Archive for ‘philosophy’

2017/06/19

The things we believe

I believe, for instance, that the government of Saudi Arabia addresses violent extremism basically by paying its violent extremists money, in exchange for them promising to commit their violent extremist acts in places other than Saudi Arabia.

I don’t have any evidence to hand for this, and I would not stake a huge amount on it (although I would stake a small amount), but it is something that I believe. It fits in with my theories of the world, I think I read something somewhere once that said it was true, and it just makes sense to me psychologically, fitting in with the motivations of the parties involved.

Various Trump fans and people with whom I argue on The Twitter believe that, for instance, President Obama treasonously sent one or more planes full of billions of dollars in cash to Iran, under cover of night, for some nefarious reason or other.

Stripped of the “treasonously” and “nefarious” and the implication that it was some private project of Obama’s, this is actually true. Just before the Iran Revolution, Iran had paid some U.S. entity like US$400 Million for some weapons or something, and when the revolution occurred, we just sort of held onto it, without of course supplying the weapons or something. Iran was not happy about this, and had over time gotten the attention of the folks at The Hague about it, and it looked like they might be going to find in Iran’s favor for like US$2 Billion for money and interest. To pre-empt this, and not have to either thumb our noses at The Hague or pay quite that much money, we gave them the $400 Million plus like $1.3 Billion in interest, held back until they released the hostages they were holding.

And it had to be in cash because we’d put into place so many sanctions against Iran that they were cut off from the international banking system, so there was no other way to get money to them. And it was at night (if in fact it was, I dunno) because Iran is like 9 hours ahead of Washington DC, so really it usually is, at one end or the other. Also because you probably want as much security (and obscurity) as possible around the moving of that much cash in any case.

People believe that this was treasonous and nefarious, though, because it fits into their narratives. Primarily, the narrative that President Obama was a Bad Guy, who was trying to Destroy America, and would have Seized All The Guns and Put Patriots Into FEMA Camps if the heroic NRA hadn’t stopped him, so failing that he just gave lots of money to Iran so they could destroy America for him. Or something.

Needless to say, I don’t find this very plausible. If Obama had wanted to destroy America, there were lots of other things he could have done, and didn’t do. Also he just seems like a very smart, beneficent, and cool guy to me. The Saudi government, not so much; they seem like selfish rich people who would not have huge reservations about just bribing their extremists to go elsewhere rather than doing anything more fundamental about them. So the first story fits my narrative, whereas the second doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is any truth of the matter, or that I think I’m just as likely to be wrong as I am to be right. Quite the contrary, I believe that the story I believe is probably true, and the one that they believe is almost certainly false.

But it is interesting to think about how each putative fact does not stand alone, is not believed by itself, due to specific evidence for or against it; but rather exists as a supporting fact in a somewhat-consistent narrative.

And that, perhaps, the right way to try to get to the truth, and/or to get to consensus, is to try to find another narrative that one’s interlocutors also believe, and that the facts up for evaluation fit into differently.

(Note that “You’re an idiot” is a particular claim that will almost never fit into the addressed party’s narratives, and so isn’t much use for finding consensus there, although in some cases a significant fraction of onlookers may agree with it and applaud.)

2017/02/01

Denotation and the SCOTUS

So Fuckface von Clownstick has nominated a person for the Supreme Court, to replace ol’ Tony Scalia.

Much of the discussion of this in the world will be about how utterly hypocritical it is of the Republicans to suggest that there is an obligation for the Democrats to not obstruct the confirmation process, given that just the other day they declared it a positive civic duty to obstruct the conformation of Merrick Garland, and that is quite a valid discussion.  But I’m not up to doing any of that here.

Looking into this Gorsuch person a bit, though, I find that (as well as not being Merrick Garland) he is an “originalist” just like ol’ Tony, and perhaps even moreso (if that’s possible). This inspires me to reach into the archives and reprint here, lightly edited for venue, my ancient piece on why “originalist” is a bad name.

By way of introduction, it’s a bad name because everyone believes that it’s the Constitution’s original meaning that’s important; the division is between those who think the original denotation is important, and those who think it’s the original connotation.  (Where “connotation” is used in its technical Philosophy of Language sense, not its informal “fuzzy subjective meaning” sense.)

The problem with the denotationist position can I think be highlighted by a very small thought experiment: the denotationist is obliged to hold that if we were to hold a Constitutional Convention today, and replace the entire text of the document with an exact copy of itself, the resulting document would be very different than the current one, and a very different set of things would be allowed and prohibited and so on.

And that seems just silly. (Menard’s example notwithstanding.)

But anyway, here is the original post, in the context of Scalia and 2005 rather than Gorsuch and 2017, but Truth is Timeless.


 

One of the cool things that Audible does is make certain ‘public interest’ type audio programs available for free. I don’t know if they do this out the goodness of their heart or their ad budget, or if someone pays them to do it, but it’s cool anyway.

One of the free things they have is a talk that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave on the subject of Constitutional Interpretation, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last March. (Due to Audible’s bizarre site design I can’t figure out how to give you a pointer to it that will work, but if you search on “Scalia” you’ll probably find it. Although it’s free, I dunno if you can get it if you don’t have an Audible account.)

I’m a bit more than halfway through it, and it’s interesting. I’ve previously expressed the opinion that J. Scalia is a fascist theocratic loon, and I’ve teased him for his defense of state laws against masturbation in his Lawrence dissent; what I’ve heard so far doesn’t make me any more comfortable having him on the high court, but it does give me some additional insight into his character and legal thinking.

Scalia doesn’t like to be called a “strict constructionist”; he prefers “originalist”. His idea is that the words of the Constitution meant something when they were adopted, and that it’s that meaning that we must follow today. And when he says “meaning” he isn’t thinking of the general meaning or connotation of the words; he’s thinking of the very specific denotation of the words: the exact specifics of what they were thought to mean at the time.

So since when the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 no one thought that “equal protection” included the right of women to vote, it required a further amendment to give them that right. Scalia says that nowadays we would have done it on 14th amendment grounds instead, and he clearly thinks that that’s a bad thing.

[2017 Note: In fact even back in 1868, lots of people thought that “equal protection” did in fact include the right of women to vote; something that rather heavily undermines Scalia’s point. The fact that when talking about this stuff he apparently never mentioned Minor v. Happersett or the various controversies and demonstrations around it, was one more thing that lowered my opinion of his intellectual integrity.]

Since “originalist” doesn’t strike me as a neutral term (when was the last time you saw “unoriginal” used as a compliment?), let me refer to Scalia’s position as “denotationist”; the words of the Constitution (or any other law) must be interpreted as having the same denotation, as picking out the same parts of the world, as they had when adopted.

(At the extreme denotationist position, if the Constitution had said that the number of Justices on the Supreme Court should be equal to the number of planets around the Sun, then the proper number of Justices would be seven, since that’s what people thought the words denoted at the time. I’m not suggesting that Scalia would actually carry the idea this far, although it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.)

So what’s the alternative to denotationalism? In this lecture Scalia claims that the only alternative is to consider the Constitution not a legal document at all, but just sort of an “exhortation”. He claims that he’s asked all sorts of people at law schools what principle they propose in place of his, and none have had an answer.

This strikes me as baffling, since the answer is so obvious. Rather than interpreting the words of the Constitution according to what they meant when adopted, we should interpret them according to what they mean now. If we’ve discovered since 1789 that there are really nine planets, or since 1868 that equal protection does mean the ability to vote regardless of gender, then that’s what the Constitution should be read as saying.

(Jim points out a possible circularity here, so let me say explicitly that the view I’m outlining here isn’t the tautological “the Constitution means today whatever it means today”; I mean something more like “the words in the Constitution mean today whatever the same words mean outside the Constitution today”. Modulo politically irrelevant typographical shifts and so on.)

I’d like to call this alternate view “connotational”, in contrast to Scalia’s denotationalism. And it seems to me highly unlikely that no one has ever suggested it to Scalia, or that he wouldn’t have thought of it himself for that matter. Scalia seems to have an enormous blind spot where differing opinions are concerned; not only does he disagree with non-denotational views of Constitutional interpretation, he doesn’t even see those views. At one point in the speech he says that he would have decided a certain case in a certain way based on the original meaning (“meaning”) of some words in the Constitution, whereas the court actually decided the other way, “based on — well, I don’t know what!”

He’s obviously a smart guy, but apparently there’s a filter between the part of his mind that is sharp enough to understand arguments on both sides of an issue and the part that consciously notices those arguments. (Jim points out that Scalia wouldn’t be the only one with this problem.)

Another possibility is that Scalia is simply a propagandist, and that pretending that the other side has no argument at all is just a rhetorical device that he likes to use. That’d be a pity.

So anyway. The denotationist view says that when the Constitution uses phrases like “due process” or “equal protection” or “freedom of speech”, we should consider those phrases to be convenient shorthands for whatever set of things people thought they meant when the words were adopted. If it wouldn’t make the Constitution implausibly long, we could replace each one with a list of all the things that people at that time thought the words referred to.

The connotationist view, on the other hand, says that “due process” means the processes that are due, the proceedings that are appropriate, and if our opinion about what is appropriate has changed since 1798, it’s our current opinions that count. Similarly, “equal protection” means protection that is equal, and if people in 1868 didn’t notice that disenfranchising half the country didn’t constitute equal protection, so much the worse for them; our current government should be guided by our current understanding.

(Now in practical terms it’s nice that we have the 19th amendment there making it explicit; but I do think that a 14th amendment case for female suffrage should in principle have had a very good chance of success.)

So Scalia’s basic theory isn’t particularly inconsistent or anything; I just strongly disagree with it. His inability to acknowledge the very existence of alternative theories is a flaw, and not one that makes me fond of him.

What else? Scalia’s theory leads him to say some odd (or at least odd to me) things about the Constitution’s role in protecting minorities. At one point he says that protecting minorities from the whim of the majority is one of the most important things that the Constitution does. But because he’s a denotationist he sees it as protecting only those particular minorities that the Framers would have wanted to protect (or that the adopters of later amendments would have). So Catholics, for instance, are protected (hem, hem), but not people who want to make love to people of the same gender.

(Sidenote: Scalia always refers to male-male sex as “homosexual sodomy”; a little subliminal reminder that the Lord has destroyed whole cities over the issue; ref “theocratic” supra.)

The equal protection clause can’t allow people of the same gender to marry, because when the clause was adopted people didn’t think it meant that. A connotationist can say that we’ve decided since then that equal protection really does mean that; but Scalia doesn’t even consider that as a possibility. It’s not simply wrong, it’s just not on his radar at all.

If we want to provide equal protection or due process or freedom of speech outside the original denotation of those terms, he says, what we have to do is persuade our fellow citizens to enact the appropriate legislation or Constitutional amendments. Which is to say, if we want to protect a minority that wasn’t popular back in 1789, we have to persuade the majority to play nice. Which of course seems completely wrong to me, given the whole “Constitution protecting the rights of minorities” thing.

The Framers were large-minded folks; I think that when they said “due process” or “freedom of speech”, they didn’t just mean the things that those words meant in the 18th century, but that they meant whatever those words might turn out to mean as the species matured.

Hm, I’ll bet we might even be able to find some writing of the Framers that say that! I wonder what Scalia would do then…


 

And that’s that reprint from 2005; May 16th, 2005 specifically. There were at least a couple more weblog entries on this general subject, based on reader comments and other events of the day and so on, but that’s enough for now for here.

Maybe I should find some of Gorsuch’s writing, and see if he’s usefully interpreted as a denotationist (with an inability to even conceive of connotationism) like Scalia, or if he’s different in some interesting way.

But probably I’ll just get caught up in von Clownstick’s steady assault on the very idea of democracy, instead…

2016/03/25

No, we still don’t have conversational AI

Yeah, yeah, here I am being annoyed by more or less this same thing again. Everyone needs a hobby. :)

This time it’s a number of things I’ve seen lately that say or imply that we now have AI that can carry on a convincing conversation, that knows what it’s saying, and like that.

First, we have this extremely creepy thing:

It is wrong on so very many levels (“Hot” Robot??). In the linguistic and AI wrongnesses, virtually everything that “she” says in the video is clearly just text-to-speech running on some pre-written text; we don’t have software smart enough to come up with “I feel like I can be a good partner to humans — an ambassador”, let alone to say it and mean it, for any useful sense of “mean it”.

And then at the end, for whatever reason, the robot is hooked up to the typical “AIML” sort of silliness that I have ranted about here before (in archives that are currently offline; have to get that fixed sometime), and also over on the Secret Secondlife Weblog (see the “MyCyberTwin” section of this post, say), and hilarity ensues.

The reporter says “do you want to destroy humans?”, and the “AI” software notices that this matches its template “do you want to X”, and it plays the hardcoded response (perhaps chosen at random from a small set) “okay, I will X”.

And so now we have an “AI” saying “I will destroy humans”, and lots and lots of hits.

But in fact this robot, and the software running it, doesn’t know what humans are, doesn’t know what it means to destroy something, and for that matter doesn’t know what “I will” means. Let alone “I”. Or anything else. All it’s doing is recognizing words in speech, matching the words against a look-up table, and playing a canned response. It is just as determined to destroy humans as is a coffee tin with two googly eyes and a “destroy humans” sign pasted onto it.

Which brings us to “Everything you know about artificial intelligence is wrong“, which is structured as a series of “It’s a myth that X, because it might not be true that X” paragraphs (suggesting that the author hasn’t thought very hard about the meaning of “myth), but which for our purposes is mostly interesting because it bit me with this sentence:

We already have computers that match or exceed human capacities in games like chess and Gostock market trading, and conversations.

Chess and Go, yes (yay, employer!); stock market trading and especially conversations, not so much.

Following the “conversations” link, we come to the story of “Eugene Goostman”, a program which is said to have “passed the Turing Test” last year by convincing more than 30% of judges that it was a human.

30% seems like a pretty low bar, but after looking at an actual transcript of the program’s conversation, I’m amazed it scored above zero. The judges must have been very incompetent, very stoned, or (most likely) very motivated to have a program pass the test (because that would be cool, eh?).

Given this transcript, it’s painfully obvious that “Goostman” is just running that same stupid AIML / MyCyberTwin pattern-matching algorithm that was very cool in 1965 when Weizenbaum wrote ELIZA, but which is only painful now; anyone taking any output from this kind of program seriously, or announcing it as any sort of breakthrough in anything, just has no clue what they are talking about (or are cynically lying for clicks).

Which makes it almost refreshing (not to mention the schadenfreude) to be able to mention a spectacular “conversational AI” failure that was apparently not driven by the usual AIML lookup-table.

Specifically, Microsoft’s recent Tay debacle, in which a highly-imitative conversation bot was put up on Twitter and began imitating the worst of human online behavior. In a way, Twitter was a brilliant choice of task: expectations for coherence on Twitter are low to start with, and interactions are short and often formulaic. But given that Tay appears (appeared?) to operate mostly by straight-up mimicry, the team behind it must either have had very limited knowledge of what Twitter is actually like, or have expected exactly this outcome and the resulting publicity (I’m such a cynic!).

But the most amusing part for me is that Microsoft now has to firmly emphasize that its software has no idea what it’s talking about, and doesn’t mean what it says, and that when it seems to suggest genocide or deny the reality of the Holocaust, it’s just parroting back what others have said to it, with no intelligence or understanding.

Which is basically my point. :)

For those who have tuned in only recently, I’m a Strong AI guy; I think there’s no reason we can’t eventually make a computer that can carry on a real conversation, and that understands and means what it says. So when John Searle comes up with circular arguments that computers can’t think because they don’t have the causal powers of the brain, or says that he knows his dog is conscious because it has deep brown eyes and adorable floppy ears, I am similarly annoyed.

I think the only thing standing in the way of our making intelligent software is that we have no idea how to do that. And that’s something we can fix! But in the meantime, can we stop pretending that trivial pattern-matching “conversation” is in any way interesting?

P.S. When I tweeted (“tweeted”) to Tay, she ignored the content of my “tweet”, and replied lyrically “er mer gerd erm der berst ert commenting on pics. SEND ONE TO ME!”. When I sent her a lovely picture of a brightly-colored banana slug, as one does, she responded “THIS IS NOT MERELY A PHOTOGRAPH THIS IS AN ARTISTIC MASTERPIECE”.

I was not impressed.

2015/12/14

Consciousness and the Verbal Bias

I have been privileged lately to be part of a little informal group that meets (twice now, I think) in a Chinese restaurant on the West Side and (more often but more diffusely) in email, and talks about the mysteries (or otherwise) of consciousness (whatever that is).

There is me, and Steve who used to have a weblog a million years ago, and some smart folks from Columbia University. We are all amateurs (although Steve threatens to lure in a professional philosopher in some capacity), but that may be a Good Thing.

(Extremely long-time readers of this weblog in its various incarnations, if there are any, may recall the ancient Problems of Consciousness pages that Steve and I did. Highly related!)

books

Here is a pile of books.

As we’ve talked about these things, I have for some reason found myself increasingly attracted to the “we are just passengers” approach to consciousness. Not so much as something to believe, but as something to think about.

The idea behind this approach (which may or may not be the same thing as “epiphenominalism”) is that while subjective experience reflects what happens in the objective (or “physical” or “natural” or whathaveyou) world, it does not influence it in any way.

Subjective experience (and therefore “us”, if we identify with our subjective experiences) is just a passenger, an observer, and to the extent that we feel like we are making decisions and carrying them out, we are just mistaken. Either we are so constituted that we always (or almost always) decide to do that thing that our bodies were going to do anyway, or (perhaps more likely) we actually “decide” what to do a few milliseconds after our bodies do it; we make up stories quickly and retroactively to explain why we “decided” to do that.

What if this were true? We’d no longer have to worry about how the subjective realm has effects on the objective (it doesn’t). We may still have to worry about how subjective experience finds out what is happening in the objective world, but that’s always been the easier part; we can probably even say that well it just does, which is roughly what we say to someone who worries about why masses experience gravitational attraction.

We don’t really have to worry about Other Minds any more, either!  Or rather, we will be nicely justified in giving up on that entirely!  No way I’m going to be able to determine anything like objectively whether you, or any other physical system, has subjective experience, since subjective experience causes no discernible (or indiscernible) effects in the objective world; so I don’t need to feel guilty about not actually knowing, but just being content with whatever working hypothesis seems to result in the best parties and so on.

One puzzle that seems to remain in the We Are Just Passengers (perhaps better called the I Am Just A Passenger) theory, is why it should be the case that some of the things that my body says seem to reflect so accurately what I subjectively experience. If I have no effect on the objective world, why should this part of the objective world (the things my body says, writes in weblogs, etc) in fact correspond so well to how it feels to be me?

I started out thinking that it would be really interesting to see a theory about that: that would explain why objective biological bodies would tend to commit speech-acts that describe subjective experience, without that explanation including actual subjective experience anywhere in the causal chain.

Then like yesterday or something I had what may or may not be an insight: if a version of the Passenger theory can hold that I make my “decisions” by quickly rationalizing to myself the things that I (“subconsciously”) observe my body doing, why can’t it also hold that some significant part of what I “experience” is similarly made up just after the fact, as I retroactively experience (or remember experiencing) things corresponding to what I perceive my body saying (where “saying” here includes whatever unvoiced but subvocalized inner narration-acts occur).

That is, how certain are we (am I) that we (where each “we” identifies with our individual subjective experience) actually cause the speech-acts that our bodies carry out? I don’t see any reason we should be particularly infallible about that, at least any more than we should be infallible about causing our bodies to do other things, like buying chicken instead of turkey, or going to the opera.

We have a bias toward verbal behaviors, I will suggest, and tend to assume (without, I will suggest, any really very good reason) that verbal behaviors reflect the contents of subjective experience more or better than other kinds of behaviors do.

Of the various studies that have been done suggesting that our bodies start to do things before “we” have actually “decided” to do them, I recall (without actually going back and looking, because yolo) that the experimenters more or less assumed that verbal behaviors reflected the activity of subjective consciousness, whereas other body behaviors (and neural firings and so on) reflected mere physical stuff.  But why assume that?

In the extremely surreal and fascinating phenomenon of blindsight, a person will (for instance) claim verbally not to be able to see anything to the right, but will pretty reliably catch (or avoid) a ball tossed from the right side.

This is pretty much universally described as a case where our bodies can react to something (the ball from the right) that we don’t have conscious awareness of.

But why is this the right description? One thing the body does (the catching or avoiding) indicates awareness of the ball, and another thing the body does (the saying “no, I can’t see anything on that side”) indicates a lack of awareness.

Why do we assume that the verbal act reflects the contents of subjective awareness, and the other behavior doesn’t?

If someone couldn’t speak, but could catch a ball, we would generally not hesitate to say that they had subjective awareness of the ball.

But if the person does speak, and says things about their subjective awareness, we take that saying as overriding the non-verbal behaviors.

Could we be wrong?

The two main other kinds of things that might be happening are: that the person has subjective awareness of the ball, but for some reason the speech parts of his body insist on denying the fact; or that there are two subjective consciousnesses here, and one (associated with the speech behaviors) is not aware of the ball, but the other (associated with the catching or avoiding) is.

The first of these seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking about verbal behaviors (at least from people) happening without consciousness. The second seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking (outside of split-brain cases) of two consciousnesses associated with the same person.

(Would it be terribly frustrating to be the non-verbal consciousness in the second case? Aware of the ball, catching the ball, experiencing those things, but unable to speak when asked about it, and unable to stop the bizarrely traitorous speech organs from denying it. Or maybe that consciousness is more deeply non-verbal, and doesn’t understand and/or doesn’t have any particular desire to respond to, the questions being asked.)

Hm, where did all of that get us? I think I’ve written down pretty much what I wanted to capture: the idea that even our own speech acts might be, not things uniquely caused by our subjective consciousnesses, but simply more things that happen in the world that might or might not have any particular causal connection to subjectivity.  And that, perhaps consequent to that, that when we are developing theories about what other consciousnesses there might be out there in the world, we should watch ourselves for unwarranted bias toward speech acts over other behaviors.

Perhaps we can develop some good theory about why speech acts are in fact special in these ways, but I don’t have one at the moment, and I don’t know if anyone else has seen a need for one and written down any words in that direction.  (If you do, please let me know!)

And in the meantime, perhaps not assuming that speech-acts are special can help us reach some interesting places we would not otherwise have reached, or avoid some puzzles that would otherwise have puzzled us.

 

2015/11/04

Demographic substitution does not preserve truth

When I was in kid-school, a Social Studies teacher pointed out to us that there was no entry in the index of our textbook for “Women’s history” or “Women” in general.

I flipped through it and raised my hand, and said that hey, there was nothing for “Men’s history” or “Men”, either!

This is because I was a smug little shit who didn’t have the first clue how the world actually works.

(I like to think that this is a bit less true now.)

The teacher more or less adored me just because I was smart and (usually) well-behaved, and rather than giving me the smack-down I really needed, she (I vaguely recall) just said something like “It’s not the same thing”.

Which is entirely correct.

It’s easy to see why we might expect statements about one group to have the same status (truth, objectionability, etc.) as the same statements applied to another group.  In many contexts, there is basic fairness involved.  “Women should be able to participate in government” and “Men should be able to participate in government” are both true.  “Men should not be jerks” and also “Women should not be jerks”.  Or simple fact: “Most white people have toes”, and “Most people of color have toes”.

On the other hand, a few moments of thought reveals lots of statements for which this doesn’t work.  “Most pregnant people are women” is true; but “Most pregnant people are men” is false.  “Until comparatively recently, the law considered women to be essentially property” is true; but “Until comparatively recently, the law considered men to be essentially property” is false.  “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se” is pretty clearly true, but “Western society grants extensive privilege to disabled women per se” is implausible at best.

So far these examples are all of “ought” statements that survive under demographic substitution, and some “is” statements that don’t.  But in any plausible morality, situated “ought” statements are implied by “is” statements about their situation; their context.

A very strong case could be made, for instance, that “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se”, and “Mainstream study of history has been from a heavily male-oriented perspective” are both true, and that as a result “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about women in the index of this history textbook” can be true, while “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about men in the index of this history textbook” is silly (because, as I vaguely recall my Social Studies teacher pointing out, the whole book is about that).

More significantly (and I imagine more controversially, although perhaps not among y’all weblog readers), there are sets of “is” statements that don’t survive demographic substitution, from which we can conclude that for instance “Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is true, whereas “Men, white people, and straight people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is not. Or in shorter words, Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power.

And I am happy to have written that down, because I’ve had the argument rattling around inchoate in my head for some years.

Now there are a significant number of people posting things on the Internet who would claim that that the concluding sentence, that Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power, is just obviously false, and unfair, and sexist / racist, and so on. Some of them are, I imagine, smug little shits who don’t have the first clue how the world actually works; some others are just doing a good imitation.  To avoid the argument that we would use to get to the conclusion, they would either deny some of the initial “is” statements (denying that there is currently structural oppression of women or people of color, for instance), or deny in one way or the other that those statements imply the conclusion.

Or, perhaps more commonly, they would just repeat that the concluding sentence is sexist / racist, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, because fairness, and so on.  Because, that is, demographic substitution ought to preserve the truth of “ought” statements, and saying that it doesn’t is sexist / racist / etc.

What finally pushed me over the edge to write this down was some Twitter discussion of this rather baffling story on the often-odious “Breitbart” site, by the often-odious Milo somebody.  It’s still not clear to me what the intent of the story is, aside from a general suspicion that it’s supposed to be humorous in some way (I do like the part where someone asks what direction they’re driving, and someone else looks at the GPS and says “up”; that’s funny!).  But at least some of the Milo supporters in the Twitter thread that I foolishly walked into, thought that it was obviously a parody of feminist claims that various aspects of technology are gendered against women.

The argument would be, I guess, something like “I have written this piece claiming that an aspect of technology is anti-male, and the piece is silly; therefore other pieces, claiming that other aspects of techhnology are anti-female, are also silly.”  Or, perhaps more charitably, “See how silly this claim that a technology is anti-male is; claims that technologies are anti-female are similar to it, and are just as silly!”.

And this brought to mind some sort of claim like “It’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of women, because it’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of men, and demographic substitution preserves silliness!”.

But (whatever other additional things might or might not be going on in the case), demographic substitution doesn’t preserve silliness.  Or various other properties.

So there we are!

2015/10/21

“All Ravens are Black” — a meta-investigation

Technique 1

Observe a sufficiently large number of ravens, and determine whether any are non-black.

Examples 1

Raven 1 – black
Raven 2 – black
Raven 3 – black
. . .
Raven N – black

Technique 2

Observe a sufficiently large number of non-black entities, and determine whether any are ravens.

Examples 2

White Snowball 1 – not a raven
Red Pepper 1 – not a raven
Brown Bag 1 – not a raven
White Snowball 2 – not a raven
. . .
Yellow Yield Sign N – not a raven

Observations

It may be necessary to make significantly more observations in technique 2 for the same degree of confidence.

On the other hand, it will be significantly easier to find appropriate entities for observation in technique 2.

When stating the results of technique 2, it is good practice (although not strictly required) to observe a single raven*.  If this is not done, the statement of results should include, for clarity of communication, the statement that the observations made do not establish that any ravens in fact exist.

* Note that it is not necessary to observe the color of the raven in this case.

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2015/10/06

Gang aft agley

I have slowly come to the theory that other people plan (and make plans, and have plans, and do planning, and so on) in ways that (quantitatively and perhaps even qualitatively) I don’t.

I tend to operate by occasionally looking around to see where I am (in the broad sense), and then doing whatever seems appropriate.

Other people (some? many? most?) seem to tend to have a sort of prediction, in more or less fine detail, of what is going to happen in the next N minutes (for N anywhere from smallish to quite largish), and put quite a bit of mental effort into polishing that prediction, and comparing it to what is actually happening, or what seems likely to happen, or what they would like to happen, and so on.

Or perhaps the prediction is what they would like to happen (from among the most plausible alternatives?), and they compare it to what is likely to happen?  I’m not clear on the details.

At one level this seems like a lot of effort, to me, given how hard it is to predict stuff.  We (the culture that the planners and I share) have sayings about this; the “gang aft agley” one, and “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, and so on.  Given that we know it doesn’t work, and that it takes effort, well…

On the other hand I’m sure that at some level I do it, too, at least in that “doing whatever seems appropriate” probably is somewhat driven by doing what seems most likely to lead to desirable future situations, and that might be seen as a kind of prediction.

Also there are some times when there is a complicated multi-step process sort of thing, and I have to like remember all of the steps in order to get to some desirable end through the process.  When that happens, I tend to write the list down, because otherwise I will forget.  Sometimes I forget anyway.

It’s certainly easier to fit the unplanned approach into the “this present instant is all that exists” idea that I’m working with. Since this present instant is all that exists, all that one can do is notice the present instant, and do something based on it. But if one is a planner, many of the things that exist in this present instant, and that one can be aware of (and even identify with, which is where I might claim some of the trouble arises), are plans; plans as ideas, as mental constructs, as expectations and desires and even fears, as worries.  And then one does things based not only on what is true in the actual world right now, but also based on what one imagines or expects or hopes or fears is true, or might (or might not) become true.

Not that I don’t do that.  It would be (what?) overly dramatic of me to claim that what I do is never driven by hopes or fears or expectations about the present or future.  It’s pretty hard to describe anything significant that anyone does without some sort of reference to those things, at least indirectly.

So it’s either that I’m just more or less ignorant of my own plans and expectations and hopes and fears (where “I” here means the conscious entity that currently has control of my typing), or it’s that I actually have fewer of those things and/or am less impacted (by which I mean either effected or affected, I can never remember) by them.  Or, quite plausibly, both.

I do think about what’s likely to happen in the not-too-distant (or even in the distant) future, but generally it’s more like a daydream than a plan.  Speculative fiction, so to speak.

Boats, Spuyten DuyvilAnd that’s perhaps why I can occasionally be found, say, driving in entirely in the wrong direction in the morning (toward the place I worked for the 33 years before 2013, say), or standing on the platform at the 72nd Street C station, not entirely sure how I got there or exactly where I ought to be going next.  But enjoying the flow of cars or faces going past, and the light on the boats in the river.

This is coming out sort of “look how admirably spontaneous and adorably absent-minded I am because of my Buddha-like wisdom”, I realize.  This was not my initial intent!  :)  There are probably all various advantages to making and having and following plans, and I probably do it even more or less just as much as anyone else.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way!

(Then there are these “beliefs” that people apparently “have”… hee hee)

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2015/09/24

This present moment is all there is

That’s the phrase / idea / thought / truth / falsehood that I’m currently working on (for some value of “working on”).

It’s especially interesting / challenging because it’s so incompatible (in some sense) with pretty much all of the tools of language, and even of thought, that we have available to bring to bear on it.

Perhaps relatedly, on Tuesday (which was my and Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthdays!) I went for the first time to the Village Zendo, which is a ten-minute subway ride from the office, and treated myself to an hour of zazen (two bells, thirty minutes of sitting, one bell, a few minutes to stretch one’s legs, thirty minutes of sitting, three bells and done).

The space is lovely.

the Village Zendo

Here also is a picture of a pretzel:

pretzel

In other news, most of the team at work and I spent two and two-halves days in St. Thomas (!!!), which is unusual.  Some very random observations:

  • It was prettier, but unbearably hot, when the sun was out.  Mostly while we were there the sun wasn’t out, and it was quite nice (and still quite pretty).
  • Some kayaks are very much like canoes, and much less tippy and all than the kind that you basically wear.
  • During The Season (which had basically just ended) they have like three to five cruise ships a day, adding several thousand (!) to the population of the island.
  • If you are trying to sell a random tourist who is looking at the vendor stalls some illicit substance, you should probably speak loudly enough that they can hear just what the substance is.  Not like there were any police around listening.
  • In St. Thomas, you drive on the left (because of Danish heritage) but use cars with the steering wheel on the left also (because of USAian present).  This is terrifying.  Even for just the passengers.
  • Free Rum Punch in the lobby!
  • Instead of rabbits, say, they have iguanas.  Startlingly large ones!
  • I got a great hat.

And finally in news of other worlds, something for those of my readers who have yet to grok the whole Second Life thing: there is this set of videos / documentaries called the Drax Files, that feature all sorts of ways that Second Life can positively impact Real Life people and things (and they are pretty short!).  I recommend them to all; the latest episode covers a number of people who make movies in SL (“machinima“!).

Fuller coverage and more links over on the secret Second Life weblog.  (The present frame is all there is!)

2015/07/10

Not a good comparison

97

My mind is like the Autumn moon
Shining clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me, how shall I explain?

Han Shan, Cold Mountain (trans. Burton Watson)

I dreamed last night (or I probably did; see below) that I was with some people, and we were laughing about someone who claimed that they’d been officially declared Enlightened by some mystical Teacher, and someone asked me, hey, you’re all into that Zen stuff, I’d think you’d take this more seriously?

And I nodded and said something like:

You know, except for a few annoying [something] sects, it’s not like you go to your teacher and show how you’ve progressed and eventually the teacher says “okay good, you’re enlightened now”.  They might say “okay, keep going” or “okay, here’s what you should work on next” or even like “okay, I think you are ready to teach some students of your own”, but never “okay, you’re enlightened”, that would be just…

and I shook my head and laughed.

(Where the [something] was some Japanese or Chinese word, maybe kensho, or RInzai (no offense to any Rinzai folk in the waking world), or some dream-word entirely, but there was a word there.)

The reason I say above there that I probably dreamed this last night is that it’s like the most literal, ordinary, realistic, unadorned dream I can recall having had, so it’s not by any means impossible that it wasn’t a dream at all, but actually happened sometime recently, and I’ve just lost track of the actual time and place and details and who was there and what that missing word was and all.

It all sort of blurs together, amirite?

So I say to you,
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

ol’ Buddha, the Diamond Sutra (right at the end there)

2015/02/03

A footnote in Kaufmann’s translation of “I and Thou”

I was struck just now to find, tucked away at the end of a footnote discussing the technical details of one of the many tricky bits of translation in Buber’s “I and Thou”, this paragraph from Kaufmann:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disputing it.

It is easy to read this as a sort of jarring Philistinism, as though Kaufmann is wondering wistfully (or grumpily) why Buber has to use all of these coinages and poetic turns of phrase, all of these images and metaphors, rather than laying out his argument clearly, in simple and common words, perhaps as a set of bulleted lists (maybe a PowerPoint deck!), so that one could analyze it logically and decide whether or not it’s likely to be true.

Which seems like a hysterically inappropriate thing to think, given that what Buber is doing here is laying out a particular way of thinking about the nature of reality and each individual’s relationship to God (or equivalent). A deeply personal way of seeing the world, that he invites the reader to consider, and (implicitly) to adopt or not according to taste.

This isn’t really a thing that admits of being true or false, or of being expressed in plain and simple words (or at least of words where “what is meant” is immediately evident without special attention being paid to the question).

For me at least, Buber is saying, “think of the things we do as divided into two kinds: the I-It and the I-You; then think of…”. This is in the imperative, and doesn’t admit of being true or false (or likely or unlikely).

And surely Kaufmann, being the translator of the silly thing, realizes this.

I see only three plausible theories here so far: that Kaufmann is just pulling our leg in this paragraph (which would be wonderful); that there is an entirely different way of understanding Buber under which the paragraph makes more sense (I would be very curious what that way is); and that Kaufmann really does fail to understand the material as anything more than muzzily-expressed truth-claims that, if only more concretely written down, one could study objectively in the lab (this seems both the most obvious, and in some way the least plausible, explanation).

It’s a funny world. :)

2015/01/05

That secret and powerful message

It may have been as much as thirteen years since I mentioned my unaccountable interest in Wacko Tax Protesters, but I am happy to see that The Tax Protester FAQ is still there and may even have been updated since 2002.

I was reminded of the Whole Area by a Wonkette piece, How Are The Feminists Keeping Men From Getting Laid Today? (Oh, Wonkette, you are so funny with the funny headlines and all), which refers in passing to one “Peter-Andrew: Nolan (c)”, whose distinctive use of punctuation reminded me of ol’ David-Wynn: Miller, author of such lyrical prose as:

~2 FOR THE EDUCATIONAL-CORRECTIONS OF THESE MODIFYING-COMMUNICATIONS ARE WITH THESE CORRECTION-CLAIMS AGAINST THESE FICTIONAL-ADVERB-VERB-USAGE WITH AN OPERATIONAL-METHODS OF A FICTIONAL-MODIFICATION-PARSE-SYNTAX-GRAMMAR.(8500-YEARS OF THE SYNTAX-GRAMMAR-MODIFICATIONS WITH EVERY LANGUAGE)

Now normally we would not publicly point and/or laugh at such things, because schizophrenia is not a fun condition to have in general, but it seems at least plausible that D-W:M is actually quite sane, since although his new kind of speech does have the power to bring about world peace, since

~39~a FOR THE DUTY OF THESE QUANTUM-MATH-PARSE-SYNTAX-GRAMMAR-COMMUNICATION-CLAIMS IS WITH THE CORRECTIONS OF THE WRONG-WORDS IN THE NOW-TIME WITH THE MISSING-WORDS-HISTORY OF EVERY COMMUNICATION-TRANSLATION-WORLD-WIDE WITH THE CLAIM OF THE COMMUNICATIONS AND LANGUAGE-FRONTWARDS AND BACKWARDS WITH THE TRANSLATIONS BETWEEN THE FOREIGN-LANGUAGES WITH THE CLAIMS OF THE FACTS AND MEANING FOR THE PRICELESS-PEACE BY THE TREATIES BETWEEN EVERY COUNTRY.

the main point, or at least the thing he is by far most famous for, is the claim that if you use this ummmm language you don’t have to pay your taxes, or really obey any laws at all that you’d rather not, because after all

~76 FOR THE CONSTRUCTIVE-TREASON OF THE CONTRACT IS WITH THIS CLAIM OF THE DUTY AND AUTHORITY WITH THE SURRENDERING OF THE TRUTH-COMMUNICATIONS-CONTRACT INTO THE FICTION-STATE WITH THE FICTION-FRINGE-FLAG WITH AN OATH AND COMMUNICATION-CLAIMS OF AN OATH IN THE TRUTH, ALSO KNOWN AS THE DUTY BY THE SUPPORTING OF THE U.S.: W.C.-CONTRACT WITH THE CONSTRUCTIVE-TREASON BY THE DEFINITION WITH THE KNOWLEDGE WITH THE VOLITION BY THE DAMAGE: TITLE: 4: U.-S.-C.-S.-~THREE~3 OF THE FLAG OF THE U.S.C. BY THE FORMING OF THE JURISDICTION OF THE FICTION/FOREIGN-STATE-COMMUNICATION WITH THE CONTINUANCE OF THE DAMAGE OF THE CLAIMS AND RAPE OF THE CLAIMANT/ BY THE OFFICERS OF THE COURT.

and so on.

(Oh my just stumbled across his translation of the Lord’s Prayer; should I reconsider my thoughts on his mental condition?)

Anyway, it turns out that this is no longer, or perhaps never was, just a USian thing, but has also infested Canada and other FICTION-STATEs.

Here is an amusing weblog entry on the subject from our neighbors to the North: How Not To Manage a Bankruptcy or Income Tax Case, which led me I think to the text of Meads v. Meads, 2012 ABQB 571 (CanLII) which is a very nice overview of the whole Wacko Tax Protester situation by an actual judge writing actual legal reasons and stuff.

I have not finished reading through that yet.

(One of the scammier scams is the claim that if you get a bill or anything else really, you can just write “Accepted for Value” on it, and sign it, and send it back, and you’re all done. This is clearly stupid, but for some reason web sites like this are out there attempting to get the extremely gullible to pay money to find out exactly how to do it. I wonder how many bills they get back with “Accepted for Value” written across them, and how they feel about that.)

Now on the other hand I can’t be too tough on people who actually think that there are secret legal facts that the legal establishment is conspiring to keep from the common people, because it happens to be the case that there are secret legal facts that the legal establishment is conspiring to keep from the common people.

One of the things what was noted just in passing in something linked from something above was a list of various other wacko pretend-legal groups, and one of them was “the Fully Informed Jury movement” or other words to that effect.

And that drew me up a bit short, because unlike the wackos trying to convince people that if you attach signed postage stamps to your clothing you are effectively royalty (really!), the fully-informed jury folks are trying to convince people of something that is in fact true.

To quote from the article that was linked from whatever it was I found this mentioned in, the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 88, Issue 1, Article 8 (Fall 1997), Populism, Free Speech, and the Rule of Law: The Fully Informed Jury Movement and its Implications, by one Erick J. Haynie:

It has long been recognized that juries have the power to render verdicts inconsistent with the criminal law. Since jury acquittals are never subject to appellate review, a “not guilty” verdict will always be final regardless of the jury’s reasoning or its interpretation of the facts.

Which is to say, when you are on a petit jury and the judge instructs you that you are allowed to determine the facts of the case, but must strictly obey his pronouncements on the law, he is well sort of maybe lying just a bit, because in fact you can acquit for whatever darn reason you want. But the lying is in a good cause!

The great distinction in American jury nullification doctrine, however, is that while juries enjoy an unrestrained power to nullify the law, courts almost universally forbid this power to be explained to juries. The prevailing view among jurisdictions is that affirmative instruction on the ability to nullify would lead to lawlessness in the jury decision-making process.

That’s Haynie again. Isn’t that nice? Can’t trust juries to act reasonably if they knew the truth, so we’ll just conceal it from them. Otherwise it’s the End of Everything!

For a jury that is taught the legal reality that, no matter the facts of the case, an acquittal verdict is unreviewable and a guilty verdict will be given much deference on appeal, will also understand that it has nearly absolute power to determine questions of life, liberty, and property however it pleases. At that point, law is no more.

Welllll… This doesn’t seem all that blindingly obvious to me. (Especially since they can only acquit unreviewably, not convict.) Surely there is a position between “lie to people and keep this fact secret” and “tell them they can just do whatever the heck they want”. More on that below.

Our Haynie considers; what are we to do about this? Action is clearly required, now that people can find stuff out on the internet! And there’s even this Fully Informed Jury Association that is trying to tell people this true thing in an organized way omg!

(Their website does sound a little close-to-the-edge here and there; but imagine the feeling of finding yourself in the middle of a conspiracy-theory scenario that turns out to be true! Brrrr.)

Anyway, Haynie again, clutching his pearls:

Silencing attorneys and refusing nullification instructions, however, is no longer an adequate solution to the nullification problem. With the rise of FIJA, judges are no longer the sole gate keepers of that secret and powerful message. Consequently, as the FIJA movement continues to grow it will become necessary for the jurisdictions to develop new approaches to the nullification problem that are more mindful of juror awareness of jury nullification.

Yes, new approaches, that’s what we need!

Fortunately and amusingly, of the various possible new approaches Haynie considers, all of them, except for making it harder for FIJA types to actually throw information at jury members on courthouse grounds, turn out to be unworkable and/or clearly unconstitutional.

(And at this point I begin to suspect that Haynie is a genius of gentle satire, and he’s actually pointing out that the project of keeping the “secret and powerful message” under wraps is actually doomed.)

His conclusion:

And so time will march on until either FIJA withers into nothingness or the rule of law comes to have “about as much force as the Cheshire Cat’s grin.” True lovers of liberty will fear the latter over the former. Anarchy is no better friend of freedom than an overreaching government.

Quite the doomsday scenario! The assumption here is that if people find out from the evil internet that they are allowed to vote Not Guilty just because they think the law is unjust, say, they will start capriciously acquitting people randomly right and left, and it’s Game Over for law and order.

And if you have that low an opinion of potential jurors, you must be pretty unhappy that we have juries at all! Let alone Grand Juries! Why, those people could do anything!

I think in actual practice there are all sorts of jury instructions that could acknowledge the nullification power without messing anything up. Top of the head:

I’ve just explained to you that you are here to determine the facts of the case, and have a duty to follow my instructions as to the law. There is one exception to this: if the facts of the case and the law are such that the accused did violate the law beyond a reasonable doubt, but that in this instance a guilty verdict would be gravely unjust, so that you in good conscience simply cannot vote to convict, you have a duty to vote to acquit. Be aware that this is an extremely rare situation; District Attorneys work very hard not to bring you such cases, and judges work very hard to make sure that when one slips through, we catch it before it gets to the jury. But just for completeness, I mention this here.

All right, that exception aside, to return to what I said a moment ago…

And yeah I’m sure that that has big holes in it since I Am Not A Lawyer and I only thought about it for like ten minutes, but something like it seems plausible to me.

Better than lying to people and just hoping that they don’t find out the truth and bring about The End of Everything, anyway…

But you still have to pay your taxes!

2014/12/30

Liebe ist ein welthaftes Wirken

Kaufmann translates this, from Buber’s “I and Thou”, as “love is a cosmic force”, but gives us the original in a footnote to see for ourselves.

One thing I like about German and how synthetic it is (in the technical sense that I just learned; I was going to say “agglutinative“, but that turns out to be wrong) is that you can look at the parts of many words, and see how the meaning compares to the sum of those parts.

The most simple-minded translation of that phrase might be “Love is a worldly work”, which has the same nice consonance of double-ues, but a very different sense, since the English “worldly” has strong connotations that are almost the opposite of Kaufmann’s “cosmic”.

It’s interesting that the translator chose “force” here, rather than the obvious “work” (which would have read a bit awkwardly), or perhaps “act”. Because Buber is talking about love in the context of “those who stand in it and behold in it”, “force” probably makes more sense than “act”, since you can stand in a force (a force field!), but not so much in an act.

$50 FINEBut then I wonder why Buber wrote Wirken rather than say Kraft. And then I am at, or perhaps well beyond, the very end of my competence as a translator. :)

The other day the little daughter, watching me staring into my phone and clicking and swiping without end, commented more or less “you’re taking in so much content; I don’t know if that’s healthy”.

I found myself very much in agreement with that thought, and put the phone away (temporarily) and looked at various stacks of books sitting unread here and there, and picked up “I and Thou”, read the Acknowledgements and Translator’s Key, skipped Kaufmann’s very long Prologue (these things should generally be at the end of a book, in my ever so humble opinion, so that one can encounter the work itself with more or less fresh eyes, and then read the prologue-writer’s thoughts about it afterward, when one has already one’s own ideas to compare them to), and started very slowly into the work (Werk, Wirken, Kunstwerk?) itself.

It’s a very dense book, or feels like it deserves to be treated as such, which means that I have to be careful not to spend so much time on each sentence that I eventually drift off and do other things before I get past the first chapter.

As I tweeted not long after starting (and yeah, I know; somehow Twitter and the Face Book and now even plague have all taken up residence in my ways of relating to the world):

I can’t of course actually empty the cup, and I admit I’m not really trying all that hard to.

Currently, a few more pages in, I’m wondering if Buber will go from talking about the ineffable relating that is I-You (and that he identifies with, or as, love in some sense), to a realization that the duality present even in I-You (because after all there is still I, and You) is at some level an illusion. Because that would be so Buddhist.

There are no sentient beings,
And I vow to save them.

It will be interesting either way; if he does get to some kind of non-duality, I’m sure it will have a flavor all its own. If he doesn’t, it will be interesting to see if he simply stops short of it, actively considers and denies it, or goes off in some other direction entirely.

I’ve been meaning to read this book since college sometime :) and it’s nice to finally get to it.

Solstice was nice, thank you for asking, if a little atypical. All four of us were here together, but instead of the usual Christmas Dinner with ham an’ all, we went out to the local diner.

The story: M smelled gas in the basement, so on I forget maybe the 22nd we had the gas man come and test things, and he found there was a leak somewhere in the kitchen range, and while we were moving the range out from the wall it got caught on something and when we pushed on it a little to get it past the something, the entire glass front of the oven door very enthusiastically shattered into a zillion pieces and fell onto the floor.

That was exciting!

We called the appliance place who sent out a person who determined that the range was old enough to vote, and that no one makes parts for it anymore (either for replacing the door glass or fixing any possible leak).

A new range arrived yesterday and I have baked my first loaves of bread in it, but between the breaking of the old and the installing of the new we could cook only in the microwave and crockpot, and although we considered trying to design a satisfying Solstice dinner around those, in the end we decided the local Diner would be more fun.

And it was very nice.

How do Diners do it, by the way; anyone know? How can you have that enormous a menu of available things, and be able to produce absolutely any of them in a reasonably short span of time? Are they all designed to be producible from some smallish set of ingredients, and you keep those around and ready at all times? Do all of the chefs know how to make all of the things? Are there big recipe books? Or do they look at the menu when the order comes in, figure out what you are probably expecting, and wing it?

2014/08/25

Fifteen years!

Wow, you’d think something would have changed after a week away; flying cars, or aliens walking around Manhattan, or at least a new subway line or something, but NO, everything is pretty much just the same!

Weird.

Extremely attentive and/or precognitive readers will suspect rightly that we were away for a week because we were in Maine; the first time that happened was in 1999, and this is 2014, so it’s been fifteen years!

And since that first Maine trip was when I started writing a weblog, and this is in some sense the same weblog as that, this is the fifteenth anniversary of the weblog!

Woot!

Here is a picture of Maine:

Renewal

Isn’t that gorgeous? Along with M’s sister’s family, and their father and stepmother, we rented a house on top of Dodge Mountain, overlooking Rockland and the bay and points East, with a lovely deck, and chairs to sit in, and tables to put your book and your wineglass on, and beds to sleep in, and all.

It was great.

I did a lot of reading, as usual. That book there is “Karma and Rebirth” by Christmas (sic) Humphries. I wrote it up for GoodReads (hope that link works for not-me people).

(I will resist the obvious temptation to produce lots of weblog content by pasting in all various book reviews I have written instead of just linking to them!)

I read that because I happened across it in some used book store (perhaps Hello Hello Books?), shortly after watching Hemant Mehta’s rather offputting “Can Atheists be Buddhists“, and it seemed like a nice synchronicity.

The Mehta piece is offputting for a few reasons:

  • His conclusion is basically “no”, and I’m sort of both of those things, so yeah.
  • The reason his conclusion is basically “no” is that, he says, although Buddhists don’t believe in a deity, they do believe some stuff (specifically Karma and Rebirth) that Isn’t Scientific, and therefore atheists won’t believe it.
  • This implies that for Mehta “atheist” doesn’t just mean “doesn’t believe in God” for some value of “God”, it means “only believes stuff that is Scientific”, and that seems like just sloppy thinking or sloppy word-usage or something,
  • His conclusion that Karma and Rebirth are Not Scientific seems very offhand and not particularly well thought out; as for that matter is his assumption that all Buddhists believe in either or both of them in any form.

Some day I will have to write a post on Buddhism and Scientificness and Karma and Rebirth and all, and why atheists can in fact be Buddhists, and vice-versa, at least when they are me. Not today, though. :)

Another book, that I’m sure I bought in Hello Hello Books (which is a great bookstore, by the way), and then I read and enjoyed very much, is Doris Grumbach’s “The Pleasure of Their Company”, which I also wrote up for GoodReads. It was good.

I do love lying about in Maine, feeling the wind and reading books and thinking about things.

Also I went out on a boat! And held a lobster!

Here is a picture from on the boat, with the notable deck hand Dana holding the lobster in question:

Dana with the lobster

and here is the lobster, with parts of my hand holding it:

Lobster

and a little girl looking dubious in the background.

We did many other things in Maine! I took three of the four kids to the beach one day, but the sun was behind clouds and the sand was too wet and rocky and the waves too small and they got cold, so we didn’t stay very long.

Here are some rocks!

Rocks

They do look coldish.

We went into Rockland a couple of times (although sadly we were not in town for this

Internet Cats

which I bet would have been noteworthy), and into Camden a couple of times (here is a classy black-and-white shot of some water in Camden:

Water in Camden

just because we are posting lots of pictures; more and/or different ones can as usual be found on the Insta-Gram).

Reading back through some of the various Maine and post-Maine postings in the weblog over the years, I see lots of variety in terms of thoughtfulness, randomness, introspection, and so on. I did feel introspective, in a good way, and renewed, in a good way, by it all this year, but in writing about it I’m mostly just writing random things, I think. :)

Maybe largely because I didn’t feel like writing about it at all while I was there (too busy doing it?), and now am writing about it retrospectively, having been home for a couple of days and back to work one day, so somewhat back in the quotidian mindset. Or something?

Here is another picture :) this one of ol’ Red’s Eats (where we didn’t eat this year) as randomly enhanced in its usual drive-by way by Google Plus:

Red's Eats

Kinda neat, I thought.

What else? I read some other books, acquired some other books, sat zazen a bit, had some thoughts, drank some wine, ate some lobster and some blueberry pie, enjoyed some sun and wind.

And I’m not unhappy to be home. :)

About all one could ask for, really!

2014/07/01

Five trivial ways to feel like you’re meditating!

Attractive white woman, probably meditating

Attractive white woman, probably meditating

Meditation, sitting, zazen, vipassana, samatha, dhyāna: practices like these have long histories in human culture; people in all parts of the world, through long centuries, have devoted their energy, their time, and their lives, to the rigors of practice.

But today, fortunately, we know better!

By removing from these practices anything inconveniently spiritual or in any way demanding, and packaging something vaguely like what remains under appealing names like “mindfulness” or “attention”, we have obtained a set of modern products which contribute positively to the health, well-being, self-esteem, and profit margins of the people who sell them online.

In the spirit of recent highly-clickable works like 13 ways to meditate without sitting like a monk from the inner-awareness site MarketWatch Dot Com, and because many people would like to feel that they are meditating, without actually going to any effort, we prevent these Five Top Tips. Thank you for clicking on our ads.

Take a deep breath now and then. Breathing is good, and helps keep your blood oxygenated. Deep breaths can cause a momentary head-rush that is easily mistaken for something significant. Also, people who meditate do breathe, sometimes deeply.

Think “aummm” to yourself. This is a cool sound, that reminds many people of hippies and meditation and things. Also, something about jewels and lotuses. This sound can be made at any volume; we recommend a low volume, so no one else hears it and thinks you are some kind of weirdo.

Don’t worry. All true meditative traditions agree that everything is really all the same, and that whatever is happening is okay. So you can be meditative by not worrying about anything. Or by worrying. Or whatever, really.

Notice how the people around you are not meditating. Most likely the other people around you on the plane or at the espresso bar are not being mindful and meditating like you are. This leads naturally to the next tip.

Feel good about yourself for meditating. Mindfulness improves self-esteem, and self-esteem is really a kind of mindfulness. Simply by being mindful about the fact that you are meditating, and how well this reflects on you, you are meditating mindfully; it is a Virtuous Cycle!

In addition to these Five Top Tips, experts agree that it is beneficial to eliminate from your life as many problems and distractions as you can; so if possible, try to be prosperous, healthy, and not a member of any minority or historically oppressed groups. Reading the Wall Street Journal is good, too.

2014/06/08

Greece v Galloway: well that’s annoying!

subtle coercive pressuresYou can tell I’ve been busy because I failed to notice this last month:

Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court. — Greece v Galloway

Basically the Supremes were given the chance to say that sectarian prayer (“we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross”), or even prayer in general (“blah blah blah God blah blah”), is out of place in government contexts since some of the salient citizens could obviously feel excluded; and they did something close to the opposite, on the amusing and infuriating assumption that this stuff “unites” us in our “common effort”.

There is good coverage of this on Friendly Atheist and very good analysis on ScotusBlog.

Justice Kagan gets it just right in this bit of dissent:

Contrary to the majority’s apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not “part of our expressive idiom” or “part of our heritage and tradition,” assuming the word “our” refers to all Americans.

but also disappointingly does exactly the same thing herself in writing

None of this means that Greece’s town hall must be religion- or prayer-free. “[W]e are a religious people,” Marsh observed.

Not assuming that the word “we” refers to all Americans, eh, Justice Kagan? Hem hem!

The conservative Justices are saying, as conservative Justices tend to, “people like us have no problem with this, and people who aren’t like us don’t really matter much.”

And that’s always bad.

But it’s sad that, as ScotusBlog notes, even the dissenters seem to assume that government prayer is just fine, and the only thing that might make anyone feel unacceptably excluded is if it’s the wrong kind of prayer.

Phht.

2014/06/04

Intensive

oryoki

The Enlightened One
Spills his oryoki bowl.
Rice everywhere.

As well as being of course all profound and stuff, this is a Celebratory Poem on my having signed up for the Basic Space Meditation Intensive up at Zen Mountain Monastery in September.

Just around my birthday; a present!

It is also a reference to the fact that oryoki seems to be the main thing I am worried (“worried”) about vis-à-vis said Intensive. Which is kind of funny, in some elusive sense, but it’s always good to know where the barriers are.

Or, well, to have a theory about it.

Because then you have the fun of discovering you were wrong. :)

And working on different surprise barriers instead.

Or as well.

So anyway I am extremely looking forward to it; devoted (really really devoted) readers will recall our previous weekend at Zen Mountain Monastery back in (omg haha) 2006 (a mere eight years ago), and how great that was.

Not that one part of the Pure Land is superior to any other or anything heretical like that! :) But still…

It will be tiring, bouncing up and down eagerly for like four months.

2014/01/31

But it’s not that simple

On Twitter I follow a few rational-seeming right-wing types, to try to avoid the echo-chamber effect, and yesterday one of them posted about the big kerfuffle where MSNBC implied that the Right Wing might not like interracial marriage, saying how offensive it was and all.

I replied, as one does, saying that, um well, isn’t disliking interracial marriage sort of a Right Wing thing, after all? One of the other people in the thread gasped at how horribly offensive I was being, and we went back and forth a little with me trying to suggest that certain attitudes about race really are, as a matter of historical fact, associated with certain political factions, and they (from my point of view) ducked and weaved a little and then got quiet. I was really impressed, though, with how thoroughly the person seemed to live in a world where interracial marriage (and maybe even same-sex marriage) weren’t a right-left issue at all, and right wing racism was just an offensive myth.

In trying to decide whether to follow this person also, I looked at their earlier “tweets” (and ultimately decided not to follow them), one of which was something that reminded me strongly of the kind of thing that I might have posted like 25 years ago myself, if posting was something people did then, back when I still identified as Libertarian.

And since I seem to be never getting around to that Grand Unified Why I Am Not A Libertarian Anymore posting, I thought I’d at least post about this.

The “tweet” in question was an image, one of those “image that is basically just text” images that social media so loves. It said:

The Rich Man, the Poor Man, and the Politician
A Tale of Income Inequality

There is a rich man and a poor man.
The rich man makes $1000 a day.
The poor man makes $10 a day.
The difference in their income is $1000 – $10 = $990 a day.

The rich man builds a factory.
Now the rich man makes $2000 a day.
He gives the poor man a job at the factory.
Now the poor man makes $100 a day.
The difference in their income is $2000 – $100 = $1900 a day.

A politician decides the “income gap” has grown too large.
He taxes the rich man $1000 a day, gives it to the poor man.
The rich man can no longer afford to run the factory.
He closes the factory. The poor man loses his job.

Everything is as it was before.
And the politician takes credit for “closing the income gap”.

This is a cute Just So story, very typical of, maybe even a little more complex than, the average Libertarian Just So story.

But, like all of them, it leaves out so much that it ends up pretty much completely irrelevant to reality.

These people really need to read “The Jungle” or something.

But short of that, here’s a slightly more realistic version of the story.

The Rich Man, the Poor Man, and the Politician
A Tale of Inequality

There is a rich man and a poor man.
The rich man makes $1000 a day.
The poor man makes $10 a day.
The difference in their income is $1000 – $10 = $990 a day.

The rich man builds a factory.
Now the rich man makes $20,000 a day.
He gives the poor man a job at the factory.
Now the poor man makes $100 a day.
The difference in their income is $20000 – $100 = $19900 a day.

The rich man’s factory pollutes the air that the poor man breathes.
The products the factory produces are poorly-made.
The poor man’s working conditions are dangerous and unhealthy.
The health insurance the poor man buys from the rich man’s insurance company
will drop him on a technicality if he gets sick.
Once he’s too old to work, he will have nothing.
Taking into account actual quality of life and not just money,
The difference in their income is $20,000 – $5 = 19,995 a day.

A politician decides there is too much “inequality”.
He taxes the rich man $8,000 a day, and the government uses that:
To enforce laws on clean air, product safety, and working conditions.
Not to mention Obamacare. :)
To provide the poor man with Social Security.
And to prevent unfair labor practices.
The poor man joins the union and his pay rises to $200 a day.
The rich man can still afford to run the factory;
after all he’s still making $11,800 a day.
Taking into account actual quality of life and not just money,
The difference in their income is $11,800 – $200 = 11,600 a day.

Which is still quite a lot, but
the politician can take some credit for “reducing inequality”.
And things are generally fairer and cleaner.

Sadly that second one won’t really fit on a Twitter placard…

2013/11/13

The buzzing of distant bees

Is there evil in Heaven? And is there free will?

I know it doesn’t really make sense to spend too much time wondering about the details of fictional universes (“if Peter and his friends could only fly when they were having happy thoughts, why did Tinkerbell, who was after all the source of the pixie-dust that let them fly, seem to have no trouble flying even when she was upset?”), but I am somehow fond of these questions at the moment.
Heaven, the flowchart
It’s a subject that I don’t remember coming up in the average Internet discussion of (Judeo-Christian) religion, and it seems to me like a real quandary.

Seems likely that there is free will in Heaven (otherwise why give it to us on Earth?), and seems unlikely that there is evil (it being Heaven and all); and yet if God can make a place where there is no evil even though there is free will, why didn’t he do that on Earth?

(I started to wonder about this after hearing a couple of different theist types talk about their ideas of Heaven on NPR or something: the Jewish one said that there must be a wonderfully just afterlife because he strongly believes that the universe is just, whereas the evidence he has suggests that life isn’t just, so there must be some really very just stuff after life to make up for it; and the Christian one says that Heaven is a place where we all get whatever we truly want, and we all have learned to live together in harmony. Ha ha funny people, I thought, and also thought the “well if God can make it happen in Heaven, what’s his excuse for not doing so on Earth?” thought that we consider here.)

(Ooh, here they are! The Rabbi and the pastor; so you can judge for yourself how badly I’m misreporting their statements above.)

The usual answer to the Problem of Evil, that is comes about as a direct and inevitable result of imperfect beings with free will, seems to sort of evaporate if (as seems hard to avoid) Heaven is a place where imperfect beings have free will, and yet there is no evil there. So evil can’t really be the inevitable result of free will. So the Problem of Evil, it would seem, remains.

I did have a rather detailed discussion of this with my Jehovah’s Witness friend back in the day. He (and therefore I assume the JWs in general) have a pretty complete and interesting (if maybe sort of creepy) picture of life after the umm Big Thing, where (in the case of the JWs) the 400,000 special people or whatever it is go to live with God in Heaven or something, and all the other good people live on Earth under their direct governance more or less.

He said that yes in that world people would still have free will, and that in fact they would be able to do evil. They wouldn’t do it very much, because they would be good people living in a great environment, but it would still happen, and in that case God (i.e. Jehovah) would look into their hearts, and between the time they made a really bad decision and became evil and the time they were able to actually do anything bad as a result, He would stop them, in a very final way.

Since the JWs don’t believe in Hell, and think that all the stuff about burning and fire and stuff in the Bible is just a way of talking about ceasing to exist altogether, what happens to you if you freely chose evil after the Big Thing happens is that you just cease to exist.

Pretty weird, I thought!

And this got me thinking of a story set in that world, which I’ve never gotten around to writing, but which I think I will try to set down a general idea of here.

And in the meantime, you can ask your local rabbi or pastor or Judeo-Christian friend whether there is free will in Heaven, and whether there is evil there. I wonder if that is a hard question…

“I cannot follow the Elders anymore,” he’d said, that night, as they walked back from the orchards where they had been picking the perfect fruits that Jehovah provided for them in this perfect Earth.

“Jeremiah,” she’d exclaimed, “what can you mean, you cannot follow them? How could anyone do anything but follow them? We know that they are the appointed ones of Jehovah, that they have only our welfare at heart, that they are good and wise men. You cannot doubt, when you have seen Jehovah and His Son moving about on the Earth with your own eyes.”

“I have.” They were walking close together, hands brushing each other now and then, innocently, like brother and sister. “And I do not doubt that the Elders are those chosen of Jehovah. But…”

“But what? What is it that you can doubt?”

He’d taken a deep breath. He looked, she remembered thinking, like someone who was not quite sure of what he was saying, and speaking as much to convince himself as to convince her.

“I do not doubt the facts. The Elders are the chosen of Jehovah, and they do truly intend the best for me. But I doubt, no, I reject, their authority over me.”

“What can you mean by that, Jeremiah? Jehovah is the source of all authority, of all rightness, and He has given them their authority! It cannot be doubted, or rejected.”

“But I do reject it,” he’d said, his voice louder but still with an undercurrent of uncertainty, “I reject it as I am free to do, using the free will that Jehovah has given me. It is my right!”

She’d stopped, and taken his hands, looking very seriously into his face. The others walking in the same direction continued along, and were soon out of any danger of hearing.

“This is blasphemy,” she’d said, “this is not the use we are supposed to make of the freedom that has been given us. Can you truly do this? Do you truly, of your own free will, reject the authority of Jehovah?”

She had meant it rhetorically, really, or so she told herself afterward, saying it only so that he would say no, of course not, not that. But his face said that he took the question very seriously, and was considering it, somewhere deep inside. When he spoke again, the uncertainty was gone from his voice.

“Yes, Sarah. Yes, I d–“.

And before he’d finished that last word, her head was filled by a strange sound, like the buzzing of distant bees, and her hands were empty. And Jeremiah was gone, forever.

So now, in her bed at night, she lies curled tensely after her prayers, telling herself, telling Jehovah who can see into her very heart, that she does accept His goodness and His authority, that she is His true daughter, and that she would never reject Him.

And she cries until sleep comes.

Something like that, anyway…

2013/11/11

Extra-solar pond slime

So today I went to a talk by Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude (which, note, I haven’t read yet, although I now have a signed copy; I’ve just heard the talk).

He is all about how incredibly cool it would be to find out that there is life on some planet outside the solar system (by deducing, say, a particular unstable mixture of gasses in its atmosphere that we can’t account for except by life), and that we are not investing nearly enough resources (money) in building the just-now-becoming-possible huge honking telescopes that would help us find such planets.

Or alternately, he says, it would also be extremely important in some way to discover that there isn’t life on any extra-solar planets that we can find, and that therefore we are even Specialer than maybe we thought.

There has recently been an Enormous Boom in the finding of planets outside the Solar System, apparently; an inneresting fact that I hadn’t known. Significant numbers of them are sort of vaguely Earth-like in various ways; also inneresting.

Extra-solar planets

But, as I said during the Q-and-A period (for which I may appear on the YouTube at some point in the future!) I’m not sure how interesting it would really be to know that there is, say, probably pond-slime on Kepler 22b.

The two reasons the speaker gave for the importance of looking for extra-solar planets with life (besides raw coolness, which I don’t think is a good reason to spend billions of dollars, really) were (1) having more places for humans to live by the time the Sun swells up and eats the Earth or whatever, and (2) knowing whether or not We Are Alone In The Universe (hence the title of the book).

In terms of having more places to live, I think that by the time the Sun swells up (a few hundred million years), and even by the time we’re conveniently able to go in large numbers to other solar systems, we’ll long since have just remade ourselves so that we don’t need certain sorts of planets with particular chemistries to live on, so that particular issue will be moot.

And in terms of knowing whether or not we are alone, I think it’s far more important to know whether there’s anyone sentient out there than it is to know whether there’s any carbon-oxygen-based life out there. Given a few dozen billion dollars and the choice between looking for photosynthesis, and looking for intelligent signals, I’m going for the latter.

The extra-solar pond slime is just going to have to wait…

2013/11/07

some additional words

So I woke up with some Upper Respiratory invasion on Saturday morning, and didn’t feel pretty much normal until yesterday sometime. That was no particular fun!

It did allow me to determine firsthand that, while the New Employer do as a general rule like team members to interact in person, if you need to work from home for three days because of an invasion of replicators, it is No Problem.

Also, they do Working From Home, like everything else remotely technical, very very well. Really very well. Remarkably. Quite.

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