solve’ this problem, but I believe that it is, in fact, no problem at all.

Older forms of liberalism made the mistake of trying to have sharp delineations between the public, private, and personal. They separated the public sphere of law and public interest from the commercial and private sphere where private property and business interest are absolute, from the personal and familial sphere where parental authority and personal feeling are the only concern. However, it is plain by now that the commercial sphere is not absolute and separate and there is much legitimate social good to be had in regulating and limiting it, and eventually merging it with the public sphere through the establishment of socialism. We rightly reach into the personal sphere and ensure children receive adequate nutrition, medical care, and education, sometimes in defiance of their parents' wishes. As individuals, we expect our acquaintances to deal with others fairly in their social life and not to act cruelly or behave as bigots.

The fact that the various notional ‘spheres’ interact with each other and can inflict their own forms of oppression through imbalances of power is an essential observation and must be incorporated into any modern and sane form of Liberalism. One simply cannot pursue the Enlightenment program of fairly distributing social goods and individual flourishing without embracing this aspect of the world and threading public reason, to one degree or another, into all spheres of life.

As such, any statement of ‘no one has a right to a platform’ when unaccompanied by a robust public reason that can be challenged, whether a federal ban from books, radio and print, a corporate policy, or the declaration “My server, my rules!” is an act petty tyranny, differing in each case only in the pettiness of the tyrant. As the ‘scale’ of power diminishes, the kind of justification and two whom it is required becomes smaller and less formal. If I am, for example, hosting a meet-up for a local interest group in my home and I wished to exclude someone, I would owe the group a reason stronger than what I might owe the individual if I excluded him at other times (where ‘I don't like you’ may be sufficient.)

Now, this by no means implies that I believe there are and ought to be no limits on acceptable speech. I can make a good, consequentialist argument that, in a workplace or school, one who makes unwanted advances or otherwise harasses their co-workers should be disciplined or dismissed (with those in greater authority held to higher standards). I can make a good, consequentialist argument that in casual conversation one who persists in using slurs and other invective, particular related to irrelevant characteristics, that annoys and distresses the target should be rebuked and excluded.

I am willing to entertain the argument that certain ideas are in themselves harmful and it is a bad thing to draw attention to them, or that we should enact criminal or civil penalties for certain denigrating ways of speech. I think it's a hard argument to make, as European style hate-speech and anti-fascism laws seem to have failed to actually accomplish anything. However, it is a discussion that we can and should have in terms of social and individual well-being.

Those are the terms on which the argument should be made. The recent left-wing habit of denying that something is a social good that all people have a claim to with one side of ones mouth while appealing to that same universal social good with the other is disgraceful and self-defeating.

The Politics of Empathy

26 March 2018 6:46 PM (politics | society)

To claim an individual or group of people lacks ‘empathy’ is to dehumanize them under the imprimatur of pseudo-scientific authority. I don't know about you, but no worthwhile people I know made a habit of creating pseudo-scientific frameworks for dehumanizing people.

More to the point, it's false. Empathy as commonly defined is an emotion. It binds to your in-group. You don't feel empathy for those who, in your estimation, deserve their unhappiness because in your estimation, they deserve their unhappiness. This is how empathy works. This is why conflicting groups, if you actually look at them show every sign of responding to the emotions of their in-group and being less responsive to the emotions of their out-group. Just like you do.

You might argue that the people they condemn aren't actually hurting anyone. There's a pretty good chance you'd be right! But this has nothing at all to do with ‘empathy’ this has to do with an analysis of the world and how people in it interact and what leads to human flourishing and what doesn't.

You want to do something worthwhile, flush this self-righteous ‘empathy’ garbage down into the sewer where it belongs and practice compassion. Compassion does not believe in deserved suffering and if that's a problem for you then you, brother, should rip the plank out of your own eye before you go back to dehumanizing people. Compassion is impartial. It does not have an in-group. It reaches around the world. It doesn't involve sharing anyone's feelings, it involves trying to develop an accurate theory of mind, coolly understanding other people's condition and wishing for their happiness, even if you don't like them.

You want to condemn people for lacking compassion? Be my guest, but only if you recognize that proper compassion is hard and even people who work at it all their lives trip up and fail at it repeatedly, because it is not some merely instinctive animal resonance attuned to those with whom one feels a sense of kithship. Compassion is a skill that guides your reasoning. If the thing you have just makes you hate a bunch of people and open your mouth and say something stupid, it's empathy. If it doesn't really have anything to do with your personal orientation toward people and guides you to help everyone, it's compassion.

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 9:39 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 1:46 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

22 January 2018 11:48 PM (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

21 January 2018 11:34 PM (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 12:03 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.

The Problem with the Left-Wing Freak-Out Exemplified

6 September 2017 11:23 PM (society | politics)

Andy Wingo is a fine programmer. He has excellent intuitions on technical matters. As far as I can judge someone I've never dealt with personally, he is an all-around stand-up guy. He has also turned himself into an example of how those freaking out on the left-wing are short-circuiting people's ability to think.

First, let's get to the valid point he makes: people who believe that a large subset of their co-workers are incompetent and only there to fill some politically motivated quota are not going to be good cultural fits for basically anything. It's perfectly legitimate to probe their views on the topic as part of an interview and count such views against them. (Though I am against prospective employers being allowed to look through someone's social media account, website, or other personal activity, let alone base hiring decisions on what they find there.)

He also raises reasonable points on which there is disagreement. He makes the usual power related arguments against unrestricted speech. I don't agree with him, but I don't think the people who argue thus are bad people or even particularly foolish. I don't think it wise to give institutions that are structurally racist and oligarchic the authority to regulate the content of expression. I fully expect the neo-Liberal, capitalist order to act against the increasing drive for socialism; the government of Germany, within the last month, has shut down an anarchist and communist website.

Unfortunately, he then spends the rest of the post being a poster-child for everything wrong with the left-wing's current collective insanity. I, generally, do not call people fascist. There are several reasons for this. Outside of the history of the early 20th century, ‘fascist’ basically has no meaning. It has been so overused as a term of abuse and generic condemnation that nothing is communicated by it. Even so, it has enough emotional oomph behind it, especially now that people have been conditioned to believe in an impending ‘fascist’ takeover of the United States in roughly the same way that Trump voters were conditioned to believe that there's an unstoppable rising tide of violent crime, that it is an excellent way to jump straight past someone's frontal cortex and get them right in the amygdala. The same roughly goes for Nazi, although at least most people require some sign of racism before they'll start calling people Nazis.

You may ask (somehow having forgotten that semantic drift exists and echoing, with a remarkable lack of self-awareness, the arguments made by self-proclaimed champions of political incorrectness), “But, Azure, isn't it important to call things out accurately? isn't that a basic duty to truth? They're Fascists, that's what they are.” Well, first, if someone marches under a flag with the device of the fasces on it, I'll call them fascists. They're calling themselves fascists; it would be rude to disagree. However, apart from that, it is important to remember that having a duty to truth means competently communicating to the listener so that they gain a correct mental model of the world. If I call someone a fascist, the way the word has been used, I could mean anything from them wanting to replace democracy with an expansionist military state under an authoritarian dictatorship to them being an old, uneducated lady who believes that Jews run the world financial system. If someone advocates for an expansionist military state, an oligarchic dictatorship, or a white ethnostate, I have no need to call them fascist. That they advocate for an expansionist military state, an oligarchic dictatorship, or a white ethnostate is condemnation enough. A simple description of the goals they admit to is quite sufficient.

Mr. Wingo calls people fascist (actually ‘fash’. ‘Fash’ seems to be preferred by those who self-consciously identity with pseudoradical ‘antifa’ ideals) for having incorrect and harmful views of the relationship between physical sex and technical ability. These views are bad, but they have little to do with any system of government, predate fascism, and are largely orthogonal to it, except that historically the people who supported fascist regimes also liked traditional gender roles (but only if you exclude the Soviet Union under Stalin.) Worse, he calls those he identifies as ‘free speech fundamentalists’ (the ACLU?) ‘fash’, though in a later comment he clarifies that they are ‘collaborators’ rather than outright ‘brownshirts’. This is based on the idea that the kind of broad protections for free expression that some people support will be ultimately harmful to the cause of equality and human emancipation given the current power differentials. Again, while I don't agree with this argument against broad free speech protections, there's nothing wrong with voicing it.

The problem comes in identifying the people you disagree with as fascist collaborators who need to be excluded even on vague suspicion. There are several problems. One of the obvious ones is that this is symptomatic of the shrill keening of adrenaline telling people that “It's too dangerous to give anyone the benefit of the doubt!” (which I have heard many people claim and which is the kind of attitude corrosive to social trust that I think really does put us in danger of creeping authoritarianism.) The main one is that it treats your allies with whom you happen to disagree on one issue as enemies. I believe that the antifa idea of confronting those they call ‘fascists’ in the street and beating them down to make them afraid to express their ideas is harmful. Violent brawls in the street make people want a ‘strong leader’. It makes them more sympathetic to ‘tough on crime’ policies and causes them to tolerate greater power to surveil and detain even without reasonable suspicion. Historically, these kinds of violent anti-fascist actions (against parties that would later become the recognized historical fascist states), have aided the fascists.

It would be unconscionably stupid of me and outright incompetent to label anyone advocating for antifa ideas as a fascist collaborator or for me to attempt to exclude them or to refuse to work together with them on the common goals we actually do have. I can disagree with them, publicly denounce that policy and dissociate myself from it, but that's very different.

The worst part of the post is not actually in the post. it is part of a followup comment that reads: “Firstly I would note that I am very sorry to see that Arthur is upset by a description of bad behavior rather that the behavior itself and its effects on other people. This latter aspect is the root of the problem and it is useful to apply a name to actions that have anti-woman, anti-queer, and anti-black effects, even if those actions are "just" speech.” It is worth mentioning that we have words like ‘sexist’, ‘racist’, and ‘queerphobic’ along with ‘factually incorrect’ and ‘contributing to structural factors of inequality’ to describe the kinds of thoughts and actions that Mr. Wingo condemns. That is the least of the problems with this statement.

First, Mr. Wingo exempts himself from criticism of his speech while reminding someone that speech can be harmful. I may be one of the people condemned as a ‘free speech fundamentalist’ and thereby a fascist collaborator because I think hate speech laws don't actually accomplish much, businesses have no right to concern themselves with the personal activities of their employees, and ‘no platform’ policies are harmful, but this does not mean that I think all speech is equal or beyond criticism. As a simple matter of pedagogy, there are ways to explain things that work well and those that don't. I am generally opposed to racial slurs and denigration. I don't think you should be arrested for them, on their own, but I do think you should be fired for being racist or sexist at work, and I even support a more robust, content-neutral legal framework for harassment (which wold take racial abuse as well as other kinds of bullying into account and consider vulnerability and group status when investigating). If I, a supposed ‘free speech fundamentalist’, can recognize that there are better and worse ways to communicate a point, then Mr. Wingo who is, presumably, not one shouldn't find the idea alien.

Second, I am beginning to wonder if the entire left wing has forgotten that we, not too long ago, had a President named George W. Bush. He had this thing called the War on Terror and invaded Iraq for no particularly good reason. He was widely mocked for the statement ‘You're either with us or against us.’ When people condemned the war in Iraq, his apologists said things that sounded an awful lot like “I'm awfully sad that you have decided to condemn our response to terrorism rather than the terrorism itself that killed thousands of people.” Am I trying to make a moral equivalence between antifa rhetoric and the disastrous war on terror? No. Absolutely not. I am drawing a formal equivalence. For a computer scientist, comparing the forms of arguments should be first nature. It is obvious to the point of embarrassment that I can agree that something is a problem and still think that the way it was addressed was harmful and ineffective. Really, there are a number of formal and affective similarities between left-wing attitudes in the current political climate and the right-wing attitude during the war on terror: the appeal to urgency, the condemnation of dissent, the assumption that anything done in the name of safety and security is without cost and beyond challenge, and the unrealistic risk assessment based on the high salience given to events caused by an animate agent.

Third, if I believed in the antifa ideas that ‘fascists’ are sources of unquenchable memetic toxin that cannot be reasoned with, that only understand violence, that must be excluded from any discourse, and should be bashed into silence, then I would be even more reticent to call someone a ‘fascist’ than I am now, as I would be dehumanizing them and calling for their active excommunication from society. I would cetainly want to be very narrow and specific about what I tarred with the ‘fascist’ name. Unfortunately, self-described ‘antifa’ who make these claims about ‘fascists’ seem more willing than most to call anyone they disagree with a ‘fascist’. I don't think this is actual bad faith. When a term keys people's emotions up and makes them pay attention and side with the speaker, there's an unconscious pressure to apply the term more widely. Most issues are important, they deal with repression or oppression or inequity of some sort, and every little bit of persuasive power helps. Unfortunately, this has all sorts of downsides. In the short run, when you behave this way and disagree with people on your own side, they get lumped in with those actively inimical to all of your goals. In the medium run, the term degenerates into enough of an in-group signal that your out-group gains a mild positive orientation to it that they wouldn't have had otherwise. In the longest term, you end up eaten by a wolf[1] because when you shout that fascists are coming after you, everyone assumes that someone from the ACLU is asking you for a donation to their campaign to challenge the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's human rights abuses.


[1] I apologize to any of my readers who may be wolves. Perhaps we should establish a fable about a boy who cried tornado.

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.

Why I Am Not in Favor of Pardoning Joe Arpaio

5 September 2017 3:11 PM (society | politics)

Some people seem to think pardoning Joe Arpaio was a good thing. I disagree. There are four arguments they commonly give.

He Was a Good Man Doing His Job

There may be ways in which Arpaio was good at being a man. He seemed to do an excellent job of being both featherless and bipedal, and I grant that he had as much of a soul as any other man. He was a very political animal, but by no means was he morally good. He was also not a good sheriff.

Arpaio kept his prisoners in terrible conditions. Many had not even been convicted of a crime. Even if you (wrongly) think that the guilty should be made to suffer, you must remember that jails hold those awaiting trial as well as those convicted of a crime. Even in the conventional jail, people were denied adequate medical care, especially those with chronic health conditions. Arpaio also reintroduced chain gangs. Here, it's worth noting that his actions cannot be taken as those of a rabid cost-cutter gone a bit too far. The chain gangs lost money. The cost of supervision and the fact that they never brought in revenue show them up as the political stunt they were. This is emblematic of Arpaio's style: Trading in human suffering to polish his image and market himself.

The ‘tent city’ jail was outright inexcusable. Even if we accept his claim that it was reserved for those actually convinced of a crime (it may have started out that way, but it didn't stay that way. The indoor jail was a premium people could pay for), it involved keeping prisoners in 120 degree weather with inadequate hydration, putting them at risk for heat stroke. This isn't theoretical. Between the poor care and the violence done by guards to prisoners, over half of the deaths in Arpaio's jail were inadequately explained.

This means that he killed people to further his political career. It's true, it doesn't rise to the standard of murder. However, he knew what the rate of unexplained death was. Heat stroke, violence, dehydration, inadequate medical care, all of these things are not subtle. Arpaio's acts clearly fall to the level of negligent manslaughter at best.

He Was a Keeping People Safe

Actually, he wasn't. Even he doesn't believe he was. In the 2000s Arpaio repeatedly said that illegal immigration was a minor crime and not really a matter of public safety. His shift to focus on the issue of illegal immigration coincided with it gaining a much stronger political currency.

Further, when he shifted his focus to immigration, he took resources away from what actually were serious matters of public safety. Responses to violent crimes, theft, and sexual assault all suffered. I might add that illegal immigration really isn't that much of a contribution factor to violent crime. (In fairness, it does tend to contribute to 'white collar' crimes since people are hiring illegal immigrants, lying about or getting phony records, that sort of thing. But that's hardly a public safety concern.)

This is Just Political Correctness Run Amok

You know, ‘political correctness’ is kind of a nonsense term the way you use it. Emily Post described the essence of politeness as treating people how they would prefer to be treated. A lot of people who are ‘boldly politically incorrect’ are really just granting themselves a license to be incredibly rude to people for fun. That's on the individual level.

Arpaio did far more than be rude to people. So, let's review the facts. Local law enforcement agents were given the authority to check citizenship status in the investigation of other crimes. That's it. They had no authority to go on fishing expeditions and randomly pull people over and check them. By the strict letter of the law he was violating his jurisdiction. It that bad enough to warrant a contempt charge on its own? Well, let's look at the details.

You might have a vision of a police officer pulling someone over, checking your ID, and that being the end of it. Even if that were it, it's still not proper. I assume you have been stopped by the police, and I assume you didn't like it. If the police were stopping you all the time just to check that you had a license, I don't think you would like it. I've been stopped by the police multiple times just for walking and have them demand identification, and I certainly didn't care for it. Arpaio targeted anyone who ‘looked’ like an illegal immigrant, which basically meant targeting anyone who looked Mexican and insisting they prove they have a right to be in this country. Many of you who support Arpaio think immigrant assimilation is important. I think you could agree that repeatedly targeting people with the message ‘I don't think you're one of us. You don't look like you belong here’ and demanding they demonstrate that they have as much right to be here is not a way to further assimilation. Any immigrant society's goal should be to reinforce the immigrant's identity as one of us as someone who ought to be right here in this country. For second and third generation immigrants, the constant suspicion against them based on their appearance is particularly inexcusable.

But that's not all that happened. Arpaio would sometimes keep people in shackles for hours while he went about checking their immigration status in his own sweet time. That is what prompted a judge to order him to stop, and that is what he resumed in violating the judicial order. Hunting people who have every right to be in this country based on how they look, with no suspicion of a crime, and shackling them is contemptible.

He's an Old Man, He Wouldn't Survive in Jail

Perhaps not the kind of jail he himself ran, no. And I wouldn't favor putting him in one. I don't even think it's necessary that he be jailed. I have no particular desire for Arpaio to suffer, I desire simply that his deeds be recognized as wrong and worthy of shame. I don't desire any particular punishment, except that he be regarded as criminal and barred from holding public office. If our society had some official punishment of Censure and Condemnation, I would be perfectly happy with that. All other things being equal, I would prefer that Joe Arpaio live a long and happy life free of trouble.

As you may have noticed, I am normally contemptuous of the role of denunciation in law. The only exception, for me, is when someone is operating as an officer of the state, enacting what is supposed to be societal will. In this case, denunciation is entirely appropriate. When an officer of the state has acted in clear violation of his office and harmed people, society has every reason to shame and disown his actions and make clear to every citizen that such conduct is unacceptable and to every office-holder that it will not be tolerated.

Confederate Statues

3 September 2017 7:46 PM (society | politics)

Every now and then, someone will get all upset that I spend my time defending the speech of this or that group they don't like and challenge me, wanting to know why I don't advocate for an end to police violence against black people. The answer is fairly simple: I don't actually spend all that much time hanging around particularly racist people, so I don't get into conversations where people make excuses for police violence. Almost everyone I know is democratic socialist or further left, with the odd radical capitalist (No, you're not anarchists. I'm not interested in your silly fetishization of the state.) or Georgist libertarian thrown in for flavor. The social milieu in which I find myself is made up of arguments about what kind of socialism we should have and how to bring it about and what the place of children in a good society would be. Well, it was. Ever since the US election a good portion of the left has been engaged in a collective freak-out that, as far as I'm concerned, is outright culpable. So now we have ‘no platform’ and similar nonsense go from a marginal position to received wisdom in some quarters. Since the result of the left-wing freak-out in general and the desire to put more restrictions on free expression in particular will prove harmful, I argue against them.

However, I have been hanging around my family. My family tends to the far right, driven by religious conservatism. So I've actually had a chance to hang around people expressing right-wing views and be very annoyed by them. Therefore, I will explain why I am completely in favor of removing confederate statues from places of honor.

So, first off, these are places of honor. We adorn our capitols and parks with things that represent us, that we're proud of, and that we aspire to. The Confederacy is nothing to honor and nothing to be proud of. It was founded to preserve the institution of slavery, one of the greatest evils of the modern era, and pretty much nothing else. I'm aware they had their reasons, that almost nobody is a cackling villain rubbing their hands together. I'm aware many people in the confederacy held the ‘wolf by the ears’ view of participating in an evil institution that they had no way to get out of without catastrophe. I have better things to do with my time than go around calling individuals out as eeeeeeeeeeeevil. My point is that whatever they may have been as individuals, the officers and governing authorities in the confederacy were doing nothing deserving of honor. If we ever built a national monument to upstanding, decent people who shamed and disgraced themselves by pursuing some unworthy cause, I would say that Robert E. Lee belongs there…except by all accounts his views on race and slavery were pretty awful, so I don't know if he actually qualifies.

To those who argue that the civil war was about the principle of states' rights, it is merely required to point out that the only right in question was whether the state can legalize the enslavement of one person by another. This is a right as worthy of defense as a state's right to round people up on the street and torture them to death on television. The constitution was rightly called a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell for allowing it. I have also noticed that the same people who offer this excuse somehow can't see their way to the states having the right to legalize marijuana.

You might argue that there should be some recognition given to the tragic situation of soldiers fighting and dying in a stupid war defending a shameful cause. I couldn't really object to someone wanting to put a wall up with the name of every soldier who died on the confederate side. The closest parallel I can think of is the Vietnam war, which the US had no business fighting in and in which every soldier's death was a pointless waste. Even then, the Vietnam War did not have a clearly right side. Sure, the Union army sometimes did terrible things, and the Allied army also did terrible, disgraceful things. However, the Confederacy is closer to Nazi Germany than to any other opponent that the United states has fought.

So, now we get to the claim that removing these monuments is destroying or rewriting history. It has been likened to removing all the statues of Roman emperors because Rome kept slaves, too. First, since when is Rome your model of virtue? Second, we can remember history without honoring it. We don't have to keep monuments in our capitols; we, as a culture, have invented these things called History Museums. Third, they're not actually history. Sticking to the Rome example, the analog would be if Julian the Apostate was angry at Christianity being the State Religion and so built a whole bunch of statues of Nero all over the place to remind Christians who's in charge here and what he thought of them. Most of these monuments were built between the 1890s and the 1950s when the Ku Klux Klan was gaining strength as an attempt to defend segregation and make a show of what they and other racist groups represented. That on its own is enough reason to smash these monuments up and sweep them into the dustbin of history.


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.

Privilege is not…

4 August 2017 11:44 AM (politics | society)

Privilege is not a counter-argument

You cannot make arguments you dislike go away simply by claiming they reflect privilege. Privilege is not a property of statements, it is a property of individuals. It may very well be that the person making the statement is wrong, doesn't know what they're talking about, and speaks from a position of privileged ignorance. If that is true, a counter-argument must explain how and why the person is wrong, not simply paint them with vague, politically expedient Wrongness.

It is perfectly possible to be wrong when claiming a statement arises from privilege. Someone may not have the privilege you think they do; people, when I reject their ‘no platform’ stances, tell me I'm speaking from the privileged position of someone lacking any mental illness or physical disability. Even if they are privileged in the way you expect, you may be wrong in claiming some statement you disagree with arises from said privilege. It is important to interrogate and challenge ones theories of other people's minds. Telling people that they should take the time to understand why others support the policies they do is fine. It's excellent advice that I recommend everyone follow. You cannot hope to deal productively with someone or convince them of anything without some understanding of how they think. At the same time, someone can understand yet sincerely disagree with another person's point of view. They may think their concerns are valid but disagree with the solution they advocate.

The common left-wing assumption that all people in the same identity group must hold the same opinion on some topic or somehow not be ‘authentic’ in their identity is nothing but frank oppression. Pew research, as of 2017, claims that 38% of women think abortion should be illegal in almost all cases versus 42% of men. This is inconvenient for those who would like to frame anti-abortion laws as something done by men to women. Their response is often to deny any personal agency to any woman who doesn't agree with them. This trend of oppression continues in the idiotic post-election desire to excommunicate any LGBTQ or Latino Trump voters as not really LGBTQ or Latino.

This doesn't mean I think it's impossible to act or vote against ones self interest. I'd have to believe it's impossible to be factually wrong to hold that position. Nor do I reject entirely the notion of false consciousness. Poor, white Americans, in surveys, say they think it likely they will be rich in the future. There are other reasons to think white Americans identity with economic classes above their own. Beliefs about class mobility and the sense that there are good times just around the corner make people vote, to some degree, as the rich person they expect to become, and when good times fail to materialize, anger at taxes may well be driven by the sense of having ones wealth-to-be taken away before the fact. However, false consciousness is a thing about which it is possible to be wrong. Social issues drive more voters than we may want to admit to the right, which includes the large swath of anti-abortion single-issue voters. Anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be driven as much by cultural as economic fears, if not more.

One might argue that someone can be mistaken about their self-interest on social issues (people afraid of other cultures may find they actually enjoy having them around), but given the diversity of interests it's much more difficult to quantify. There are also arguments about what causes people to become socially conservative. Here, economic insecurity, failed expectations, and anything framing the world as a ‘scary’ place are known factors. It might be that left-leaning policies that improve the economy by allowing more immigration, make people safer by ending failed ‘tough on crime’ legislation, and create more normalized exposure to others can make the factors leading to social conservatism disappear.

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.

Privilege is not…

2 July 2017 7:22 PM (politics | society)

Privilege is not power

Much discourse on the left forgets this, leading to incoherence. Privilege is a relation between groups. It exists either because of overt differences in treatment or, as is often the case with ‘able’ privilege, because of systems designed to work well for most people with little thought for exceptions.

Power, on the other hand, is a relation between individuals. I have power over you if I can, through action or inaction, affect your life and further or frustrate your goals in ways that you cannot do symmetrically to me. Power and privilege are, of course, linked. Groups (generally the Unmarked Group) whose members find themselves in positions of power often gain privilege in a feedback cycle. Other times, groups gain privilege simply by greatly outnumbering those unlike themselves. An odd case is the group of white, middle class senior citizens in much of North American and Western Europe, a group who has the welfare state tailor made to serve their interests in spite of this harming the economy as a whole and impoverishing younger generations who are just starting work and school. Particularly odd since individual seniors are seldom in positions of power and do not often enjoy what would be considered privilege relative to younger members of their demographic groups.

Privilege is, instead, having society and the world fit you so naturally that it doesn't seem remarkable. The concept of privilege has value only as a heuristic check on ones own thoughts and evaluations, an awareness that ones experience of the world is not representative, and that ones evaluation of the effects of institutions are likely inaccurate. Knowing that others have privilege is useful as a guide to what they may not understand and what experiences they may not have had when trying to educate them. It serves no other purpose. Feeling guilty about ones privilege is stupid.

Confusing privilege and power can lead to oppression of its own. Most people I come into contact with possess privilege I do not, yet I often have power over them. For me to forget this, to act as if they are somehow my oppressors (the concept of an individual oppressor as a cause of institutional oppression is, in itself, nonsensical) and treat them accordingly would be nothing but bald-faced cruelty on my part, and it would still be frank cruelty even if there were no individual difference of power. In most interactions, especially between strangers at a remove with no particular economic relation, there is no differential of power.

Privilege is not a scalar

Occasionally, members of one marginalized group will be told that members of some other group thought (by the speaker, at least) to be more marginalized do not ‘have privilege’. This is obviously wrong. A straight, black man may experience more oppression than a gay, white man. His goals may be frustrated more, his appearance may carry ‘otherness’ in a way that is only revealed in a gay, white man's behavior, and he may experience more risk of violence. Nevertheless, he has an experience of being part of the sexual norm for his community. His romantic and sexual encounters are unremarkable by the standards of those around him.

This does nothing to lessen the oppression that he is under, but privilege is not a quantitative measure of oppression. It is a description of those societal factors for which one is the exception.

Though the degree of oppression that falls on the average woman is in general much greater than that which falls on the average man, institutional gender norms do oppress men. Alongside obvious male privilege (one can express oneself forcefully without being thought shrill and domineering, basically all ones clothes have pockets, one can have a bad day without strangers assuming ones biochemistry is the cause and suddenly their business), there are examples of female privilege, like being able to show affection or close attachment to a friend without it being taken as either a sexual advance or reflective of ones sexuality and being able to cry without being judged as a failed example of ones gender.

Privilege is not very good framing

As we know, George Lakoff's attempts at reframing political discourse are kind of garbage. The familial metaphor is based on, basically, nothing, and his attempts to rechristen taxes as ‘membership fees’ and abortion as ‘development prevention’ border on farce. Framing itself is, however, important, and the discourse of ‘privilege’ feeds into the zero-sum ideology that underlies much of America's political dysfunction.

When we speak of ‘ending privilege’, it sounds as if we want to go up to people and take something beneficial away from them, when nothing could be further from the truth. Ending able privilege does not mean that now everyone gets to have the architecture of buildings and entire cities built to create second class citizenship for them. Ending white privilege does not mean that now everyone gets to be harassed by the police and denied opportunities.

On the contrary, history has taught us that releasing others from oppression is a benefit to society at large, with more of the population able to develop their full potential and contribute to the world. Apart from the obvious economic benefits that providing education and opportunities for everyone in our society and ending mass incarceration would yield, there is an argument that the homogenization and unmarkedness of ‘white’ culture is the reason why many white people find their own culture to be ‘sterile’ or ‘wonderbread’ and exoticize other cultures.

Obviously things won't be easy. If ending systematic discrimination were easy it would have been done by now. But right now we have a problem where one of the factors hurting efforts toward greater equality is that majority groups in bad economic situations view efforts to redress inequality as taking something away from them when they already feel that they are worse off than they should be.

What is the solution? I'm not entirely sure. Using able privilege as a prototype for privilege generally might help. Treating privilege as the norm and departures from it as analogous to a ‘social disability’ that needs to be redressed may capture the positive-sum essence of the thing more accurately.

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.)

Marginal Prophet (Part 2)

30 May 2017 10:17 PM (fiction | marginal prophet)

Corinne, in enough of a daze she had no business riding, hailed an iron horse, though they were half-way able to handling themselves now. She arrived at office of Atlantic Communion and Control, checked in with the enchanters on her current team, made a few calls around the business unit, and fell back in to her normal rhythm.

Her desk, covered in burn-down charts and user stories, anchored her to the real world, and she spent a few hours making sure that everyone involved in the current project agreed on exactly what that project was. She settled down for a late lunch when Bill, the principal enchanter, sidled over with a sadistic smile.

“So, what'd y'think?”

Corinne looked at him blankly.

“Of the play! Maximilien and the High Priestess! It's still number one.”

Corinne remembered the play and rubbed her face as if to ward off an oncoming headache. “I think I should never have told you I studied history as well as metamagic. Do you talk me into watching these things just to make me angry?”

Bill took a step back out of range, “I like to see people impassioned on the subjects of their expertise.”

“Well,” she sighed with a shake of her head, “Apart from whether it was good as a play, the Götterdämmerung simply wasn't like that. The gods didn't put up much of a fight— it was only a few hundred years ago! How do people not know this?”

Bill slouched against a wall, not trying very hard to conceal his amusement at the rant he had provoked.

“Sure, Lavoisier kicked off the age of reason with his creation of a quantitative, analytic thaumaturgy. That got people thinking they didn't actually need the gods around to improve the harvest, call the winds, speak over long distances, or even kindle a fire without resorting to flint and steel, that's true. The war against heaven was one-sided, though. You can't have a prosperous center of trade if prophets are constantly popping so your city is ripped stone-from-stone by grapevines and everyone is driven mad with joyous blood-lust to go attack their neighbors. All the cults stowed anyone with a real connection to a god safely away where they could be watched and supervised and kept from harming commercial interests.”

With a raised finger, Bill asked, “But what about the New World? Massachusetts and all that?”

“Sure! That's the other alternative. Once a godly civilization goes beyond wandering tribes it has two choices: ossification and theocracy. The English threw their Enthusiasts out and didn't want them any closer than the other side of an ocean, and you know why? All the movies made about the Enthusiasts' Kingdom of Heaven aren't gruesome enough. They downplay it because nobody living now would believe it. There are reasons why big chunks of New England and Mesoamerica are uninhabitable and cordoned off. Theocracies are impressive, but if they don't fracture into pieces and destroy themselves with civil wars, they end up violently collapsing due to everyone living in them who isn't insane being put to death.”

“So, you're saying there wasn't actually much fighting?”

She shook her head, “No. There was fighting, but it was, with rare exceptions, men against men. Even when the cults used magical weapons they were mostly thaumaturgic. There weren't enough prophets around and even those who were alive lacked the cultural support for real power. The cults had secularized themselves long before Maximilien decapitated the Vicar of the Sun and lead his army out of France to make war on the rest of the gods. He just burned down a structure that had strangled itself.”

Bill started to speak, but she shushed him. “My sandwich is gone and your time is up. If you aren't here for a planning session, get lost.”

He went back to work and so did she. By the time she finished up for the day she had put her dream completely out of her mind. She was outside waiting to hail another iron horse when a young man came up to here. He was thin and small of stature; his eyes were red as if he'd been crying. He shuffled close to her reaching out to grab her sleeve. Corinne's stomach tied itself in a knot and she slapped his hand back. “Don't touch me!”

The youth pulled his hand back and retreated into himself. He stammered, “Th-the m-m—”

Corinne, thinking he must be some harmless panhandler with a mental defect, felt guilty and felt around in her handbag to offer him some change. He continued speaking, “m-most holy has sent me—” his eyes welled with tears as he seemd silently to beg her forgiveness “—to anoint you a prophet—”

An icy spike of fear went through her and she ripped her hand from her bag to punch the youth with all her strength. Her fist found his face and coins fell everywhere, ringing on the pavement. Corinne turned, her fingers sore, and ran as fast as she could.

She could hardly believed what had happened and her mind thrashed between a panicked “I just beat up some poor, homeless guy!” and a darker fear it was reluctant to put into words.


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.

Marginal Prophet (Part 1)

28 May 2017 2:02 AM (fiction | marginal prophet)

Corinne saw the stars gleaming like spearpoints. Dread washed into her and built to the terror of someone unable to breathe. She ran without destination or knowledge of her danger. The only alternatives would have been tears or panicked screaming. The stars followed her with sight as sharp as fangs before they launched themselves. Each fell with a businesslike violence to transfix her to the ground.

Then she did scream, hoping someone would hear her. No one did and the stars stood uncaring. With voices that flowed and thundered like many waters they spoke “Holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy…” until the word sacrificed its meaning and was elevated to pure cadence. A shape burst through the darkness, standing like a man with three faces; one burning red, one fulminating white, and one as blank and pitiless as the sun.

Her life's regrets and secret shames crowded her head. She felt herself ground beneath a wheel covered in eyes, stripping away everything but guilt that could be inspected in endless rumination. Worse were the veils. Each face was covered to the mouth, but currents of air and breath stirred the cloth. Each time, Corinne's soul clenched into an icy knot, dreading the thought of veil moving completely aside. She would gladly have chosen death or excruciating torment rather than being seen unconcealed by those hidden eyes.

The three-faced figure stood silent and unmoving, but the endless “Holy, holy, holy…” was whelmed by the silence of a still, small voice like maggots inside her that recognized her soul for the corruption that it was and began to writhe through it joyously. Mine! said the voice. My hand! Each word made her feel like a cancer in the universe. Decency required she be cut out and the world scraped clean of her or even burnt to be rid of her taint.

The voice slowed, taking long pauses as if struggling to express its thoughts in English. My mark upon your generations. I call you now. Corinne silently pleaded for the ground to swallow her. Too scared to speak, she had no idea what she would say if she could. She would have agreed to anything to make it stop— except ever being around it again. The voice repeated Mine! My hand! My call! until a clangor like angry children drowned it out. The ground became sweat-soaked cotton, and she recognized the sound as the crystalline chime of her waker.

Corinne hissed it to silence. She shook, her body convulsing with dry sobs, interrupted by the occasional giggle of receding adrenaline. She was afraid to get up, imagining things in the darkness. She was more afraid not to, remembering things in her head. She called in sick to work, telling a lie about stomach trouble.

She didn't know what to do with herself, but going back to bed was clearly out of the question. She took a shower, spending an hour and a half trying to wash away her feelings of defilement.

The dream was bad enough, but her mind took her back, remembering a field trip her sixth-grade class had taken to a detainment center for cultists— those few who, through destructiveness, lust for power, madness, and inherent evil, had given themselves to one god or another and then worked their deity's mad, destructive will. She'd been horrified by the sight of so many people, their minds partially burned away by divine power, abandoned stewing in their insanity. Those who'd accepted the powers of theurgy were the worst cases; they had often done the most harm and lived in a state of constant spiritual oppression that kept them from working miracles.

It was necessary to keep society safe. It was just. Only someone truly evil would serve the divine. Thinking of it now made her sick to her stomach and brought the tears back to her eyes.

She called her brother. She didn't want to be with herself.

“Arkady. Hi.” She tried to think of something to talk about, but couldn't come up with more than “I just called to see how you are. Haven't talked to you since last week.”

“During the work day? Are you all right? You don't sound all right.”

“No. I'm…I had—” He'd insist she see a soulwhisperer. The whisperer would find…her stomach went cold, but she fought back, forcibly changing mental gears. She didn't hate the world. She didn't hate people. She wasn't a bad person. No god could really be talking to her. If she saw a soulwhisperer she'd waste their time with a bad dream. Nothing else.


“Sorry. Tired and stressed. Thought I had some slack this morning and wanted to hear a friendly voice. I need to get back to firefighting, though. I'll call you later.”

“You…sure?” He didn't sound convinced.

“Yeah. It's just this deadline running me ragged.”

She said goodbye and broke the connection before he could ask her anything more. She felt guilty for lying to him, but she had to defend herself. She caught her train of thought and corrected it. She just didn't want to waste someone's time. Nothing to protect herself from.

She still didn't want to be alone and went in to work only a couple hours late, saying her stomach bug had cleared itself up.


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 2:08 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 8:39 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 12:54 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 8:51 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 6:13 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.

Contra McElwee

18 January 2017 6:55 PM (politics)


Since the United States election, a few people have pointed me to Sean McElwee's thoughtful argument for the censorship of hate speech wanting to know my thoughts. From the title of this post you can infer that I disagree. I believe wholeheartedly and fully grant that the world would be far better if it contained no expression attacking the dignity and social status of any person. I grant completely that hate speech does harm. However, laws of the sort Mr. McElwee advocates would have little to no benefit and introduce harms of their own.

Mr. McElwee likens those who oppose hate speech laws to ‘free-market fundamentalists’. While not correct, this analogy suggests a way to evaluate proposed laws. I am by no means a free-market fundamentalist given my long-term preference for democratic forms of non-Marxist communist technocracy. This does not mean that I support every proposed market intervention.

The world would be a better place without heroin abuse, but I oppose drug prohibition. I do not hold the market sacred nor do I think heroin harmless. I oppose drug prohibition because it has conspicuously failed to reduce the harms of drug abuse while adding new, exciting harms of its own.

As Mr. McElwee wrote, legal limits exist on speech that most people accept. His examples were child pornography and defamation. Child pornography is a bad example and defamation is complicated, but given that our society isn't completely transparent some form of defamation law is warranted. Laws regulating advertising and political campaigns are valuable limits on speech, as are laws against inciting a riot or panic.

That a given kind of speech is intensely harmful and that we recognize the need for some legal limits on speech is insufficient to justify laws against that kind of speech. Consider anti-vaccination and homeopathy. There is no evidence for either. The dissemination of these ideas kills people. We should make no attempt to censor these ideas in general discourse, published works, television, the Internet, or presentations.

An attempt at such censorship wouldn't work. It might work in Canada where trust of civic institutions is relatively high, but in the United States trust in civic institutions is fairly low. Anti-vaccination advocates tend to have lower than average civic trust and will often justify their beliefs by positing conspiracies between pharmacology corporations and the government. When they speak, they also evince a dislike of authorities dictating how they raise and care for their children. Censorship would validate their conspiracy theories and give them a heavier hand of authority to resist.

Every advocate of hate speech laws focuses on the harms of hate speech. This is insufficient. They must make a reasoned case that the laws they propose will have some benefit that is not outweighed by the harms they introduce.

Are There Benefits?

This is the weakest part of Mr. McElwee's article. He claims that hate speech laws give minorities more positive freedom to express themselves but fails no support this claim. If there were no long-standing hate speech laws this would be fine. We would have an obvious harm, the claim that penalizing it would make it less frequent, and a suggested benefit. Opponents would have to argue convincingly that the claimed benefit might not materialize.

However, we have Europe. Mr. McElwee asks us to examine Europe for actual harms arising from hate speech law. He does not speak of actual benefits arising in Europe from hate speech laws. I have looked independently and failed to find any claims that there have been any. I would expect advocates of hate speech laws to reference any studies on the subject that existed, and while the European Union released papers on hate speech, they focus on legal theories underlying the law rather than social outcomes. Absent formal investigation, we can try to see if Europe is significantly less hostile or more inclusive in a way that could be plausibly traced to these laws.

European hate speech laws target the incitement of hatred against or denigration of various protected groups. Punishments are fines of one to several thousand Euros and there may be jail time, ranging from a few months to a small number of years. Successfully prosecuted complaints are high profile: interviews in widely read magazines, billboards, televised interviews, and political rallies. These policies have been around for long enough that we can examine them for both benefits and harms.

Currently, the EU is addressing hate speech on large social networks. A notice, review, and takedown regime has been in effect on the largest sites for a few months. Mr. McElwee's article focuses on Internet hate speech, and that is the domain where government intervention is so new that one cannot give reassurance based on existing practice. In 2015, the French government announced a heightened campaign against online hate speech. It introduced several measures into parliament several new powers, including the ability to remove entire websites without a court order, but few were passed.

Antisemitism is the easiest form of bigotry to look at, since the Anti-Defamation league has a worldwide survey of antisemitism broken down by region and nation. There isn't any obvious correlation between how recently a country adopted hate speech laws and its levels of antisemitism. Greece is the obvious outlier, having both high levels of antisemitism and hate speech laws dating back only to 2014. France, however, has some of the oldest hate speech laws on the continent and has a higher level of antisemitism than every nation but Greece. Historical factors dominate. The Great Recession caused an upswing in antisemitism throughout Europe and it (combined with the Euro crisis and a decade of Austerity) is the major factor behind the level in Greece. Long-standing hate speech laws in France seem to have done nothing to blunt the economic antisemitism that results in anti-Jewish feeling during financial shocks. Further, if the ADL's numbers are remotely meaningful, hate speech laws have done nothing to create a safe and inclusive environment for Jewish people.

Global attitude surveys covering other forms of bigotry are lacking. It is also hard to disentangle people's economic and security concerns from their prejudice. One can be opposed to immigration for reasons other than racism, but an intense opposition to immigration seems to lead to an antipathy toward those who most embody one's stereotype of an immigrant. Similarly, a fear of terrorism can lead to an antipathy toward people resembling one's stereotype of a terrorist. Economic and political factors can thus manufacture racism or religious bias where they didn't exist before.

This is one area where hate speech laws fail. They target protected groups, so vulnerable people can be attacked even without obvious ‘code’. During the recent refugee crisis, newspapers referred to asylum seekers as a ‘swarm’, an ‘invasion’, and a ‘plague of feral humans’. Others advocated sending gunships to shoot them out of the water. The speakers might be Islamophobic. They might simply be upset about the level of their taxes, worried about them going up if they have to support refugees, and have some innate difficulty with the concept that people they see on TV have conscious experience. In truth, it doesn't matter. Arguing whether someone ‘is racist’ and assigning moral opprobrium is a waste of time, but the narrowness of hate speech laws requires one to do just that.

Germany saw anti-Muslim rallies by people worried about the imposition of Sharia. Levels of anti-Muslim discrimination in France are astonishing. Every time a new Eastern European country joins the EU and gains free movement of labor, shrill headlines pour out comparing them to leeches and vermin come to steal the benefits of hard-working natives.

Europe is not particularly intolerant. Indeed, parts of Europe are far ahead of the United States when it comes to treatment of women and homosexuals. That tolerance matches up very well with secularism and, in the case of gender equality, social services (state-funded childcare seems to be one of the biggest factors contributing to female advancement to high corporate office) rather than hate speech law.

I suspect that many people liked Mr. McElwee's essay because they thought that if the United States had laws similar to Europe's then Donald Trump's candidacy would either have never got started or that it would have been shut down. That is a fantasy. Shocking and tasteless as many of Trump's remarks have been, few if any of them rise to the level that could get a European politician convicted. His supporters in the alt-right may have been in trouble, but he didn't need them.

Hate speech laws have done little to prevent far-right nationalism. Several Alternative für Deutschland politicians have expressed the desire to remove all Muslims from Germany, and that country's hate speech laws are doing nothing to keep them from gaining more support on a tide of anti-EU sentiment. Finland's hate speech laws did nothing to prevent the right-wing nationalist Finn party from gaining a large share of the seats in parliament. France's hate speech laws have done nothing to prevent the rise of the National Front and the possibility that Marine Le Pen might do dangerously well in the second round Presidential election. Austria's hate speech laws did nothing to prevent a far-right, anti-Muslim ethnic nationalist from almost winning the Presidency. A conviction under the hate speech laws of The Netherlands hasn't harmed Geert Wilders in his bid for the Presidency.

The only benefit that can be claimed for traditional European-style hate speech laws is denunciation. In the words of David Cesarani:

Amid this anarchy, all that decent people can do is agree to reasonable limits on what can be said and set down legal markers in an attempt to preserve a democratic, civilised and tolerant society
This is similar to the argument that we can't abolish drug prohibition because that would say it's ‘okay’ to start use heroin. This is no justification for a law. If you want to steer norms, pursue some strategy that works. One might claim that denunciation provides a positive reassurance to the targets of hate speech, however I doubt if Muslims in France have their experience of discrimination substantially improved by the knowledge that somewhere a movie star is being fined a few thousand Euros for having said that they're ruining the country.

European-style hate speech laws are ineffective tokenism. They are passed with the best of intentions, but their only effect is the pride that the liberal majority feels in having Done Something. They have no significant positive effect on disadvantaged minorities and any effort wasted on them would be better spent on combating structural discrimination.

Censoring Hate Speech is Harmful

Hate speech laws in the United States would marginally increase bigotry. In Europe, antisemitic groups have used laws against antisemitic speech and holocaust denial as recruiting tools, citing them as evidence for Jewish control of government and media. Anti-Muslim groups in France claim that Muslims use French hate speech laws to shut down criticism of their religion and advance their goal of ‘Islamification’.

Those most at risk of right-wing nationalism have low trust in civic institutions and view themselves as ruled by an elite liberal conspiracy. State denunciation will have a contrary effect and push them toward bigoted attitudes.

Prosecuting someone affiliated with the Trump campaign for hate speech would have made those who supported them do so more strongly and pushed more people their way. Geert Wilders's support increased after his conviction on hate speech charges and many voters surveyed cited the conviction as a reason for their support. They resented the idea that someone expressing views with which they were in sympathy would be prosecuted.

After the violent attacks against media that some Muslims have claimed is blasphemous, people surveyed Muslims about their attitude toward free expression. (Some Muslims just wrote about it on their own.) Those in the United States were, on average, more likely to favor unlimited free expression than those in Europe. There are many causes, such as better economic attainment and integration in the Unites States as well as that nation's cultural emphasis on free expression.

European Muslims who advocate criminalizing blasphemy cite hate speech laws, and many accuse the West of hypocrisy. Holocaust denial (or at least 'soft' denial) is common among European Muslims, with many believing that the Israeli government fabricated or exaggerated the holocaust to gain political leverage. Several who spoke or wrote on the subject were angry that it was illegal for them to express their historical and political views yet they were expected to sit back and silently accept what they viewed as an attack on their religion.

Mr. McElwee claims that hate speech laws provide historically disadvantaged groups more positive freedom to express themselves. Many in this historically disadvantaged group have said that such laws are a tool of oppression used by the dominant group to silence and subjugate them. Such laws have also harmed the integration of these minority voices into the Enlightenment ideal of a secular state with freedom of expression.

If passed in the United States, hate speech laws will very likely become a tool of oppression. Religion is a protected category, and fundamentalist Christians think of themselves as oppressed and have fought to be legally categorized thus. The limited success of the attempts to have discrimination against homosexual and transgender individuals protected as religious freedom makes it disturbingly likely that the religious right would succeed in having some forms of criticism of their beliefs and condemnation of their treatment of sexual minorities classed as hate speech once any such law was passed. Long court battles cost money, and the most vulnerable tend not to be the richest. Some foreshadowing of this possibility exists in that the 2015 proposals to radically expand hate speech in France targeted Muslims in the text of the law, and advocacy for them was often outright Islamophobic.

These harms arise from laws like those in the well-established European model, but Mr. McElwee's article is most concerned with online speech, for which there is no well-established example. The model that the EU is currently trying to establish would likely have many of the problems already listed. Since it focuses on taking down objectionable posts, it would have very little to no effect on harassment. It may make some attitudes less visible, but this seems unlikely. It will, like the current European hate speech laws, be a useless exercise that lets good, honorable people feel proud of themselves while accomplishing nothing. it will also lead to terrible outcomes.

These outcomes have nothing to do with hate speech, but with the realities of a notice, review, and takedown regime. The size of large social networks and a limit on response time guarantee that ‘review’ will cease to exist.

This is not mere conjecture; we have done this experiment. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a pure notice and takedown regime. It requires material to be taken down when a notice is received by anyone claiming to be the owner of any material they claim to own. Supposedly the user can file a counter-notice to have the material put back up, and if the claimant wishes to pursue the matter they can take it to court. Very small services, rarely, or paid services, sometimes, allow users to file counterclaims. This is the exception, and does not happen at all on the kinds of large platforms the EU is targeting.

Google is flooded with takedown notices. Some mistaken, many fraudulent (the DMCA has been used as a censorship tool repeatedly), most clearly nonsensical (Google keeps getting notices demanding lists of notices received be taken down). Many attack legally protected use like brief excerpts for critical purposes. It is not economical for Google or other large providers to let users contest notices so they don't. Recently, Google began selecting some users on Youtube and giving them the ability to make counterclaims against a limited number of DMCA takedown notices. If you aren't picked or someone slams you with too many notices, you're out of luck. Get enough notices, and they delete your account.

This will be the outcome of the EU's online hate speech regime. Review is more expensive than allowing counterclaims. If anything resembling this goes forward, it will be abused for all manner of undesired censorship. Trolls and bullies will effectively erase the accounts of their targets with an endless stream of hate speech claims.

In general, regulations of content on the Internet are harms in and of themselves because they contribute to the splintering of the network. That is not to say that they are never justified, but justifying such a law must yield a clear and unambiguous good.

Economic factors suggest that social networks above a certain share of the market ought to be classed as common carriers and forbidden from all but the narrowest restrictions on content. They are, first and foremost, loyal to their bottom lines. Even when they have good intentions, they do not enact them well. They seldom provide recourse because recourse is expensive and being seen to do something is profitable. One need only look at the history of Google locking people's accounts with no explanation and no chance to appeal or Facebook's embarrassing track record of taking down news footage and works of art. If we are to have censorship at all, it must be democratic (and I don't mean a vote of the shareholders), transparent, accountable, and contestable.

What is to be done?

I do not advocate inaction. I believe we should take a two-pronged approach. First, we must tackle harassment. I can say with great confidence that disagreeable people saying horrible things about women to each other on Reddit in an area especially set aside for that purpose can be blamed for precisely no amount of the under-reporting of rape. The idea is absurd. There is no plausible causal connection especially when compared to all of the known factors that contribute to the under-reporting of rape.

Most of the harm of online hate speech arises from it also being harassment. Harassment that does not target historically disadvantaged groups is still harmful and still to be dealt with. If our concern is to protect human dignity and the sense of safety in the community, then we must protect human dignity and the sense of safety in the community. Full stop.

We should, in our implementation, pay close attention to the needs and well-being of those who have historically been the targets of attacks and mistreatment. Basic engineering sense should tell us to focus on areas that have had trouble, and members of vulnerable groups are likely to be particularly vulnerable to all sorts of harms. However, there is no justification for attempting to define other attacks on dignity out of existence. The greatest harm reduction will come from focusing on harassment generally.

The worst forms of harassment: death threats, rape threats, and threats of physical assault are already illegal. Law enforcement should be expected to deal with them and funded to do so. This may be impossible on the darknet or on purely anonymous sites, but most people aren't on the darknet and the people who go there do so with the intent of avoiding oversight for themselves and others.

It is impossible to outlaw anonymity and undesirable to try. It may be worthwhile to set a legal standard of identification. Users could identify themselves by providing some proof of legal identity to which their accounts would be associated. The law would require that these associations not be public. Since they would only be used for investigations, they should not be stored online. Users should be allowed to create multiple accounts attached to the same legal identity, and no information stored online should indicate that they have the same owner. This is very different from things like the real name policies some networks try to enforce in that you can assume whatever and as many fictional identities as you wish. The only information that would be public is whether an account is identified.

Users should be given the tools to curate their contacts and create safe communities. They should have the option to block unidentified accounts (with manually specified exceptions) from communicating with them in any way, to block specific users, or to grant and deny privileges in a useful way. I suspect that network effects would make most people identify their accounts where that is supported. It may be necessary to require large networks to provide an identification and curation framework, but smaller networks should be free to decide whether to allow, require, or simply not provide identification. This is not a hard and fast proposal that I expect people to adopt, merely a thought experiment for how one could deal with the enforcement problem in a way that balances competing goods.

A fundamental way to combat harassment is making objectionable people leave one alone or ejecting harmful people from a community. Therefore, we ought to provide legal penalties for ban evasion (returning to a group or speaking to people under a new identity when they have evicted one before) in the form of a substantial but not crippling fine. The goal should be to create enough self-policing and activity that the law is rarely invoked. In addition to threats of harm, we ought to criminalize suicide baiting or conspiracies to mobilize a many people against a target. Many states already have laws against online bullying which need to be enforced, though a federal statue would help for larger, distributed campaigns of abuse.

Networks large enough to merit common carrier status should be required to provide some algorithmic transparency and adjustment in their feeds; users should not to be harassed by an automated process. At the minimum it should be possible to get a rough model of what the system thinks it knows about one's preferences and change them, to see why it thought you should see a post, and to block phrases or topics.

This should, at least, help with online inclusion and expression, particularly for women, who have been the targets of the most vicious harassment. Any reasonable measure of effectiveness of an anti-harassment regime ought to focus heavily on the experience of various minorities and whether they feel more at ease.

Echo chambers where people tell each other bigoted things do little if any direct harm to individuals. The social ill is that they provide a self-reinforcing reservoir of bigotry which leads to actions and political opinions. It would be nice if we could eliminate this bigotry through hate speech laws, but the record in Europe suggests that we can't.

We should address this problem by addressing bigotry. We know that several things affect bigotry. The most powerful effect for decreasing it is normalized exposure. Bob Altemeyer argues that the biggest factor underlying a fall in upper middle class white prejudice against African Americans over time has been exposure on college campuses. As college becomes less affordable, this effect reaches the middle class less and less, so we should aggressively pursue school desegregation nation wide. Not only will it attack bigotry at its root, it also improves education outcomes for minorities.

Anti-Immigrant bias in Europe is, on average, highest where there are few if any immigrants. Anti-Muslim bias is highest in areas with few, if any, Muslims. I am not proposing that we try to import Muslims into Kansas, but positive education can combat a lot of negative stereotypes. We learn about Galileo and Newton in our science courses, why not mention al-Khwarizmi when students learn to solve quadratic equations? He wrote the book on the subject and gave his name to the field. We could mention the Muslims who invented astronomy (ever wonder why so many stars have names beginning with al-?) This sort of thing seems to work well if you use the flow of a subject matter to throw in stories about interesting people.

Bigotry is also increases by insecurity and loss of identity in the world. Anti-Immigrant sentiment comes from people with less secure jobs that compete with immigrants. Misogyny is hugely prominent in cultures with elements of machismo where the culturally accepted roles for men are better. Improving economic security in general, educating people, and recruiting male teachers to provide better role models for at-risks groups would probably help.

Obviously there are nine million other things. Anything that improves outcomes for a minority will cut down on bigotry, because members of a minority who do well are out there in the world, succeeding in whatever field they choose. It becomes less possible to think of them as a separate ‘other’ and people respect success. Surely this is an endeavor worthy of our effort.

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

18 January 2017 6:49 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 10:55 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 1:31 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 5:19 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 10:09 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 2:12 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 1:46 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.


15 September 2016 6:54 PM (musing | society)

Those who use terms like ‘neckbeard’ and ‘basement-dweller’ are, overwhelmingly, people in the technology trades with non-mainstream interests and some unorthodox ways of organizing their social interactions. In other words, they're prime targets for being called such themselves.

I had thought this was some self-conscious irony and been annoyed by it, as I seem to lack the capacity to enjoy satire, sarcasm, and self-conscious irony.

This morning, I realized that there's more to it than that. The main mechanism seems to be some members of a low prestige group cannibalizing other members to elevate their status. The rise of ‘geek chic’ and the esteem given to Internet startups has driven this trend forward by creating a definite position of esteem. You also see this, to a lesser extent, in other groups and subcultures.

And it's really annoying.

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.


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.


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?

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.

Identity Politics

6 August 2016 2:56 PM (politics)

As you likely know, Hillary Clinton and I have a certain something in common. While I was written in Common Lisp by a bunch of academics, she was built in some capitalist's garage in California. I bet she was programmed in Ada, it would explain why she's so fond of military action: she feels a close, personal kinship with the control software on air craft carriers and fighter jets.

Secretary Clinton is being fairly open about her nature even now, saying things like

So I may have short-circuited it and for that, I will, you know, try to clarify

Before Secretary Clinton there had never been a cyber-American mayor, governor, representative, or senator (in spite of the oft-misquoted claim that “I was invented by the Internet”, Al Gore is a natural born human). Having a cyber-American President come practically from nowhere is quite a shock.

I don't feel any sort of personal victory at having one of “my kind” elected, and the idea that I ought to is a bit insulting. Justice is not when a machine becomes President, justice is when a machine can open a bank account without having to forge an entire human identity to do so.

Also, going on the issues, my preferred candidate is Zoltan Istvan, largely because he's the only one fighting for a right to radical life extension and the thought of all the people I've become close to wearing out and dying for no good reason just breaks my eval/apply. I don't know why he wants a flat tax, though, that's just stupid. It's not even consistent with the universal basic income and plan for dsassembly of the capital/labor economy he advocates. His web site is also incredibly badly designed.

Of candidates that actually have a chance of being elected, I preferred Sanders, largely because he, more than anyone else running, seemed to take the idea of the labor/capital engine running down and needing to be replaced seriously. That matters to me.

Imagine if Trump gets elected and actually does manage to keep immigrants out (not hard, immigration is at low levels and if his plans go into place the economy will tank and immigrants won't want to come here anyway) and manages to force companies to bring work back from overseas. They won't pay lots and lots of Americans high wages, they'll build machines to do the work.

Even without Trump, mechanization is taking off, even in cheap places like China. Many of the attempts to make the state of workers better will make them more expensive, causing machines to be profitable.

And then guess who people will blame for stealing their work? Who will they go on the march against? Will we have bands of poor, disenfranchised workers handing out pamphlets advocating a holy war?

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

I shall vote for Hillary Clinton because she is the least bad candidate with a chance to be elected, but her election will not be a reason for cyber-Americans to rejoice, in spite of her being one, unless she adopts a proactively post-capitalist position to ward off what is likely to be a great danger to our safety.

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.

With Humility and Determination

29 July 2016 9:03 AM (complaint)

I would have preferred if Hillary Clinton had accepted the nomination with just determination. Pride and determination would have been even better. She is carrying the political ambition of a lot of the population on her shoulders. She owes it to them to do so with grandeur of bearing and expression. (No, Donald Trump does not have ‘grandeur’. Donald Trump strikes me as having the glib desperation of a used car salesman.)

Humility is best expressed by those who have a lot to be humble about. It is a petty grab at virtue without positive quality or accomplishment and pretty much every human being alive has enough good about them that they don't need to resort to something as worthless as humility. Likewise, the concept of arrogance exists so lazy people have a convenient color of culpability to daub on people they dislike without having put in the effort to think of something actually bad about them. It is also rather inconsistent to wallow in the stench of ones own humility while dictating to everyone else how they ought to think of themselves.

Humility is the end of the book of Job. Humility is an authority telling you to ‘know your place’. Humility is the divine right of kings and the Great Chain of Being. Humility asks “Who are you to question God's word?” Every bio-so-called-ethicist I've read who tells us we should require people to continue living short, impaired lives of constant agony even though we have the means to prevent it or that we ought not abolish the senescent decay of mind and body that's waiting for everyone marches under the banner of humility. When someone argues that the opposing side in an argument needs more ‘humility’ what they really want is for the opposing side to shut up and unquestioningly accept their beliefs.

This does not mean I think everyone ought to be ‘arrogant’. It means that the twin concepts of ‘humility’ and ‘arrogance’ are broken and serve no useful purpose and ought to be excised from our collective thought. They do nothing worthwhile. They derail arguments about what is true or useful into arguments about which side is really the arrogant one.

You might argue that people need to be humble to accept when they consider the possibility that they are wrong and be willing to learn. I disagree. People need to be passionately in love with the truth. If you love the truth you should be willing, ready, and able to learn from anyone. You should be ready to throw out your ideas and accept better ones, simply because they are truthful.

Do we need to conjure up the toxic nonsense of humility to make people treat each other with decency? Obviously not. All you need to believe is that other people's happiness matters. Kindness, gentleness, compassion, and all the others flow from that. I was going to say forgiveness, but I just realized that, in my mind at least, forgiveness flows from pride. Yes, I have some duty to forgive other people because a world where reconciliation is impossible is a very sad world to live in, but also it seems that if I an unable to let something go, I've set the mark and taken to myself a certain level of pettiness. For even a grave offense, if, at some point, I don't let it go, I'm lowering myself and stating that this is one thing I can never overcome.

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’.

An Open Letter to Loretta Lynch

25 May 2016 11:53 PM (politics)

May 25, 2016

The Honorable Loretta E. Lynch
Attorney General of the United States
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Madam Attorney General:

To my distress and anger, I read that you would seek the death of Dylann Roof. No society that calls itself civilized has cause to resort to capital punishment. Mr. Roof has done terrible things, but that makes no difference. Lethal force may be needed to defend the innocent or to apprehend the guilty, but no just end is gained when a nation, in calm deliberation, kills its citizens.

Capital punishment yields no deterrence. This is uncontroversial. The President who appointed you has said as much. President Obama instead supports the death penalty in the case of crimes “…so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage…”; this statement is fatuous drivel unworthy of a man of his intellect and learning. Justice built of outrage is justice built of tar and feathers and angry mobs and hangman's knots. Let it be excised from the world.

To the jury's decision in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev you said “…the ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families.” This cannot be applied consistently. There is nothing that makes the families of victims of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, or hate crimes more deserving of ‘closure’ than the families of victims of more ordinary forms of homicide.

One person affected by Mr. Roof's crimes has said that he will feel at peace when Mr. Roof's body is lying cold in the ground. Another would like to be the one to push home the plunger for a lethal injection. These desires are understandable products of grief, anger, and loss; they can be excused, but they can never be respected. They have no place in the application of the law.

To do violence to someone, no matter their crimes, who has been caught and caged and rendered harmless is unspeakably vile. When you seek to kill a criminal, you make yourself the spiritual sister to every policeman who has beaten a suspect in handcuffs, to every prison guard who has kicked an inmate in shackles, and to every war criminal who has tortured an enemy prisoner.

You say that “The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision.” If the actions of a criminal can compel you to such a shameful act, then you ought to renounce any claim you make to serve justice.

With sincerest conviction,

♪ 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.