Author Archives: Chris

About Chris

I work and play at WordPress.com, and spend my offline time drinking chai tea and running around in parks.

Who won Iowa?

Many fingernails across the nation were bitten in the past day, but it isn’t clear which Democratic candidate’s supporters found their fingers the bloodiest.

From what we’ve learned, it appears that Hillary Clinton eked past Bernie Sanders by about 0.2% of Iowa’s state delegate equivalents. Barring any re-examination of the results, and the slim possibility of a delegate upset next month, the numbers barely reveal a Clinton victory.

The problem is, while the numbers paint one picture, there’s a far more important picture that the media is working on. Numbers matter, but it’s narrative that most folks will connect with.

On the one hand, you have a duplicitous establishment candidate, who is either loved or despised. On the other, an honest social democrat, who’s largely loved by those who’ve heard of him.

Clinton has the older demographic, particularly women. Sanders has younger folks, women included, and the working class.

And, perhaps what concerns Sanders’ supporters the most, Clinton has the support of minorities at this time, while Sanders has about one-third the amount of support.

But it’s quite early, and likability and demographics may ultimately favor Sanders.

First, while it’s tempting to dismiss younger voters as unreliable, recent elections have demonstrated their historic participation in politics. Indeed the Republican Party’s precariousness can be largely attributed to their fixation on manipulating older folks for their votes. Unfortunately this cannot last forever as older folks die and become replaced by today’s younger folks. If the Democratic establishment were to ignore someone like Sanders, who took over 80% of the youth vote, they will soon find themselves in a similar position.

Second, the likability factor shouldn’t be underestimated. Despite anecdotal observations to the contrary, Clinton’s trustworthiness ratings are abysmal, and even those who purportedly like her often seem to comment upon the rhetorical aspect of her speeches, rather than their substance. This is understandable, as even for political speeches, they’re almost completely meaningless.

She’s not unusual in this. On the contrary, she’s running the ordinary campaign based on personality, while Sanders is running on issues. The trouble is, everyone who could persuade themselves to like her have probably done so already, while Sanders stands to improve on this front as more people become aware of him. Sanders’ issues cause folks to like him, while Clinton’s appeal is inexplicable, perhaps a gift from God.

(A new low point is when Clinton remarked — with something like 10% of precincts still outstanding — on her supposed “sigh of relief” after discovering she had edged past Sanders by 0.2%. Either she’s deluded or a liar. I believe it’s the latter, and I’m sure she’s rightly firing folks over their incompetence.)

Similarly, the supposed gap of minority support between Sanders and Clinton stands to shrink dramatically or even reverse. With both campaigns having been hyper-focused on lily white Iowa, minorities haven’t yet received much attention from either candidate. It seems fair to assume that much of Hillary Clinton’s support may derive from her general celebrity and positive memories of Bill Clinton.

But that advantage is fragile and could shatter once Bernie introduces himself to all sorts of communities that remain ignored by the political establishment generally.

These demographic questions will be part of the picture that the media paints in the coming months. But they’ll be discussed within the context of talking points that have become increasingly untenable.

Perhaps the most dangerous, if irrational, talking point against Sanders is his supposed unelectability. The Iowa results have destroyed this notion beyond recognition. We will be seeing more of Bernie Sanders, and he’ll receive fairer and more equal treatment from the media. He is now “viable”. I haven’t seen anyone disagree with this.

The effects of this alone could be huge.

Then there are the talking points that fuel the misperception that Clinton is some great advocate for equality. As Sanders enters the picture, class issues enter the picture in a profound way, for the first time in recent memory. Hillary will keep talking about how women make less money than men, having no authority to discuss the larger class issues that harm women. In effect, she’ll double-down on a cynical identity politics that’s falling apart at the seams.

Sanders, on the other hand, has the credibility to discuss the gender wage gap, as well as the racial wage gap, and crucially, the wage gap that’s screwed virtually all Americans. Rather than embarking on cynical attempts to divide folks by race or sex, and pit them against one another by appealing to their sensitivity and hyper-defensiveness, more focus will be placed on the wage gap (full stop), and its relation to racial and gender discrimination.

If Sanders’ key talking point is the wage gap (full stop), he can work to unite folks across racial and gender lines.

Poor folks endure most of the brutality surrounding the wage gap. It seems incredibly obvious, but class has been the elephant in the room for a long time, so it’s just ignored. It’s easy for wealthy whites to convince themselves they’re not racists (or sexists), harder to acknowledge their class privilege, which they reflexively assume to follow from their hard work. So, they’ll discuss the problem of education and the lack of opportunities for minorities (and women) — which are important — while ignoring the fact that it’s difficult to study when there’s no food on the table. They will only touch class issues by proxy.

Clinton’s talking point concerning her foreign policy experience is probably her best card. But that’s a pretty peculiar issue upon which to rest her campaign, particularly if she wishes to pivot as a progressive to regain some Sanders-leaning supporters. Plus, experience doesn’t equate to good performance. At best, she’ll have to cast herself as a kind of hawk-dove hybrid. Maybe drop the rhetoric about Iran, and really hammer ISIS. But even then it’s an issue that will appeal more to independents, not the left that she needs to recapture. And a surprising proportion of those independents won’t be voting for such an obvious figure of establishment politics anyway.

It stands to be an interesting year in politics. More fingernails will be bitten. But what happens in 2020 and 2024, when the sort of changes that 2016 foreshadows becomes the new commonsense? We could find ourselves living in a civilization quite soon.

 

In praise of the singular they

Recently the American Dialect Society pronounced the singular gender-neutral pronoun “they” the Word of the Year for 2015. The reaction has been varied.

While some appreciate the need for a standardized gender-neutral pronoun in English, and celebrate its recognition, others reject its use. Despite the fact that the “singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen”, there’s a mistaken perception that such usage runs contrary to some unarticulated grammatical rule, perhaps set forth by God.

This opposing view runs counter to obvious practices surrounding our use of language, as well as the nature of words. Surely no one objects to the modern usage of “computer”, as used to refer to the familiar machine, despite its centuries-long usage to refer to a person who performs calculations.

Another mistaken belief is that the potential ambiguity present in the usage of “they” is a strike against it. However, both “computer” and the singular “they” share this potential for ambiguity, along with all other words in non-scientific usage. It’s a consequence of the flexibility of language, and so simply cannot be a reason for disavowing its usage.

There are several reasons for using the singular “they”, perhaps more social and psychological in nature, and they deserve consideration.

First, there’s a growing appreciation that many people aren’t served by a binary conception of gender. It’s not merely that a particular subset of college students pick from an ever-growing list of neologisms. Rather, it’s plain that two words, “male” and “female”, simply cannot accurately capture the overwhelming diversity of human psychology and expression. While they remain useful in discussing an organism’s biological sex, it’s foolish to suppose anything near a one-to-one relation between sex and gender. This observation extends far beyond the conventional notion of a trans population, touching upon familiar archetypes found throughout humanity.

There’s simply no usable concept of a binary gender that could be imagined to capture, for instance, the phenomenon of male-sexed computer nerds and male-sexed jocks. In their familiar usage, the two groups have profound social, cultural, and psychological differences that are obscured by the gender, “male”. The same inadequacy of the gender binary is present among other archetypes found in both sexes.

Second, the singular “they” can introduce useful ambiguity in common usage. When I say, in reference to a particular individual, that “she is intelligent”, I wish to avoid any implication that gender is a relevant fact. I’m merely making an observation about some person, not about some person qua gendered individual. Overwhelmingly, gender is totally irrelevant to our intention behind using pronouns, which is to merely replace some noun.

Third, despite our usual intentions, using a gendered pronoun in reference to some person who identifies differently is often perceived as offensive. This is quite understandable, but cannot be avoided without undertaking the somewhat unrealistic task of asking each person we interact with which pronoun they prefer. Some folks purport to gladly undertake this practice, but in my observation, the question is almost solely asked of those who aren’t readily perceived as “male” or “female”. One who appears to conform to “male” or “female” appearance is almost never asked the question. This places far too much weight on appearance as a determinant of gender, and implies that non-binary gender is relevant only to a comparative few.

The solution, in my view, is not to consistently ask all folks to reveal their gender, or to share the gender-specific pronoun that they prefer others use. As I mention, gender is frequently irrelevant to our intentions in referencing some individual. And moreover, with a potential infinity of genders, one would expect a potential infinity of gendered pronouns.

Rather, we should undertake the very modest endeavor to use gender-agnostic pronouns universally. And where gender is relevant to our discourse, to express this independent of the pronoun we use. As it turns out, other parts of speech do exist.

Ridiculing the Oregon occupiers

Last week, a group of armed activists began to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. Their stated purpose is two-fold.

First, they seek to protest and bring awareness to the prosecution and (dubious) re-sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers who were convicted of destroying government property by fire, an offense under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The conviction stemmed from their setting fires that spread to government land, allegedly to defend their property from invasive plants and uncontrolled wildfires. No one was harmed in the incidents.

Upon their release, government prosecutors took the rare and controversial step of appealing the sentence, arguing the Hammonds ought to serve the full five-year mandatory minimum sentence under the law. The courts ruled, and the Hammonds will be returning to prison.

The second purpose of the occupation pertains more generally to the federal government’s appropriation and regulation of what amounts to the overwhelming majority of the Western United States, a policy that supersedes the authority of state and local governments. The opposition arises from a concern that federal control has undermined the livelihoods of rural Westerners, presenting further obstacles to folks who are already disenfranchised from the financial, technological, and service sectors, which make up the bulk of the economy.

So, in short, you have a sizable population of the rural white poor or working class, who are rising up against a perceived threat to their increasingly tenuous and impoverished living conditions. And much like the Tea Party, these folks have been largely ignored by the so-called political left, despite their obvious points of common interest, except when a few go off the deep end.

When this happens, a virulent strain of “left” elitism and classism emerges, where the rural and largely white poor are caricatured as unsophisticated, backwoods racists. The unstated corollary being that those living on either coast have a monopoly on intelligence and moral correctness, always demonstrating their benevolence to minorities, their concern for the environment, dignified behavior, and so on.

It’s a story of heroes and villains, who upon closer inspection bear significant similarities in both their positive and negative respects. And if we’re to secure any significant and lasting justice, we must rise above the caricatures, acknowledging that our energies are better spent in locating our common interests with others, and in developing a moral awareness of our own actions.

I have no trouble in finding empathy for the militants in Oregon, and groups like the Tea Party, while also having serious reservations about their methods and their proposed cures for the problems we all face. But this does not subtract from our common interests, and if we allow it to divide us outright, we will be leaving them to far less scrupulous groups.

If xenophobic and far-right factions are the only ones who don’t ignore or ridicule them, who acknowledge their grievances, and who offer them solutions (no matter how absurd), we will all lose doubly.

It is high time for the left to engage these folks, and for us to treat them with respect, as we suggest a more accurate picture of the problems we all face and their possible solutions.

Solidarity is not a matter of forming alliances with friends. That’s intrinsic to the concept of friendship. Solidarity is finding our common ground with one another, even those with whom we may differ, as we work to advance our common causes and negotiate our differences.

We can all still learn from one another.

There is a light somewhere

Tom Waits reads Charles Bukowski’s The Laughing Heart:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Thanks to @kelly_carlin and  for the video link, and The Best American Poetry for the words.

Moral work and technology

Cryptographer Phillip Rogaway, from Kaveh Waddell’s piece on the politics behind computer science:

When you have an ostensibly apolitical department, but you scratch beneath the covers and discover that three-quarters of the faculty are funded by the Department of Defense, well, in fact that’s not apolitical. That is very much working in support of a particular ethos, and one simply hasn’t called it forth.

I think there’s some truth in this, but it’s probably overstated. Much DoD-funded work has no conceivable military or intelligence application. (I’ve personally seen DoD funding for the electrophysiology of protozoa.)

My own view is that it’s just a way to obfuscate the fact that industry is subsidized by the public, contrary to free market fantasies.

Quite independent of questions of funding, though, there is a larger moral question here. Should you even do work that has an obvious and destructive application in military or intelligence, regardless of how it’s funded?

It’s not always easy to discern what work has “obvious” or “destructive” applications, in the relevant sense, but it seems absolutely necessary if you care about your moral impact. How many people do this?

In A Mathematician’s Apology (PDF), published in 1940, mathematician G.H. Hardy reflects that:

A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.

Hardy acknowledges the hyperbole, but observes that his attraction to pure mathematics was its apparent uselessness.

(Special thanks to Matt for sharing the Kaveh Waddell piece, and for building a moral workplace which makes me proud.)

Deadly speech

Eric Posner proposes a way to stop terrorism:

[T]here is something we can do to protect people like Amin from being infected by the ISIS virus by propagandists, many of whom are anonymous and most of whom live in foreign countries. Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions. Such a law would be directed at people like Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

It’s important to note that the “ISIS virus” he mentions is not actually a virus, but apparently consists in text on a screen. Nevertheless, folks are to be “protected”, being incapable of ever acting contrary to what they read. In a similar connection, you’ll note the profound numbers of folks who become card-carrying Nazis upon reading Mein Kampf, Hitler’s views on social Darwinism and racial superiority being irresistible and profoundly convincing.

Of course, acts of violence in themselves are often a sort of propaganda. So beyond banning unsavory words, we should ban all depictions or accounts of violence. The news shall be reduced even further toward entertainment, but now, it shall have to do with topics of no (as opposed to little) substance. Indeed, anyone who mentions unsavory acts should be summarily executed, for fear of poisoning fragile minds and informing them of their capability to do evil.

(They shall be summarily executed, because any proceeding would entail disclosing their offense, thereby making the account of such violence known. Others may be influenced by such accounts.)

On the other hand, Posner does acknowledge the absurdity of his argument, providing that a privileged few may be capable of rational thought:

One worry about such a law is that it would discourage legitimate ISIS-related research by journalists, academics, private security agencies, and the like. But the law could contain broad exemptions for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof.

Accordingly, the Soviet intelligentsia is to be re-instituted inside the United States. The cabal’s selectiveness hinges crucially upon our notion of “legitimate interest”. Once, I believed that folks might have a legitimate interest in learning what they do not know, or in reading material published by those who’d like to kill us. However, I now understand that for my own protection, I should suppress my curiosity and mind my own business. I should just leave such matters to experts, and accept my own incompetence. I know not what I do, and I know not what I know.

None of this is without precedence in the United States. As Posner notes:

[Before the 1960s], people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a third column with recruits. The pattern in American history—and, in the other democracies as well, even today—is that during times of national emergency, certain limits on speech will be tolerated.

Ah, the glory days where one could be prosecuted for sentiment!

Of course, all this word-banning is something that Posner would like to see in other areas outside of terrorism. Take universities for example. Posner celebrates recent accomplishments in ridding campuses of unpleasant words. According to him:

[T]he justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.

Again, certain folks are understood to be incapable of rational thought. Posner, on the other hand, was always ordained with basic human capacities.

Indeed, others may even be unable to acquire such (innate) capacities:

It’s not just that sincere expressions of opinion about same-sex marriage or campaign finance reform are out of place in chemistry and math class. They are out of place even in philosophy and politics classes, where the goal is to educate students (usually about academic texts and theories), not to listen to them spout off. And while professors sometimes believe there is pedagogical value in allowing students to express their political opinions in the context of some text, professors (or at least, good professors) carefully manipulate their students so that the discussion serves pedagogical ends.

Teacher as propagandist; student as empty vessel to be filled with water. The Enlightenment be damned. And here, I thought I studied at one of the world’s preeminent philosophy departments where open discussion was our primary means of learning.

Indeed, human stupidity goes beyond words, leading up to actions, and knows no bounds whatever:

Youngsters do dumb things. They suffer from lack of impulse control. They fail to say no to a sexual encounter they do not want, or they misinterpret a no as yes, or in public debate they undermine their own arguments by being needlessly offensive.

Thus, in addition to prohibiting speech, we ought to excuse rapists. The common thread being, you see, that it takes consciousness to regulate one’s actions. And students — and probably others — lack it. Accordingly, to punish a rapist is to punish a person who couldn’t not rape. Something about their élan vital or élan rape perhaps. Enlightening.

Thankfully, I don’t think many people would agree with Posner on these principles. Not in the abstract. However, it seems to me that a growing number of people do believe they have certain rights, such as the right to not hear offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words. Or the fear that a sizable group — of which they are invariably too intelligent to be a member — are swayed by mere rhetoric. In so doing, they implicitly believe that we all lack the right to espouse offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words, or that only they reserve such a right.

Problem is, what is considered offensive and/or batshit-crazy is clearly very reactive to the times. So, at some time, suggesting a person of a different complexion might be human would have been considered “offensive”. And in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, it was assuredly offensive to many people to propose that the United States might be anything other than an angelic force for good in the Middle East.

More crucially, even if a given view is considered offensive as a matter of fact, there are still plenty of good reasons to permit the expression of such a view. For one thing, I personally find my disdain for the Ku Klux Klan to be reinforced when they march about in their silly little robes and histrionic headgear. Hitler comes off as a blood-crazed sociopath in his speeches, which is fitting, given his status as a blood-crazed sociopath. And sexists — well, they never do sound quite as sexist as when they are spouting off sexist notions.

One of the great virtues of free speech is that you get to know who you’re surrounded by. Are you surrounded by aspiring serial killers? Astrologists? Folks like Eric Posner?

You see, it’s because of free speech that I can avoid these people. Without it, I should fear that I’m always surrounded by repressed Eric Posners who seek to kill people solely on the basis of their moon sign.

Our fractured political parties

Sarah Blackstock on the increasingly fractured Republican Party:

I’ve been thinking about American political parties some today after hearing about a report from the Washington Post that saying the RNC/GOP may be making plans for how to nominate someone other than Trump if he’s in the lead going into the convention.

And? Okay. I understand that, because: Trump. But, on the other hand, if he’s who Republicans across the States vote to nominate, he should be the nominee, because if not? What’s the point?

The 2016 election is poised to be an interesting one. It’ll be an election of intraparty tussles, where the long-neglected boils infecting each party may finally prove to be lanced.

The Democrats have Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The question they face is whether they will try someone new who might fail to make the country worse, or continue to elect sociopathic warmongers and false prophets. Will they become an actual party of the left, or will they remain a far-right party with cheerful rhetoric?

On the other side, the Republicans have a similar existential question to face. Will they continue on the path of stoking populist hatred? That is, will they elect someone like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? History suggests where this will lead, and it’s not pretty. Or will they elect someone at least nominally more moderate, a Rand Paul or some such? Will they choose to survive the social liberalism of the next generation, or continue to place their bet on an increasingly marginal (and dying) segment of the population?

There are cracks in the foundations of each party, and they are widening. There’s no reason to suppose that those who fall through won’t discover their common interest and form a united and viable third party. With this election, we’re seeing the seeds begin to sprout.

Justifying what’s right

Last year, I attended a fundraising luncheon for a local non-profit. The mission of the organization was to curtail domestic violence by appealing to its negative economic consequences, and on this basis, making a pitch to human resources departments.

Such departments were thus encouraged to address reports or evidence of employees suffering domestic violence, because it was bad for their bottom line.

This is where we’re at now. Injustices are to be protested on the basis of economic or other superficial consequences, rather than any pesky sense of what’s right.

I could barely keep my food down during the lunch. It seemed so utterly preposterous and alien to me.

Are we really to understand that domestic violence might be desirable (or at least tolerable), if it had an economic benefit? Are we really suggesting that we’re such moral relativists that we can’t categorically reject domestic violence? Are we really so outright sociopathic that we can’t, for a moment, try to genuinely empathize with the victims of domestic violence? Even with the victims that work with us? Rather, we’re to relate to them as broken parts in the economic engine?

Something of a similar character recently came up in the New York Times op-ed, Diversity Makes You Brighter.

Seriously. That’s the title.

From the article:

Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. […]

Our findings suggest that racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning, the core purpose of a university. Increasing diversity is not only a way to let the historically disadvantaged into college, but also to promote sharper thinking for everyone. […]

Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it. By disrupting conformity it produces a public good. To step back from the goal of diverse classrooms would deprive all students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, of the opportunity to benefit from the improved cognitive performance that diversity promotes.

In layman’s terms: Include the black kid, because they’ll make you smarter.

Is this really what we want? To help empower the disadvantaged because their inclusion can benefit privileged folks? Is it possible to imagine anything more selfish and bereft of conscience?

And what if including a particular disadvantaged person doesn’t produce such an extraordinary effect on us all? What if we’re talking about including a conformist, mediocre, and boring person who has been put at an additional disadvantage owing to their race? Does their unjust exclusion not deserve to be addressed? Or have they simply failed to earn our good graces?

Another example of this notion is found in the pseudo-feminist Lean In movement. Here, we’re to understand that women need to prove themselves just as capable — perhaps even more capable — as men. Thus if only homemakers would do real work, like become a corporate drone, then equality would be a reality. If you want justice, you simply have to mold yourself to be as tolerable as possible to those who treat you unfairly. With allies like this, who needs enemies?

Personally, I think the proper way to think about the morality of each of these issues — domestic violence, racial inequality, and gender inequality — is to consider where you stand in the worst of cases.

Where would you stand if domestic violence, racial inequality, and gender inequality were to produce positive external consequences? Would you be okay with that? Would that compensate for the enormous pain these cause? Is nothing intrinsically unjust?

Amy Nguyen explores all these sorts of questions in her article, I need terrible female engineers. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s wonderful and important.

In the end, it doesn’t take a just soul to hire wildly productive female or minority Übermenschen. It takes a just soul to evaluate folks fairly, given all their advantages and disadvantages, and to treat them as human beings, not prime examples of the virtues of diversity.

On guns

Another day, another mass shooting in the United States.

No big deal, right?

I mean, sure, it’s a pity for the countless victims and their grief-stricken families, but there are plenty of people who use guns responsibly. There are hunters, and there are people who shoot targets, and there are hobbyists. And protecting their rights to kill defenseless animals, engage in meaningless pastimes, and collect instruments of murder — these are surely worth the price of 120,000 gun-related deaths and injuries each year.

After all, every liberty has its price, and who’s to say that this price is too steep?

I mean, sure, 120,000 deaths and injuries per year sure seems like a lot. But just imagine what would happen if guns were banned. The government might decide to exterminate the population on a whim, and it would be so much easier for them to do so. Without the option to go door to door, taking on our gun-toting patriots, they might have to resort to weapons of science-fiction. Instruments beyond our means at the present, or even our imagination. Instruments like bomb-toting drones. Or nuclear weapons. Or biological warfare. Objects of pure fantasy and speculation.

Thankfully, we have our guns. So that when the government goes door to door to kill us, we’ll have the means to defend ourselves. Or, hell, if they launch nuclear warheads at us, damn it, we’ll fire so many bullets into those oncoming missiles that they’ll never stand a chance. Or if they spray us with biological agents, fuck it, every single one of those asshole microbes is going to look like Swiss cheese when we’re through. As for those drones? We all know that it only takes a couple bullets to take down an armored vehicle flying tens of thousands of feet above ground.

Imagine how utterly preposterous it would be to propose that we exchange our paranoid fantasies, our superficial fun, and our chance to be a hero, for some measure of safety? For the relative well-being of 120,000 people per year?

Imagine how ridiculous it would be to suggest that we give people a year or so to surrender their prized guns for fair renumeration, and then send away everyone who possesses a little button that lets them arbitrarily kill people for, oh say, twenty-five years.

It’s all ridiculous because we have a two hundred year old document that states we should be able to carry such a button. Granted, it was written in a time, not by God, but by people who had at their disposal, instruments that could fire a round after thirty seconds or so of preparation, and that could hit the intended target or something fifty feet away from it.

However, they were prescient, and codified this right, knowing full well what the future held. Automatic machine guns, armor-piercing bullets, shitty pistols from Walmart that aren’t completely useless at efficiently killing human beings. They knew about these things, and rightly determined that they’d sufficiently deter potential tyranny. And if not, well hell, we’d have some fun. Wise men.

Love and Hate

When I wonder how good people can do terrible things, and whether this is even true, I always come back to love.

Everyone would admit that true love is good, unbelievably good. Everyone would also admit that one can mistake the appearance of love for the true thing. If one discovers that they’ve been had — not by their lover, but by love itself, though it may appear differently — a deep pain and anger replaces the immense pleasure and joy that was once there. Some do not recover.

If true love is good and hate evil, and we can never be sure love is true, then we will never know the good without taking a chance.

On conversation

James Radcliffe on conversation:

At its best the act of conversation can be many things; connection, communion, truth-finding, enlightenment, inspiration, a healing…  I do not overstate when I say that I have participated in conversations that have bordered on spiritual awakenings.  […]

The thing that I love about a great conversation is the same thing that I love about being part of a great gig, about making love, or participating in the creative process.  All these things are capable of rendering up jewels of light.  This is the truly good stuff; this is what makes life worth living; this is what balances the chaotic fury of flying blind thru the ever-storm of a darkening experience.

I’ve thought something of the sort recently. How my very favorite thing in the world might just be conversation, and how seldom we might consider this a possible answer.

Revisiting the smartwatch

I was a fool in March and April. I did that awful thing where you make a strong claim about something based solely on fleeting intuitions and little else. I had minimal experience from which to derive a sensible conclusion.

Thankfully, it was about something fairly trivial. It was about smartwatches.

My opinion on smartwatches boiled down to this:

Smartwatches are a perfect example of technology being used to produce new problems in the course of providing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

I’m unaware of anyone who claims that their smartphone isn’t sufficiently annoying, and that they require a more intimate means of being distracted, so that they might be more socially aloof.

After several weeks of actually using Apple Watch, I’ve discovered that I couldn’t have been more wrong in this.

Apple Watch — and I’m sure it roughly generalizes to all smartwatches — actually seems to make mobile devices less annoying.

It’s true that the smartwatch is more intimate than the smartphone, but the corollary is that the smartphone is less intimate than the smartwatch. It takes you out of your life, and puts you in an antisocial bubble. It annoys the hell out of anyone who’s interacting with you, and at the end of the day, this fact annoys the hell out of you.

I still maintain that fitness trackers and such are almost completely pointless. An example of technology that fixes “a problem that doesn’t exist” — namely, the notion that what keeps folks from becoming fit is in not knowing that they’re unfit. (One exception is the more notification-oriented features of such tracking: alerts that you’ve been sitting too long, and so on. It’s easy to be so absorbed in the moment that you forget about your health.)

However, what keeps smartwatches from being similarly pointless are their focuses on providing a simple interface in which to do simple things, and in delivering urgent notifications.

Roughly speaking, my smartphone has become little more than the stashed-away brain that powers my smartwatch. I use it directly less and less. Now, I’m using my smartwatch — and only for a couple seconds at a time — to do simple and fast things like skipping a song, replying to a text message with a “Sounds good”, or taking heed of the fact that I need to be somewhere in thirty minutes. I attend to that thing, and then I almost immediately attend to something else. Something more interesting.

No one really notices any of this, and it takes place so quickly that even I don’t feel as though my attention has been severed from what really matters. With a smartwatch, there’s really no temptation to look at Instagram, or to procrastinate with Wikipedia, or to do anything other than what you intended to do when you raised your wrist. (To make this really work, paring down your notifications is essential.)

In theory, my smartwatch could be as absorbing and distracting as my smartphone. And if it were, I’d look even more ridiculous. But in practice, it’s really good at all the useful little things I mention, and it really sucks for procrastination or interactions of any significant length of time.

And because it sucks in this respect, I pay more attention to what’s around me.

Walking in Lower Lawrenceville

I took a nice long walk in the neighborhood today, and saw some pretty things. (See captions.)

Fixing up my house

Two years ago, I purchased an old house in the reinvigorated neighborhood of Lower Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh.

I got it for a song, but it needed some love. Which was perfect because I wanted a project, but little did I know that it was really a few dozen.

Many of the houses in my area of the neighborhood are old clapboard houses. Most were built sometime in the 1880s, and over the years had been deformed by aluminum siding, peculiar window replacements, and additions. My house was no exception, and so I resolved to bring back some of its original character.

The bulk of the work involved removing its aluminum shell and restoring the clapboard. Rotten clapboard would be replaced by newly milled wood — you can’t find clapboard of old-timey dimensions on the shelf — and any original clapboard that remained would be repaired and sanded.

Removing the aluminum siding was by far the most stressful part. No one knew what was underneath. The original wood siding could have been in mint condition, or completely missing.

Thankfully, only about twenty percent of the clapboard needed to be replaced. The majority of the original 1889 clapboard could be restored.

Three months and twenty-five thousand dollars later:



Much improved, I think. Now onward to ten thousand more projects, including:

  • Painting a couple of murals on the side of the house
  • Kitchen and bathroom renovation
  • Remove layers of tile and carpeting on third floor, and refinish the pine
  • Restore some missing trim work

It never ends.