Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What's Your Favorite Myth?

There are a lot of fanciful stories out there. Some are horrible, some are mildly educational, most haven't even a grain of truth. My particular favorite has to be "The Elephant's Child", from Kipling's Just So Stories. I could tell you about the fanciful explanation of how the elephant got his trunk. I could tell you about terrible parenting (spanking a curious child to shut him up). I could tell you about an incidental and excellent Aesop (a curious child gains knowledge by experience and evidence). But the simple fact is I like it because of this guy.

My friend Doug used to have a copy of the story narrated by Jack Nicholson. Just thinking of him saying "The great gray-green greasy Limpopo River" takes me back to that maroon, wood-paneled Dodge mini-van.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday Post 4

Conservatives and Gay Marriage

When a conservative rails about the sanctity of marriage, protecting marriage, keeping marriage safe from gays, all a liberal hears is homophobia, but there's more to it than that.

Recall the foundations of morality? Dr. Haidt's work has elucidated further differences between liberals and conservatives, namely how they see society.

For liberals, the society is atomic, with individuals forming its base. Their associations and interactions form the larger groups, communities we see. This worldview perhaps reached its apotheosis in the American Revolution. The Constitution enshrines the rights of the individual, followed by the liberties that prevent action by the state and federal governments.

The conservative worldview is molecular, based not on the individual but on the family. The third pillar of morality is in-group loyalty, and there is no loyalty more binding than that of blood. This morality was extended to non-family in the bronze age ethic of sacred hospitality; someone invited into your home is family, thus neither group can betray the other.

For the conservative, all society is based upon blood loyalty writ large. When two people marry, they are uniting two families in an unbreakable blood oath. All families thus knit society together, with blood and marriage forming the warp and the weft. Without the ties of marriage uniting separate families, there would be nothing to hold society together and civilization would fall apart.

This answers the liberal question "How does two gays marrying hurt your marriage?" and also answers the conservative hatred of divorce. By weakening the institution of marriage, it weakens the weft of society. Divorce makes marriage a frivolous pursuit, entered into and exited with ease, turning all extra-familial relations into nothing more serious than friendship. The conservative fallacy of the slippery slope whereby gay marriage leads to polygamy or marriage to animals is the same argument. Conservatives feel homosexuality is a sin, a deliberate descent into wickedness. Enshrining gay marriage would be like giving an orgy or a drinking binge the same solemnity and weight as marriage, which is to say marriage would have the same solemnity as a binge; none at all.

So when a conservative rails on about the sanctity of marriage, he means it. A liberal just hears homophobia, but the conservative really believes that marriage is a holy institution, ordained by god, the basis of social order and that it needs protecting. Plus, he's a homophobe.

Society isn't purely atomic or molecular, but somewhere in between, with each person more or less strongly associated with the people around him. The ties that bind are strong only because we reinforce them with constant association; if you don't see someone for decades, it doesn't matter if he's a second cousin twice removed or your twin, he's become a stranger. By the same token, it doesn't matter if you're a WASP scion of a wealthy house and he's a farmer from Batang, Batang, if you spend hours together every day, you'll become close no matter how much you hate each other. In other words, we're neither a collection of atoms nor a tightly knit sweater. We're more like mayonnaise.

Homosexuality isn't a sin. It's not evil nor depraved nor harmful. To this extent the conservatives are correct: gays form friendships and families the same as anyone else and help us bind our society together. They're entirely incorrect because gay marriage wouldn't weaken the society, but strengthen it, confirming the ties that bind a significant portion of our population.

The conservative hatred of gays is an old one. It's codified in their bible, but I don't believe it began there. Homophobia is a disgust reaction, rather than fear, indicating that it's a social construct. In other words, I believe it's a combination of pillars three and five. Loyalty displayed through adherence to social mores, betrayal of which elicits a disgust reaction in accordance with sanctity/purity.

Iron age Christians distinguished themselves from the Greek and Roman cultures that were colonizing the middle east. It's even older than that for bronze age Judaism, as there were other cultures in the area that practiced homosexuality, even as part of their religion. The ancient Hebrews were notoriously anti-sex, which unhealthy obsession was passed down to Christianity. In other words, I believe that modern homophobia is a relic of ancient Jewish racism (which is also exemplified in such laws as "Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together.").

Thus in-group loyalty was encoded as "avoid the gays from over there", which then was vested with sanctity and required to be maintained perfectly. And it was, for thousands of years, to the detriment of all.

So there it is, the ironic twist at the heart of the gay marriage controversy. Conservatives want to maintain the strength of society by fighting that which would strengthen it. And the cruelty that they espouse is not at all ironic; in moments of honesty they may even admit they hate gays, and are proud to still be practicing 5000 year old racism. That's one hell of a legacy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Thor's Day Celebration

The best thing about Thor's Day is that no matter how you're feeling, hitting something with a hammer is always appropriate and will always make you feel better.

  • Happy? Laugh and hit something with a hammer.
  • Sad? Pretend something is the thing that made you sad and smash it in effigy.
  • Angry? As above, only without tears.
  • Ennui? Hitting things with a hammer is amusing.
  • Vague confusion? Hit something with a hammer until it occurs to you that maybe you should be doing something else.

All you need is hammer.

My Library: Alden's American Revolution

Three books in and we've already hit something on my wall of shame. My library includes a few non-fiction books and some of them I didn't buy for a college class, but for some light reading. Here's a tip: don't let me loose in a museum gift shop without also giving me a sharply defined spending limit. I spent more than $100 on books when I went to DC. I learned a lot about cats and pre-Columbian American history. And dinosaurs. And recreational math.

Anyway, I've actually had John Alden's A History of the American Revolution for almost a decade now and I've never been able to pick it back up. I consider that I put it down for a very good reason. I did a little digging on the book and the author before I wrote this (I didn't want to try reading it without a bit more info) and, in retrospect, I should have guessed it wouldn't exactly be my cuppa. Dr. Alden died in 1991 at the age of 83, which should tell you something about the book. To confirm any suspicions you might have, the book was published in 1969. To put it bluntly, it's dated.

As you might expect from a man who lived through two world wars, Dr. Alden was something of an antiquated antiquarian. He's not charitable to non-caucasians (calling Native Americans "savages" is so pre-King). I'd guess he'd harbor similar sentiments for non-Christians. I know for a fact he wasn't charitable to the British. I suspect that, like many, Dr. Alden made the loving of his country like unto a secular religion. Perhaps, like many, it wasn't all that secular.

It takes a great deal to make me put down a book. I may scoff and roll my eyes and frequently shout, "Oh for the LOVE OF SHIT.", but I'll keep reading. In high school I read a book by a Velikovskyite that I disdained from start to finish. Velikovsky believed that all myths could and should be explained as the result of astronomical phenomena. Fair enough, but his proposed phenomena were horse shit and betrayed a fundamental ignorance of physics, astronomy, biology, and geology. When a 14 year old can explain and provide documented evidence for why your Earth-as-a-moon-of-Saturn hypothesis is nonsense, your theory is crap from start to finish. Nevertheless, I sat through all of 2012 and I read that book.

But it seems I hold non-fiction to a higher standard. I put down Alden's book after 88 pages, because this is what I encountered on the 88th page.

The British aristocracy produced some extraordinary men in the eighteenth century, but none more remarkable than Charles Townshend. ... He was much admired as a speaker in the House of Commons. He was a tall, heavy man with a loud voice, a modicum of wit, a gift for mimicry, and a penchant for abusing all and sundry, whether friend or foe. He was famous for his effrontery. In an age when British politicians were constantly inconstant, he shifted his allegiances so swiftly that he was noted for his fickleness. Behind a façade of health and vigor he was both physically feeble and psychopathic.

Emphasis mine.

I have no doubt that politicians in the late eighteenth century were venal as a rule, short-sighted and ignorant, and frightfully barbaric in their morality (by today's standards), but Alden seems to have been hell bent on portraying the British as actively villainous and disposed not merely to wrest profit from the colonies but to positively grind them into the dirt. I'm certain that the boorish, provincial, classist, racist, half-educated barbarians that populated the British Parliament were no paragons and that they would have felt the colonies to have been at best a distant second to the home Isles in concern, but, even in the sixties, psychopath was a clinical term. Townshend may have been an asshole, with documentation to back up that assertion, but to step from there to an accusation of psychopathy was enough to make me put the book down and is still enough to dissuade me from picking it back up.

I may do so at some point and try to work my way through it. Apparently Alden has a clear style that is quite informative and easy to follow, but I don't know if I really want to try and learn my history from racist grandpa.

Next: Walter Alvarez's T. rex and the Crater of Doom. What a kwinky dink! This is one of the museum books I was talking about up top.

Mantic Wednesday 3

Okay, so I don't have too much to predict. It's not like too much has changed.

Except that now Newt Gingrich is in the running for reals. Isn't this a guy whose campaign already imploded once? How is this happening? Greg Laden explains it well.

Gingrich represents the Republican Party ... because Gingrich is a stupid hateful hypocrite who is as mean spirited as a rabid dog, and a racist shit.


Frankly, this is true. The Republican Party, thanks to 50 solid years of race-baiting and fear-mongering and kowtowing to the ignorance of the worst of America has become the party for racist, white fundamentalists. Go to a Tea Party rally and you won't see any black faces, though you may see someone, with no sense of irony, in blackface.

So, do I have a prediction? Who will win the Republican nomination? Romney is a stupid hypocrite who's completely out of touch with the American people. Newt Gingrich is a stupid, racist, rabid hypocrite who's completely out of touch with anyone who's not a racist Christian. Romney is a Mormon. Gingrich is an evangelical of some kind.

My fondest hope is that Gingrich wins. I really, really, want it to happen. I want it to be true that that's likely, so it's suspect.

I know Gingrich is going to do well in the South and Midwest, and I know he can do well in the primaries (see above re: party for racists). I'm absolutely certain he can't win the general election. Therefor I suspect he's going to start getting some very, very strong pressure to back down from people in the party with half a brain. Being a rabid ass-hat, I don't think he'd back down gracefully, and certainly not without the promise of a big appointment, which promise would have to be off the books.

Pretty much just thinking out loud, here.

Okay, here's my prediction. Gingrich is going to do very well for a few more primaries and he's going to refuse to back down. In order to keep him from completely destroying the Republican chance of victory (not high in any case) this fall, the Republican leadership are going to circle the wagons around Romney and do everything they can to destroy Gingrich before he becomes unstoppable.

I suspect this may even happen before the Florida primary happens.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Library: HGTTG

I don't know when I first read Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I know I was fairly young and unschooled in the ways of Britishisms. There was definitely a time when I was far too young to have read it; in elementary school I know I read things that were ahead of my grade level, but Douglas Adams would be a bit much even for a precocious fifth grader. I suspect it was some time during middle school, when I lived in Pennsylvania, that I shared my experience of Douglas Adams's books (not just the Hitchhiker series, but also Dirk Gently) with my brother Caleb and my friend Doug.

While I don't know when I first read Adams, I do know that I've never lived in a home without his books (that I can recall). My older brothers all enjoyed Adams, so my parents' large library had HGTTG and Dirk Gently. Most of it, anyway. At some point I ended up with the entire collection (minus Salmon of Doubt, plus "Young Zaphod Plays it Safe") in a single book. It's one of those purchases I absolutely positively do not regret making.

What is it about Douglas Adams I enjoy? I think it's that he always brought an outsider's perspective to what he was writing. For example, in discussing teleportation,

It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.
‘What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?’
‘You ask a glass of water.’

I'm going to admit that the first time I read that, I had to go ask what it meant. His comparison of human and dolphin accomplishments, his opening discussion of why consumerism is a fairly stupid way to look for happiness, heck, almost any analogy you care to name. Each description, comparison, analogy, bit of humor just screams with a dark, gentle, twisted humor. Yes, I meant to combine those three adjectives.

Adams doesn't write hard sci-fi; like Doctor Who, it's more like science fantasy. He's willing to toss in whatever pseudoscience jargon he wants. Ordinarily that sort of thing irritates me, but he really makes it work, mostly because he never really tries to use it to explain anything, to justify anything, nor to advance the plot. Mostly it's just kookiness. I dig it.

Of course Adams isn't going to be for everyone. He was a radical atheist (his words, so no one would confuse him with an agnostic) and environmental activist. His irreverence and passion can border on the scathing. He also loved technology. Especially Macs. Of course, that was before Macs were beloved by all. In other words, he was a hipster before being a hipster was a thing.

Things Adams has written:

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  • Doctor Who

I'll cover Doctor Who when I get to the TV stuff. I can't wait.

Next up: A History of the American Revolution, by John R. Alden

Sun's Day: Martin's Death Count

On Sunday's I read a chapter of George RR Martin's incredibly slow-coming Ice & Fire opera. And I'm also keeping a death count.

A Game of Thrones
Prologue: Two members of the black watch killed by Others.
First Chapter: One member of the black watch executed by Ned Stark for breaking oath and fleeing the Wall (because of the Others).
Second Chapter: Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, *SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*apparently dead of wasting illness, in fact killed by the Queen for learning of her incestuous sex with her twin brother.SPOILERS OVER

Total: 4 dead.

I knew this would be appropriate for Sundays. Three weeks, three people dead, and one in the bank for next week in case he doesn't kill anyone.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Library: Dangerous Days

I have an extensive library and I'd like to share it with the world. I could simply catalog all the books, movies, music, and games I own, but I might as well share my thoughts on them, too. I've read, watched, or played very nearly all of them (one or two just sucked), and some of them I read, reread, and rereread as the mood strikes me. So, from end to end, one book/movie/album/series at a time, I'm going to go through them, describe them, and what I like about them. You'll probably notice that I'm going through them in alphabetical (by author) order; that's how I have my library set up. First up, Dangerous Days by Pete Abrams.

Pete Abrams is the author and artist of Sluggy Freelance, a webcomic with fourteen years of archives. Dangerous Days is a collection of comics from the middle of May to the middle of December, 2002. Not entirely coincidentally, this is also roughly the time I discovered and began following the comic. As with a number of my favorite authors and artists, I discovered Sluggy in college. A decade later, Sluggy is still going strong and I'm still following it. Sluggy is one of the older comics on the web, and its archive is daunting. It has followed a daily update schedule (with the occasional very rare vacation) since August of 1997. That is, of this writing, 5,262 days, or 5,262 comics. On weekdays, this is a three panel format such as you'd find in the paper; Sundays a full-color, many-panel comic, also as in the paper; and Saturdays a three panel comic.

This format has varied somewhat over the years. Maintaining a daily update schedule is daunting for any artist, and Abrams has changed how he updates. For a time, in order to have some respite, he gave Saturdays over to guest artists/authors, such as Clay Yount of Rob and Elliot. These days, he's freed his weekends up by posting sketches, rough drawings, a one-panel non-canon one-off, that sort of thing. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't begrudge him these, seeing as he has a family. Also, what he gives us during the week more than makes up for it, since his art and writing has matured with 15 years of work and feedback. What he provides during the week is no longer a three-panel, gag-a-day comic, but a full page, lushly drawn, meticulously thought out story (sometimes hints and musings have been provided more than a decade in advance, completely missed even by his most rabid, imaginative, equally meticulous fans).

Sluggy began as a short-arc comic, having fun with various nerdy story types; typically affectionate parodies, such as the early sc- fi adventure, which parodied Star Trek, dimension travel, Alien and others while also expanding the cast. Over time, as seems inevitable on the internets, the comic became darker and more serious, exploring character growth, tragedy, melodrama, and all sorts of crap. Some fans lament the loss of the zany days of bikini suicide Frisbee , but others appreciating the deeper, more complex stories. Can't please 'em all.

Dangerous Days, named after one of the story arcs contained within, is a good example of all this, containing two horror parodies, a Harry Potter parody, and an arc which deals with a number of betrayals and at least one good character gone evil. Oh, and some zany fun. And ghosts. And an artist obsessed with all things crotch. Seriously. The book also contains a bonus, book-only story to make it more enticing for fans. After all, an artist's gotta eat and that means he's gotta sell.

I certainly don't recommend Dangerous Days for the random reader, any more than I'd recommend the seventh book of Robin Hobbs's Realm of the Elderlings series (eleven so far, with more coming, grouped in self-contained but mutually supporting trilogies), but those 5,262 comics are incredibly daunting to any newcomer. I've gone on an archive binge of sluggy a few times in the past, but not in the last five years, I don't think. If you were to read a week of comics every five minutes (generous for some of the heavier arcs) it would still take you more than twelve hours of reading. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help you with that.

  • Archive Binge: lets you set up an RSS feed to go through comics at a rate of your own choosing
  • Piperka: acts as a tracking tool so you can keep a handle on where you are in a number of webcomics, and binge at your own pace

Set up one of those and read five comics a day and you'll have caught up in about three and a half years. Not bad, eh? I do recommend Sluggy, as it hits all the good highs and lows, and Abrams really has turned into an excellent storyteller and artist; a good archive trawl would be well worth your time. I still follow this comic for a reason, and it's not just because of nostalgia for the glorious days of college. It's because I like it. Next up: Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Cats and Mirrors

The mirror test is a way to determine how self-aware animals are, how bright they are. Does the animal, on looking in the mirror, see another animal or its own reflection? Is it aware that the image it's seeing is an image of itself? The test is old; Darwin showed a mirror to an Orangutan and it made faces, but he realized it was ambiguous; did the ape make faces at itself or another ape? The mirror test is a little more sophisticated now, in that researches put an odorless spot on the animal somewhere it can't see without a mirror and wait to see if it realizes the spot on the reflection is a spot on its own body.

All of the great apes pass the mirror test: gorillas, both species of chimp, some gibbons, and, of course, humans after the age of 18 months. Elephants, dolphins, orcas, and even some magpies pass it. Pigs are believed to be mostly capable of using mirrors. Cats don't pass the test.

Of course, before you can use a mirror, you have to learn what a mirror is. Humans blind from birth and later given sight initially react to the mirror, even in adulthood, as they would to another human until they learn its their own reflection. So do animals, hence chimps that initially make threat displays and then calm down and use it as an aid to self-grooming.

I have two cats. Sappho, my dark tabby, ignores mirrors while Babygirl, my tubby calico, spends lots and lots of time staring into a mirror. Is one cat smarter or more self-aware than the other? When Sappho ignores the mirror, is it because she recognizes it as herself and dismisses it or because she sees it as a non-responsive other cat that she can't play with? When Babygirl plants herself in front of a mirror and stares for minutes on end is it because she recognizes herself, or because she sees another cat and doesn't understand? Since Babygirl hates other cats (she was abandoned in an apartment complex with many strays and learned to hate cats. Then she was rescued by Mildcats at ASU, whence I adopted her.), it seems odd that she would sit inches away from what she deemed to be another cat.

So which cat is smarter? Which more self-aware? Obviously neither metric belongs on a binary scale. I think Babygirl is interested in and confused by the mirror, because she's aware that the image of me isn't me and that the image of the other cat isn't another cat, but I don't think she recognizes the image as a reflection of herself. I've no idea what she makes of the image of me. I like to think that Sappho is more clever, but I have no idea where she stands vis-a-vis the mirror test. She's never shown any interest in mirrors and I have no data, thus no conclusions, however tentative. Why does Sappho not care where Babygirl really, really does? I think it's because Sappho doesn't have Babygirl's traumatic history (Sappho's also a rescue, but I found her crying in a parking lot after only a few days of abandonment in an area with few strays. She was filthy and starving, but unscarred.), so the mirror doesn't pose the same troubling dilemma for her. I'm probably reading way too much into this, but I think Babygirl really wants that other cat to go the hell away; I know she often wishes Sappho would.

In any event, self-awareness and the like are interesting subjects. I kind of want to start breeding programs to try and make intelligent, tool-using cats. And dolphins. And pigs. But not magpies. Those little fuckers can burn.*

* Not really. Magpies are probably cool. But fuck dingoes. They eat babies.

Saturday Post 3

So this one's a little late. Today I'll talk a little about addiction.

A brain is a terrible, wonderful thing. It is an incredibly complex organic computer, which takes scads of information and boils them down to the essentials, interprets them, and pounds out appropriate reactions, all within a few hundredths of a second.

We are called the rational animal. Research shows time and again that we are not. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn that we are creatures of habit and impulse with a mechanism not for reason, but for justification. In other words, we are less a rational animal and more a rationalizing animal.

Addiction can happen in a number of ways, typically from a misfiring or short-circuit of the brain. Gambling is similar to religion in that it's a misfiring of the learning circuit. All animals seek to understand and master their environment. When cause and effect are absent or distantly linked, superstition is the result. Hence, gamblers believe in luck, athletes believe in silly or disgusting rituals, pigeons believe dancing a certain way will deliver a food pellet, and people worship non-existent sky-beards. One aspect of our learning system is the dopamine response; we get high off of chance. You ever notice how you can't stop playing with a new toy and love it love it love it? And after a few weeks you don't care so much. You're getting high playing with it. Studies have shown that the more certain an outcome, the lower the dopamine response. A 50/50 chance (max uncertainty) sees max dopamine response. Change it to 75/25 (whether 75% success or 75% failure, it's still more certain) and the dopamine response is cut in half. In other words, having mastered a system and made the outcome certain, our system is geared to move on and master something new.

With gambling, that mastery can never come. You cannot change the outcome of a roll of dice. Each roll is as uncertain as the last. Until the cards come up, you cannot know what they'll be. Every time you play is as uncertain as ever. I'd be willing to wager that the most popular games at casinos are also the ones closest to even odds. I know that blackjack and craps are both, when "correctly" played, at nearly even odds (roughly 51% to the house, as I recall). The dopamine response is maxed out for every turn of the cards, every throw of the dice, and it will never get better. When you win, the high is through the roof, and when you lose it's even more terrible.

Coffee also shortcuts the dopamine response. Caffeine really does pump you up and make you feel more awake, but it also does the dopamine thing. It's ticked the part of the brain that says "You won!" and the rest of your brain jumps in saying, "What? What did I win? How? Where? Is that a pony? I won! ... Now what?" Over time, your brain notices similarities and attaches importance to them. You drink from a certain mug more often by chance, your brain attaches more importance to that and you start drinking from it exclusively. You develop a favorite brand, a favorite time of day, a favorite method of preparation... Go on, break a coffee drinker's favorite mug. I dare you. One of the reasons quitting coffee is hard is because when you don't do things the right way, your brain interprets it as the opposite of winning. Everything is wrong forever and you can never win. The other problem, of course, is that, as with all drugs, there's a withdrawal response. Coffee's a stimulant, so your brain ramps down activity in anticipation of being brought back to normal. You get rid of the stimulant and it takes some time for your brain to realize it needs to ramp things back up. This also explains why you need to drink more coffee to get the same effect as you once did. As Terry Pratchett once said, there is such a thing as being knurd (the opposite of drunk), and it's very unpleasant. Hardcore alcoholics need a few drinks just to be normal, hard core caffeine-heads need a few cuppas just to be awake. There are other effects as well.

Cocaine works through dopamine and through seratonin. That's one hell of a one-two combo. It feels good when you take it and bad when you stop. Yowza. Alcohol works through a different system, basically it puts the brakes on your brain (hence it's called a depressant). But when you're not drinking it, the brakes come off (no, you're not smarter when you're knurd; you have fevers and hallucinations and seizures).

Addiction tends to be complex and poorly understood, but one thing is certain: it really, really sucks.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mantic Wednesday 2

Simply because it's arousing a lot of furor, I'ma predict that SOPA/PIPA will wither and die.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Post 2

What is Love? (Baby Don't Hurt Me)

So I've been working my way through Fox's Bones. In general, a decent show, not a great crime procedural (I'm not a lawyer nor a cop, but they get a shit ton of stuff wrong*. Temperance "Bones" Brennan and her band of squints (because nerds have bad eyesight and squint all the time, see?) embody many of the worst stereotypes Hollywood attaches to nerds and scientists. Bones herself is the worst as being borderline autistic and so closeted she doesn't get 99% of the pop culture references around her and misunderstanding virtually every idiom she hears. It is, however, endearing when she tries and fails to use them herself.

The worst part of her characterization is that she's a Straw Vulcan. She's intended to be incredibly rational and thus allow normal people to feel superior when they see her completely fail to understand emotions (and idioms and pop culture), and have to work hard to understand why anyone would prioritize love or happiness. Because emotions are irrational, see? This video (roughly 50 minutes) is an excellent deconstruction of that insulting trope

The above is Julia Galef's talk at Skepticon 4. She gives all the reasons why an actually rational person, as opposed to the pseudorational Hollywood Spock, would understand emotion and give it appropriate weight and priority. I don't particularly want to repeat all her talking points, so instead let me talk about love.

Bones, the character, repeatedly makes the point that the heart is just a muscle and that love is a chemical reaction. Bones, the show, repeatedly makes the point that she's emotionally stunted and stupid and wrong for thinking that and that she should be ashamed and change so she's more like her appropriately emotional partner, Booth.

However, she's entirely correct that love is a chemical reaction. Basically, you become addicted to someone. To their presence, their smell, their sound, all that other jazz. You're high whenever you're around them, or looking at them, or thinking about them, and you say stupid things like "Don't you just love 'love', man?" as if you were a sixteen year old halfway through a plate of magic brownies.

Understanding love as a chemical dependency and a process within portions of the brain allows us to understand it within a social context, a biological context, an evolutionary context, a health context. It helps us understand why and how love fades and people get the Seven Year Itch, and why a break up hurts so very, very badly. Also, why even a couple in the midst of a physically violent domestic dispute will still turn on any interloper who tries to break it up. Putting love into its proper physical context takes a lot of stupid mystery out of life and makes it comprehensible. In fact, it makes it easier to deal with some of it; you actually can die of heartbreak; be told.

Does any of that take away from the power of love? From the fact that being in love is genuinely awesome? That we do, in fact, love love? Absolutely not. This is just another example of the petulant art major whining that the scientist is unweaving the rainbow. Science doesn't reduce everything to numbers and equations. Take a gander at any scientist and you won't find an antisocial manchild viewing the world through a grey haze of numbers, but someone who wonders at the marvels of nature, who finds joy and excitement in discovery. Also, someone with even rudimentary knowledge of biology and physics can really take sex up to the next level, though he'd be wise to get someone with rudimentary knowledge of contracting to install the sex swing.

* Law and the Multiverse, a blog that covers legal issues within comic books is a very educational read. Among other things, I now know for certain that Batman's antics are entirely illegal and roughly 50% useless when it comes to getting criminals off the streets.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


It's fuckin' THORSDAY!

NIMBY and its Converse

NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard

This old saw refers to necessary but unpopular projects like prisons and power plants. We need them but we don't particularly want them, at least not close by. Property values tend to plummet near such things. They tend to get sent to economically depressed areas because, clearly, poor people don't lobby effectively they need the construction money.

The converse would be things that we don't necessarily need, but which we want close to home, usually for the money it brings in, like military bases and contracts or popular sports franchises. NIYBY. Not In Your Back Yard. It's why Ron Paul, and others of his ilk, though theoretically terrible for the Union, wouldn't be able to get anything done. It's why budget cuts never actually happen. We don't mind pork when it's our pork. Your pork is smelly and stupid, but mine's delicious.

Think of them as the fraternal twins of politics. You have the short, ugly, smelly, stupid prison and the tall, beautiful, very well spoken defense contract. Nimby and Niyby. Pretty much conjoined twins, when you think about it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesday Prediction

Romney will duke it out with Santorum and Paul. Perry, surprising no one, will drop out when he doesn't get third or higher in SC. Santorum will stay strong in SC, while Paul will fall further behind. Romney will eventually win in the bigger states, leading to the nomination. Then he'll lose in November because Obama can say "Look at all the things I did! And for all the things I didn't do, blame Congress!"

Monday, January 09, 2012

Terry Pratchett's Documentary on Assisted Suicide

I don't really understand why people are against this. It seems to me to be supremely selfish to forbid others the right to die.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Saturday Post

So there's this guy who really likes video games and Disney World, go listen to him talk about computers for a bit. I really recommend it if you have a free hour. His name is Cory. Cory Doctorow.

So Doctorow talks about DRM and touches on how it relates to censorship and the free market and such. He mentions that DRM and censorship tend to be the tools of tyrants and dictators who lock down freedom of expression and information and whatnot.

There are some sayings out there.

"Knowledge is power." -- Thomas Hobbes

"Information wants to be free." -- Stewart Brand

"Information wants you to give me a dollar." -- Bruce Sterling

Knowledge really is power. Tyrants clamp down on the pipelines of communication because it allows people to coordinate their efforts, to spread the word of atrocities or freedoms, to live their lives outside the tyrants' control. If you want an example of the result of the increased freedom available from communication, look no further than Occupy Wall Street. The media have been thoroughly stymied trying to understand this group because they are decentralized. Once upon a time, protests and organizations were 98% stuffing envelopes and 2% deciding what went in them. Now, thanks to the tubes, people can communicate and organize and decide to act without having to have a central, top-down organization structure. Action follows desire rather than command.

Take a look at the benefits of unions. Without unions, we wouldn't have minimum wage, weekends, or overtime. The working poor wouldn't even be that posh; they'd just be working. An employer, by virtue of having many employees and many applicants for each job opening has a great deal of information available to him; he knows how many people want a job and how qualified they are and how much they're willing to work for. The applicant knows only the information about himself and that there's a job available. The employer has much more information and much more power, and that's not a coincidence. The union levels the playing field by unifying the workers to give them collective bargaining power and by getting them to share their information.

The printing press, Renaissance, and Enlightenment are all associated. Again, this is not an accident. While the so-called medieval period was in fact a time of slow development and progress, but the development of the printing press was contemporaneous with the Renaissance, which saw a rebirth of classical ideas when ancient texts, newly rediscovered from Islamic West Asia, became widespread. This added a definite style and direction of development for the flowering of art, science, and literature of the following centuries. This led inexorably to the Enlightenment, in which education and information began spilling out, overpowering that which sought to constrain it. Of course, this was the traditional and still ever-present enemy of education and discovery; religion.

"But Herr Gutenberg, should you print your bible quickly and cheaply, anyone could read it!"
"That, Herr Priester, is exactly the point."

Lest you think I'm speaking hyperbolically, the heads of church and state were very ambivalent about the spread of the press (as were the old guard of industry, the calligraphers). Henry VIII (head of the Church of England) and the Catholic church were among those who sought to limit the spread of information. It is further no accident that the printing press was contemporaneous with the Protestant Reformation. As ideas spread, those associated with religion, which are entirely unfounded in reality, are free to mutate. No longer entirely controlled by a central authority and disseminated through the slow mechanism of hand-copying, even religious ideas were free.

The printing press freed scientists and laity from the church and broke down the centuries-old mechanisms of control by which it had influenced Western Europe. In so doing, it also (as part of the same process) freed us from tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years of superstition, terror, and lunacy. Those who had the ability and the will to truly understand the world and share that knowledge with all finally had the means to do so. Civilization begain with writing, but freedom began with printing.

As knowledge and all forms of information become cheaper and easier to disseminate, freedom will inexorably follow. The Arab Spring of course could have happened without the internet, but what caused it? Discontent with economic decline against a backdrop of increasing education. Look at the Iranian Revolution; though it ended in theocracy, it began with students.

What of America: discovered during the Renaissance and founded during the Enlightenment. The first public schools in the New World, perhaps the world as a whole*, began in the colony of Massachusetts. In the 1640s it mandated free public education for all children to townships of more than fifty families. The earliest years of the union were filled with examples of the new states insuring an educated public. Freedom begins with education, with free information. Information doesn't want to be free, it makes you free.

* A quick search appears to indicate that this is the case. I suspect patriotic bias on the part of the internet.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Keep the Thor in Thor's Day

Perhaps this should be what I do this year: keep the days true to their origins, end the war on the days.

Sundays: I will go out and worship the sun. As I understand it, this means I must sacrifice a king and wait for him to be resurrected. This is problematic as there aren't all that many kings left. I suppose I could always sacrifice some in effigy, but that would involve making puppets. Solution: Every Sunday I'll read a chapter of a George RR Martin book. There are lots of kings in there and they keep dying. Bam.

Mondays: On the Moon's Day, I will sacrifice cheese. That is to say, I will eat some cheese. Deliberately. With reverence aforethought. I like swiss. And provolone.

Tuesdays: This is another problematic day, as it venerates the one-handed god Tiw. He sacrificed his right hand to the wolf Fenrir. I'm not going to do that. However, in memory of Tiw, I will masturbate left-handed every Tuesday. The things I do to keep the Tiw in Tiw's Day.

Wednesdays: Wodan is a bit harder to revere properly. I don't want to end this quickly, so I'm not going to go out and start lynching people left, right, and center, nor yet sacrifice an eye or get pet ravens. As I have two cats, the birds wouldn't last long anyway. His status as a psychopomp* to the English is a bit harder for me to ritualize. I think I'll delve into the etymology for this one. According to wikipedia,
"Old English had the noun wōþ "song, sound", corresponding to Old Norse óðr, which has the meaning "fury" but also "poetry, inspiration". It is possible therefore that *Wōđanaz was seen as a manifestation of ecstasy, associated with mantic states, fury, and poetic inspiration.

Therefor every Wednesday, in honor of that half-blind old bastard, I'll either make a prediction, write a poem, or get really pissed off. Frankly, given things as they are, that last will probably be the easiest.


Fridays: In honor of Frigg, venerated as wife and mother, I'll make it a point to let my mom know I think she's awesome every Friday. Because my mom is awesome, and not just on Fridays.

Saturdays: Huh, Saturn was a god of the harvest and agriculture. No wonder suburban dads mow the lawn every Saturday. That shit is symbolic, yo. I don't have any children to eat and I don't think I'd want to. I also don't particularly want to cut my father into a thousand pieces with a sickle. I could always celebrate a weekly Saturnalia (a fine Southern tradition known as a "cocktail party"), but that might get tiresome. Instead I'll go with the medieval alchemical associations. Scientists are associated with Saturn and with the humor of melancholy, endowing them with sadness and with wisdom. Every Saturday, I'ma get my wisdom on. And be sad and shit.

Take that, you people who take the stuff out of things!

* Psychopomp: Escort to the lands of the dead. Like Anubis or Charon or the Valkyries.

I'm Actually the Majority

Everyone agrees with me about everyone else's fairy tales. They just don't like it when I don't kowtow to their fairy tales.