Archive for December, 2012


On second thought, hobbit…

So we went and saw that Hobbit movie that’s out now. It was kind of fun just as a movie, although I wouldn’t be awaiting the next two parts all that impatiently. (The Great Goblin was fun, but I don’t know if the audience will have played enough 8-bit platformers to get all the subtle retro references in the Escape from Goblin Town scene.)

As a movie version of that Hobbit book, it had all the problems that everyone else has complained about: too slow, too padded, too many unnecessary differences from the Tolkien. (That awkward moment in making a short novel into three long movies because there’s just so much content, when you realize that you need to promote a relatively minor goblin (who was actually dead by this point in the book) into a Big Scary Antagonist just so the first movie will have enough plot.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about.on second thought

What I want to talk about is the urgency of someone writing a good fanfiction story / series / novel / trilogy about the alternate Lord of the Rings in which Galadriel fails the test in Caras Galadhon, and things proceed as predicted…

In place of the Dark Lord, you will set up a Queen, and I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain…all shall love me and despair!

This seems to me to have a huge amount of promise if done right. Not the “she turns evil immediately” scenario, because that would be boring. The “she uses the powers of the One Ring, which would be truly enormous in her hands, to do great good things, which only slowly and subtly start to go terribly wrong as the inherent evil of the Ring’s power slowly corrupts her” scenario is the interesting one.

(One would have to be careful to avoid too many “the dangers of using corrupted power” references to the humungous “Wheel of Time” series, but that shouldn’t be too hard.)

So what happens in this alternate universe? Much of Sauron’s power is now not only lost to him, but in the possession of an implacable enemy with great power of her own, and her own unsullied Ring (Nenya, the White Ring, Ring of Adamant, Ring of Water). Galadriel is not of the Maiar as Sauron is (right?), but with those two rings, and Sauron’s weakness, I like the idea that she vanquishes him pretty easily, at the very start of her reign, so that she starts from a (dangerous) position of power and triumph.

Maybe she can use the Nazgul to do the job, the Nine Riders controlled by the Rings of Men. It would be simplest if they were actually wearing their Rings; then we could see her reaching out to them through the One, quickly or slowly turning their darkness to light, and perhaps Nine Bright Paladins cutting a swath through Mordor, letting in the armies of men and defeating the whole dark shebang.

But from what I read on the Intertubes it seems more Canonical that Sauron actually held the Nine Rings himself, and controlled the Riders through them. So perhaps we need some subtler scenario in which she uses the One Ring to cause the Nine Rings to come to her, or to stir up enough goodness in the Riders to let them resist Sauron’s control of their own Rings long enough to free them, or even destroy them.

It seems unlikely that the Riders themselves can be returned to any kind of mortal life after a Fall of Sauron; it could be fascinating to have them around as sort of disembodied Lights in the Shadow Realm, who start out by doing dazzling good, and only gradually slide into bright and blinding corruption.

We know that in the world of Galadriel Triumphant, all shall love her, and despair. So we start out with a new empire of goodness and beauty and love, and we slide into despair. There is of course a vast literature on how love goes wrong and leads to despair. :) So all we’d have to do is pick one form of that (a good one, of course), and let it play out in the world of Lord of the Rings.

Love for the Lady becomes mandatory, of course. Sacrificing oneself for that love is good and noble. In battle, perhaps for instance. Do we have suicidal dragon-hunts in her name? Jousts for the honor of Galadriel turning into deathmatches? Perhaps whole squadrons of knights, eventually whole armies, go to battle to prove (through victory) that they are more deserving of the Lady’s Love, or that they Love Her more truly.

Three of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves probably still exist. (Maybe some of the other four can still show up also; Gandalf might have been mistaken about them being destroyed by dragons, you never know.) What can Galadriel do with these? Their main, relatively boring, effect seems to be to make Dwarves angrier and hungrier for gold (and shorter and hairier, I would guess). Under the Lady, the Dwarves will lust for gold so that they may make fancier and more valuable gifts for Her. They will of course come to blows and likely internecine wars over that as well.

So far this sounds mostly like people fighting each other over Her, which isn’t bad, if a little obvious. How do we get to Despair, in maybe a less obvious and more interesting way? Galadriel is already somewhat ethereal; perhaps as she wears the Rings she becomes even moreso: angelic, diaphanous, almost phantom. Her presence floats about the Empire, fills the air with brightness and love and exultation, only to leave behind emptiness and longing, and ultimately despair, as her attention moves on.

So we have a world of wonders and beauty, noble warriors and astonishing Dwarven artifacts, love and enchantment, gradually crumbling into a ruin of glaze-eyed fighters battling for the slim hope of an instant of Her attention, as Her spirit, increasingly indistinct but always maddeningly alluring, floats over all, moaning beautiful but incomprehensible songs as the world falls into despair for a glimpse of Her, and the Nine Paladins make sure that no one dares say anything against Her.

Wow, creepy. :)

There are probably a dozen other promising ways the story could be written, also. Googling around, I’ve found a very few attempts (the one piece of fanfiction I stumbled across was just silly comedy, and very short), and a few threads discussing the idea (mostly technical topics about the differences in power between Galadriel with the Ring and Gandalf with the Ring, and so on).

If anyone has a pointer to any more complete considerations or fictions, along the lines above, or any more thoughts and ideas on the subject, fire away. For some reason I am really attracted to the idea. :) Although I may have gotten it somewhat out of my system by writing it down here now…


Mind and viewpoint

ensoI was in zazen, and the phone rang. The phone’s voice said that it was the car place calling, and I am not nearly pure enough to avoid responding to, or even to expect myself to avoid responding to, the car place calling.

(I need front brakes, which is to say that my car needs new parts in its front brakes, or so they say. Do I believe them? Always hard to say. The incentives and track-record are mixed. But I am getting new front-brake parts.)

Back on the zafu, again in zazen, no time had passed, no events occurred, no thoughts or actions manifested. And I had an insight from the formless, where there are no attributes. Or at least I thought of a weblog posting. :)

When body and thought fall away, words are surpassed. But let us call it Mind, for here and for now, even though that can be confusing, since body and thought falling away can as well be called body and mind falling away. But that is mind, not Mind.

Body and thought have attributes, have identities and telephones and cars and brake-pads. Mind is formless and has no attributes.

But, it seems, when body and thought fall away, and also when body and thought do not fall away, Mind still has viewpoint. When body and thought fall away for Hui-Neng, if Mind is a mirror or a water drop, what it reflects is still Hui-Neng. When body and thought fall away for John Loori, Mind’s non-reflection is not-reflecting John Loori.

No doubt this is wrong; Mind is not a mirror, or a waterdrop. But still questions buzz around it.

Does Mind not have viewpoint? But then, after body and thought have fallen away, how does Hui-Neng come down off of the mountain, being Hui-Neng and not John Loori?

Does mind have all viewpoints at once? Or does it have things, subtle things, in addition to viewpoint? Instead of viewpoint?

Or are there many Minds, differing only in viewpoint, one for every sitter, one for each Hui-Neng and John Loori, one for each Buddha? No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or mind object; no realm of the eye, no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death, but well yeah there are lots of viewpoints, floating around formless in the void?

Seems unlikely.

Maybe this is my koan for the time being.

And it seems appropriate to close with Hui-Neng’s own show-off verse, that got him the Patriarch’s Robe.

Replying to poor Shenxiu’s offering:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight.

Hui-Neng wrote:

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree;
The bright mirror is also not a stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing —
Where could any dust be attracted?

So there we are.

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Various things!

Russel Brand is pretty funny. (The one with the Westboro Baptist Church loonies seems viral at the moment, but there’s lotsa others, with less icky persons. Including Sarah Silverman, on whom I must admit having a slight enormous crush.)

We went up to Boston to retrieve the little boy yesterday (and came home today). So with that and that I was in two big cities in three days, neither one because of its airport. I suspect this is a New Record for me!

Boston is cool.

We wandered Newbury Street, all the way from the I-90 entrance to the Common and back. Lotsa stores and stuff, which weren’t all that interesting, but also people and graffiti —

Oh, wait, that reminds me of a picture I took! Hold on a sec whilst I find it and put it onto flickr…


Newbury Street sidewalk

(Anyone know who w.i., or perhaps w.t., is?)

There was a whole wall of multiply-overlayed graffiti also (including another instance of this one), but for whatever reason I didn’t get a shot of that.

(Since the drop of every sparrow is now multiply noted, here’s someone else commenting on this adage (basically noting that it does not, either), and here’s a Tweet wondering whether or not.)

We stopped at one of the three (!) cupcake places on Newbury Street and got some small and overpriced but really quite yummy cupcakes (I had chocolate ganache, mmmm).

We stopped at Raven Used Books, which has really really good books, and I got a copy of “Justine” (Durrell’s, not de Sade’s) (this edition, assuming Abe Books links are relatively long-lasting), and a copy of “The Dissident Word” (The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1995) from the discount table out front, and then a copy of the Oxford University Press “Islam: A Very Short Introduction” (I think I know a bit about it at this overview level already; on the other hand I’m sure there are holes in even my relatively shallow knowledge) and the Shambhala Dragon edition of The Sutra of Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen (With Hui-Neng’s Commentary on the Diamond Sutra), which I’m pretty sure I don’t already have.

Then for an early dinner we stopped at Trident Booksellers and Cafe (why does any store bother not selling books, eh?), and had yummy food items and looked at all various books. I noticed there was a guy with a laptop and a beard at another table looking through an issue of Buddhadharma (to which I (also) subscribe), and a little later he passed by our table and saw I was holding the Sutra of Hui-Neng, and he remarked that it’s one of his favorites and we talked for a few seconds.

Oh yeah and at Trident I also bought John Powell’s “How Music Works” for possible use in upcoming (someday) versions of my algorithmic music composition programs. I was going to just put it into some wishlist and maybe get the digital edition, but (a) it was on sale for a nice low price in Trident, and (b) it includes a free CD, and can a e-book include a free CD? I mean, it could, in principle, contain all the bits from the CD, but does it?

In some free newspaper stall on the street I picked up the latest Phoenix, and looking through it while resting in the little boy’s room (before or after Newbury Street, I don’t remember) I found a pointer to Howling Dogs by the impressive porpentine, which reminded my (in color scheme, even!) of my own Forked Stick (which I never finished, but that might not matter, and you might enjoy poking around in also).

I thought that was some nice synchronicity.

When we finally got to relatives’ house for spending the night, I was tired.

Here is me, being tired:


So after that I slept, and we got up this morning, zoomed back into Boston in the rain and wind and scooped up the little boy after his last final, and drove home. The wind and rain calmed down as we drove, and by the time we got home it was fine really.

So that’s those things!


How The Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

On the way

Due to a chain of serendipities, I went into The City last night, met work and SL friend A and her friends and neighbors J and J, and saw Leonard Cohen live at Madison Square Garden.

Grand Central Station

It was amazingly wonderful.

Somewhere near Madison Square Garden

I’ve decided that no one else does what Cohen does. He’s not, you know, a singer (I know M will agree with that, haha), not someone who writes songs and then tours around performing them.

Instead he’s a poet, who often puts his poetry to music. He’s a performance artist, where the basic materials are the same as those of singers, but the product is shaped and integrated very differently.

Seventh Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street

In a good song, there might be one or two lines of lyric that take your breath away, or open your mind for a second (or a lifetime) to whole new universes, or call up some emotion that you’d forgotten, or never felt before.

A good Cohen piece does that with, like, every freaking word.

Stage Door Deli

That’s A above there (left), and one of the J’s (right). The other J (not shown) is to the right of me (also not shown). We’re having liverwurst (me) and pastrami (everyone else) sandwiches at the Stage Door Deli, one of the very few places in the City at which I’ve actually eaten more than once.

Nude Woman and Horse on the backdrop

We got there in plenty of time (but probably good that we decided to skip dessert), and the seats were good (better than they look in the iPad’s zoomless snapshots, although the biggish screens up high to left and right were nice to have; very good camera work and crossfades and all on them; kudos to the camerafolk).

Leonard Cohen, live!

I only discovered Leonard Cohen in Second Life, when Callipygian “Calli” Christensen, who I knew as a photographer and hostess and general breathtakingly smart person, started DJing; she plays lots of Cohen. His poetry really touches something in me (obviously!).

Really nice lighting work throughout

Image above during “Suzanne”. Very nice, mostly understated, lighting work throughout; no sparks or explosions or anything, just the occasional flashes of brightness on or over or at the crowd, well-placed spots, and color-wash effects on and against the backdrop.


(That’s an appropriate light-burst during Hallelujah up there.)

A very high-quality production in general; the band were all amazing, very much including the backup vocals, all of whom got their own solos. Sharon Robinson (who I now know alot more about) sang “Alexandra Leaving”, after Cohen read part of the poem. I thought I would reset the time listening to someone other than Cohen, but she was marvelous; utterly different from him in tone and delivery (in fact the one thing that I’d say didn’t work during the show was one place where they attempted to duet on a line a few times, and their voices just didn’t blend), but somehow very much the same in deep mesmerizing emotional effect.

And the Webb sisters had a duet solo (yeah, yeah) on “If it be Thy will” during the encores (again after Leonard did some of the poem first), which was also lovely.

The Screens

(Oh, and can someone puh-leze go put more content into the Wikipedia page on Roscoe Beck? Sheesh. I would if I actually knew anything. But as Bassist and Musical Director of this whole multi-year Leonard Cohen World Tour, and generally amazing musician, he ought to have more words.)

Tons of stuff I could talk about. :) Cohen’s an old guy now, and his voice is deep and throaty and rough. He spends lots of time down in his signature kneeling position, but he also skips in an amusing manner with one hand over his head between numbers, coming onto or going off the stage, to great audience amusement.

He tipped his hat gallantly at the very end, and the crowd went (even) wild(er).

We joked to each other going in that it was going to be an old crowd, and certainly there weren’t alot of teenyboppers, but it wasn’t entirely (or even mostly) geriatric either; a good mix of ages, mostly upper middle class and whitish (although there was one very pretty non-whitish woman in the row ahead of us, so not an utterly pale audience).

Cohen had a few, but very warm and funny, conversational asides. Before “There Ain’t No Cure For Love”, he said something about the times having their terrors, and how sometimes he feels that he needs a forklift to raise his spirits, and that he looks at himself in the mirror and says “Lighten up, Leonard!” (lots of crowd laughter there), “When are you going to recover from finding out there ain’t no cure for love?” (segue into song).

He put out a portable keyboard (for which piece I now forget) and said something about how this was a new piece of technology that most of us probably hadn’t seen before, and it plays itself! He turn turned on some drum loop, to more audience laughter.

During that number he played a couple of notes on it, and the audience applauded and whistled and he sort of paused the song and said “was that just sympathy for an elderly guy? I can do alot more than that; I can play two notes at once!” and he did a little of that and the number continued, and the audience was generally ecstatic.

What else what else? He sang that one line of Hallelujah as “I didn’t come to New York City just to fool ya” (as I gather he tends to when playing live). He introduced all of his co-performers at least three times, with very genuine (genuine seeming? is that an oxymoron?) warmth.

He opened with “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, a classic and a popular favorite, and opened the second half with “Tower of Song” (similarly). At least one person in the audience kept yelling out “Hallelujah!” in between numbers (well, the numbers before “Hallelujah”, anyway); I yelled “Freebird!”, but only loud enough for the immediate row to hear. :)

They did “Democracy (is coming, to the USA)”, to considerable audience cheering and stomping, I think during the encores. (Complete setlist is here; they are fast!)

Hallelujah was the official finale, and then they did “Take this waltz” while he thanked all the band members again, and the audience then insisted on encores. We got “So long, Marianne”, and “Democracy”, and the aforementioned “If It Be Thy Will” with the Webb sisters, and they finally chased us off with “Closing Time” (“All the women tear their blouses off, and the men they dance on the polka-dots, and it’s partner found and it’s partner lost, and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops”).

(Of my favorite Cohen numbers, the main one missing from the concert was “Light as the Breeze”. Too elite for the masses, I’m sure! :) )

Headed home

A and J and J had snuck out a little before the last encore to get the 11:52 back south (the next train being at 1:30 or so). I wandered about looking for Penn Station and the subway (which you wouldn’t think would take much wandering, being basically in the same building, but the place is a bl––ding maze), took the Seventh Avenue Express up to Times Square, got the last shuttle to Grand Central (I guess they stop at midnight, the wimps), made the 12:08 northbound local with like 45 seconds to spare, and before long was nestled asleep in my bed.

What a good time. :) Extreme thanks to A, and to the Deities of Chance, and to Mr. Cohen and the Band.


Fractionally Reserved

I’ve run across an internet troll or two railing against fractional reserve banking in the past, but I had the impression it was sort of a fringe-of-a-fringe thing, in the same realm as the “NASA faked the moon landings” idea.

(Fractional reserve banking is where the bank can loan out some of the money that is deposited with it, as explained by Professor Stewart in that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.)

But now I’ve just finished L. Neil Smith’s Pallas (a wonderful and awful piece of escapist fiction that I ought to write more about, related to that Waking from Libertarianism posting that I also ought to write), and in one memorable scene an “overstuffed” banker is arranging a loan to Our Hero from his (Our Hero’s) best friend and lover (a hooker with a heart of gold and a big bank account), and the narrative voice mentions that the banker can’t just lend him money himself because he (the bankers) isn’t rich, and he can’t loan from the bank’s deposits because fractional reserve banking is considered “felony fraud”.

Now L. Neil Smith isn’t exactly a moderate, but I have the impression he’s more or less a mainstream libertarian writer, so this suggests that the idea is at least a bit more popular than secret government treaties with space aliens.

Last time I was within hearing distance of a troll blaming our economic problems on fractional reserve banking, I used a little just-so story to show how it seems perfectly consistent with libertarian ideas about individual liberty and so on. He replied by contemptuously dismissing me as not understanding, which is what that flavor of troll does when you ask a hard question, and I didn’t pursue the issue.

But if L. Neil Smith is saying the same thing, it occurs to me I should write out the just-so story in a little more detail, and put it here in the weblog where it can be picked up by Major News Media.
So, the story.

Without fractional-reserve banking, a banker is just a particular kind of warehouse guy, one who specializes in storing high-value low-volume stuff (like gold nuggets, hundred-dollar bills). You give him a box with your gold in it, and he promises to keep it safe and give it back to you when you ask, for a mere four-fifty a month. Maybe he even specializes in stuff that is valuable solely for its monetary value, in which case you give him two thousand dollars worth of gold, and he promises to give you back the same value in gold (although not necessarily the same actual atoms), when you ask for it, for either four-fifty a month, or possibly some fee scaled to the value of money on deposit.

This guy isn’t going to make much more money than any other warehouse guy, probably; he can charge more per cubic foot because the stuff is more valuable, but then he also has to spend more on security for the same reason; a vault costs more than a simple warehouse, and the guards have to be paid more to resist the extra temptation offered by small valuable stuff that’s easy to resell.

(Similarly, at this stage of the story, an investment guy is pretty much just a matchmaker. In the example in Pallas, where Cherry has lots of money and wants to lend some to Emerson, and they already know each other (in the Biblical sense, even), he serves no purpose at all except to allow Smith to show that he doesn’t like bankers.)

Now one day a warehouse guy of the “you give us money, we give you money back” type notices that there is all this money sitting in his warehouse, and it’s doing nothing. And he starts up a brand-new service, where if you sign up for it, he will take oh say ten percent of the money that you give him, and lend it out at interest. He will then keep part of that interest for himself (his profit on this great idea), and use the rest to lower your monthly fee.

Sure, it’s possible that if you want all of your money back at once, and when he tries to call in the loans that he’s made with ten percent of it, the people with the money won’t be able to come up with it all at once, but that’s not very likely really is it? That small risk is worth the lower monthly fees, at least to some depositors.

And in version 2, he has the bright idea of changing the contract so that it says that if that does happen, he can use on-deposit funds from anyone else in the program to pay back the difference. Then he can only come up short if lots of people want to withdraw more than 90% of their funds at once, and at the same time lots of people that he’s lent to can’t pay up when he calls in the loans. And (since this is such a good idea that he is prospering, and has lots of depositors and lots of borrowers now), the chances of that are so small that he can actually insure himself against it.

This works out really well, and he dominates the money-warehousing market because of his low fees, and dominates the money-lending market because he has lots of money to lend.

Since this is a libertarian just-so story, his success naturally leads to competitors improving on the idea!

One competitor in particular notices that people have so much faith in this whole system now that hardly anyone ever gets cold feet and wants to withdraw even half of their money all at once. So in his contracts, it says that he can use up to 60% of the deposited funds for loans. Also, because he can get insurance against the bank runs that seldom happen anyway, he can say in his loan contracts that he will never call in the loan unless the client doesn’t keep up the payments; naturally this extra sweetening of the loan contract means he can charge higher interest.

His calculations show that with this much money to lend, and these higher interest rates, not to mention needing a smaller vault, he’ll be able to make a modest profit and not only eliminate the monthly fees to his depositors, but actually pay interest on deposits!

Naturally, customers flock to him, and eventually almost everyone in the money-warehousing industry is doing it this way.

So now we’ve got fractional reserve banking: you deposit money, the bank keeps some of it in the vault, lends the rest out at interest, and pays some of that interest back along to you, the depositor. Banks are insured against runs up to some amount. All of this is clearly documented in the contracts between depositors and the bank, borrowers and the bank, and the insurance company and the bank.

There is no fraud of any kind.

Basically, if we want to describe it more briefly and collectively, a bunch of people have got together and said “hey, we never need all of our money at once, so why don’t we pool it together and lend some of it out at interest, and get free profits?”.

It’s not at all clear that there’s any step in here that a libertarian government can step in and stop. No one is being lied to, no one is being forced to do or not to do anything. People are voluntarily deciding to try to maximize their individual utility by making certain agreements with other people. And the result is pretty magic; there’s lots of loan money available to start new companies and invest in new things and carry out research, and yet on the other hand there’s also lots of liquidity, and you can withdraw some money to buy that special Solstice gift anytime you want.

I admit I don’t quite understand the railing against it by internet trolls and L. Neil Smith; but whatever objections they have to the resulting institutional arrangements, it seems pretty clear that there’s nothing inherent to fractional reserve banking simpliciter that a libertarian government can forbid and still keep its credentials.

Unless I’ve overlooked something?


So, I’m an atheist

I’m an atheist.Atheist symbol

But wait, says a hypothetical reader, don’t you call yourself a pantheist? And sometimes a Buddhist? And an Ariadnite? Don’t you believe that there are deep mysteries and weird things going on in the universe, beyond what science knows? Isn’t consciousness itself a profound mystery to you? And haven’t you said that you aren’t 100% certain of anything? Shouldn’t you be at most an agnostic?

And yeah, except for that last question there, those are all very true of me.

But none of that prevents me from being an atheist.

Specifically, I am an atheist because I do not believe that there is a God, where a God is an omniscient omnipotent being, existing prior to and outside of the universe, who has opinions or preferences or plans about what should happen in the universe, and who serves as the basis for morality.

(If by “God” you mean instead “an entity that is significantly more advanced technologically or morally than humanity”, or “an entity that caused there to be life on Earth”, or “a ham sandwich”, then none of this applies. Also, we are speaking different dialects of English, and mine is by far the most common one.)

I will go a little beyond that, and say that not only do I not believe there is a God in that sense, I also believe that there is not a God in that sense.

So I’m an atheist even if “don’t believe” isn’t enough for you, and you insist on “believe that not”. :)

On the hypothetical reader’s questions:

  • I’m a pantheist in that I think the universe (as broadly construed as possible) is worthy of worship. But that involves no omniscient omnipotent thing outside of or other than the universe.
  • I’m a Buddhist to some extent or other, but relevantly for this discussion Buddhism’s attitude toward deities outside of the universe is basically “don’t waste your time worrying about it”, so again there’s no conflict between Buddhism and atheism.
  • I’m an Ariadnite in that my worship of the universe (as broadly construed as possible) involves images of this lady in a white gown, swords and balls of string, and so on; but that is all metaphor, not truth-claims, and in any case the Goddess is not something other than the universe.
  • On deep mysteries, sure. Being an atheist doesn’t mean thinking that our current scientific knowledge is correct and/or complete. Same thing on consciousness. This was driven home to me recently by this very good piece and even some words in this by Sam Harris (with whom I only occasionally agree).
  • I’m not 100% sure of anything (even this!). But being an atheist doesn’t require being 100% sure that there is no God; at most it requires believing that there is no God (and really I think just not believing that there is a God will do).

On Agnosticism, we get into edge cases.

When asked “Do you believe that there is a God?”, someone who says “Yes” is a theist.

When asked “Do you believe that there is no God”, someone who says “Yes” is an atheist.

Someone who says, “well, I really don’t know” to both questions is an agnostic.

But what if someone says “No” to both questions? I would count that person as an atheist, since they don’t believe that there is a God. But if you’d rather call them an agnostic (since they also don’t believe that there isn’t a God), that’s okay with me.

I’m an atheist either way. :)

And of course I could be wrong. I could be wrong about any belief of mine; as I think I’ve said before, anyone who thinks that some particular belief of theirs couldn’t possibly turn out to be wrong just isn’t using their imagination hard enough. But that doesn’t stop me from being an atheist.

I’m bothering to say this pretty much because of the Bacon Moose post, and because of a certain frustration I have with intelligent people, who I am pretty sure believe the same way that I do, who don’t identify as atheists.

I’d like more people to identify as atheists, because every time someone says they aren’t an atheist, 99% of the people who hear it assume that they are Christian or (theistic) Jewish or something, and that just bolsters the “atheists are weird and rare” feeling, even if what the person really meant was that while they don’t believe there is a god, they have some (generally rather contorted) reason for not identifying as atheist.

When I posted a link to the Bacon Moose posting on Facebook, in fact, I had two friends comment that (although they don’t believe there is a god in the relevant sense), they aren’t atheists. One said she is not an atheist because (if I understand her right) she just doesn’t think the question is all that important, and doesn’t want therefore to bother having a label relating to it. The other said (if I understand him right) that he’s not an atheist because if you change the meaning of the word it wouldn’t apply to him: say if you define “atheist” as “someone who is 100% certain there is no god”, or if you define “god” as “whatever caused there to be life on Earth”.

Needless to say, I didn’t find either of these arguments very compelling. :)

I suspect that, buried deep in the back of most of our minds, there is this ancient inculcated meme that atheists are icky, or grim, or narrow, or closed-minded, and that really one should not identify as one in polite company.

That is a meme I’d love to see wither away.

So here I am! :)


The infographic plot thickens!

Interesting developments in the saga of the infographics.

While out of town on business I received this very polite note:

Subject: Request for link removal –

Good evening Webmaster,

We were notified that our site, has come under review by Google for some link building practices from the past. We are contacting you in that context.

We are making major changes to the site and undertaking efforts to build great content that we hope people will naturally link to. However, in the interim period, we are contacting people who have linked to us in the past where there’s even a remote possibility that Google could view the link as “over optimized”.

We have also removed a lot of our infographics and some of our other content. So you might be linking to a 404’ed page.

As such, we would like to respectfully request that you remove all links to our site including the link on

We appreciate your past efforts to link to us, and as the new owners of this site, we are excited to unveil our upgraded site and content very soon, and would like to be able to keep in touch with you as that happens.
If you would be so kind as to respond and let us know if you can take the above requested actions, we would appreciate it. Apologies if you have received this email multiple times as we are being very aggressive in this, and thanks again for your patience.

Thank you
Cristina Roberston

I thought that was somewhat intriguing, but I was busy and didn’t do anything about it right away, and not long after there appeared this reminder:

Subject: Link Removal Request Reminder –

Dear Webmaster,

I’m not sure if you have responded, I tried searching for your response in my spam box, but couldn’t find it. Sorry if you have already. We were notified that our site, has come under review by Google for some link building practices from the past. We are contacting you in that context.

We are making major changes to the site and undertaking efforts to build great content that we hope people will naturally link to. However, in the interim period, we are contacting people who have linked to us in the past where there’s even a remote possibility that Google could view the link or the anchor text as “overly optimized”.

As such, we would like to respectfully request that you remove all links to our site including the link on

We appreciate your past efforts to link to us, and as the new owners of this site, we are excited to unveil our upgraded site and content very soon, and would like to be able to keep in touch with you as that happens.
If you would be so kind as to respond and let us know if you can take the above requested actions, we would appreciate it. Apologies if you have received this email multiple times as we are being very aggressive in this, and thanks again for your patience.

I’ve just now gone and removed the link to Forensic Psychology dot net from that page (along with an update pointing to this page), ’cause I am a Nice Guy. I notice that it is no longer the case that Criminal Justice Degree dot net says that it is copyright by Forensic Psychology dot net. On the other hand, the two sites still look veeeery similar and generic and Infographic in style, and one still wonders just what the heck might be going on.

And amusingly I also just received this, on my Second Life self’s email account:

Subject: Infographic about Nintendo’s Wild Success

Hey Dale,

I recently developed another infographic that could be a good fit for your site. I just wanted to reach out and share. It highlights and illustrates how Nintendo became the king of video games and the numbers behind their success.

You can check it out here:

Title: Nintendo MBA

Let me know what you think, I would love for you to publish it if you find it suitable for your site.

Thank you,

Chloe |

Maybe I should suggest that Chloe have a word with Cristina about the dangers of… whatever it is that they are doing.


Alumni Interviews

A dreadfully practical post this morning. :) Every year I do a few interviews of high school kids applying to Princeton, and this year a relative who knows this and whose high school kid is applying to Princeton asked me if I had any advice. I mailed some to them, but I thought I’d also share it, lightly edited, with the world.

Schools differ in various ways, but I expect this is probably at least somewhat relevant to all various places one might be applying and/or interviewing.

Princeton tells us basically nothing other than the person’s name and that they’ve applied. So the interviewee has a nice opportunity to shape the discussion. :)

You certainly don’t have to bring anything; most candidates don’t. On the other hand I’ve had kids bring a resume, or even a piece of original research, and I found that pretty impressive (always assuming it’s well-done of course, and they can talk interestingly about it).

Princeton says, and it’s true, that the interview is primarily a channel through which you the student can give any information about yourself that didn’t come through in the rest of the application process, and also ask someone who’s actually been there what it’s like (although it’s generally someone who was there a long time ago!).

But secondarily it’s also another piece of data about the student that I’m sure plays into the evaluation process, at least in resolving ties.

Random advice:

Don’t ask dry factual questions that are right there on the school web site (what majors exist, class sizes, etc). The alum probably won’t know the current answer, and it just looks like you haven’t done your homework.

Do ask questions that the alum can talk to from their own experience, and that aren’t on the website. Just “what was it like?” and “what do you think is the school’s greatest strength / weakness?” are good, or anything else along those lines. If you’re interested in anything specific that the alum might know about (and isn’t on the website), definitely be prepared to ask about that.

Have some questions in mind to ask if the discussion trails off. I’m always much more impressed with a student who can keep the discussion going for the whole time than I am if I have to think “okay, we’re sitting here silent again, what can I ask next?”.

The interviewer is likely to ask something along the lines of “is there anything about yourself that you’d like to make sure the school knows about, that might not be evident from your application?”. Even if there isn’t, it’s good to have some interesting answer to this ready. :) Be prepared to talk about your interests, your strengths, your accomplishments, even if you think that they probably are evident from your application. Just saying “um, no I don’t think so” isn’t nearly as impressive.

Basically the challenge is to somehow differentiate yourself from the average applicant. This is especially true of the application process in general, but if you can do it at the interview that’s also good. It’s hard to do that in a single short interview, of course, but it’s a good thing to have in mind. Every applicant has good grades and is interested in science and/or English and/or math in a general way. If you can say specifically that you really love partial differential equations and tell a funny story about how you taught them to your cat, or talk about some particular activity that got you really excited and you can ramble on about it for five or ten minutes sounding all enthusiastic and intelligent, or you recently did a deep dive into the history of the kings of Norway and can talk about that, or you feel that your kung fu training has given you a unique insight into the education system, definitely use that.

Which isn’t to say that you should stress about it. :) There’s really no way to mess up an interview; it can be a good way to get information, and can probably help you a bit in terms of admission if it goes well, but I don’t think you can hurt your chances by doing the wrong thing. So relax and be comfortable and confident and all.

So there it is! May not apply to your particular situation, no warrantee is expressed or implied, not intended as medical advice, void where prohibited, licensed, or taxed. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Not to be taken internally.