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This post is set up to float to the top. I'm getting a bunch of new readers lately, so I figured a welcome/orientation post is appropriate.

Welcome to my journal! (Yeah, yeah, I know, the cool kids call it a blog these days.)

I post intermittently, sometimes at length, usually about personal topics, sometimes about controversial ones. I love thoughtful comments, even (sometimes especially) when they disagree with me. Anonymous comments or private messages are OK, too.

I expect politeness, though -- especially to my other commenters. If you can't be civil, be silent. If I start getting a wave of hostile anonymous commenters, I will likely change my policy.

Some links I keep here for convenience:

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

(Started life as a too-long and deraily comment elsewhere.)

There's a difference between killing ~two million unrelated randomly chosen individuals around the planet, and killing 99% of the members of a ~two million person community. In the latter case, there is a moral/ethical violation occurring that does not occur in the former case, in addition to all the moral/ethical violations that occur in both cases.

I recognize that not everyone agrees; I recognize that many people will declare killing 99% of the members of a ~two million person community to be morally and ethically equivalent to ~two million individual murders.

I'm not really interested in arguing the point, as I'm not really sure how to do so that isn't simply repeated re-assertion. But it's clear to me at the level of moral and ethical intuition that something is happening at the aggregate level, and I'm not prepared to simply wave that intuition away because I don't understand yet precisely what that something is or how it arises.

That said, I do not have a clear understanding of how the things I think of as individual rights aggregate as multiple individuals enter the domain of discourse. As regular readers have perhaps noticed, most of the ethical problems I find most vexing basically rip their pants on this particular rusty nail.

My current tentative theory is that my problem (and that of my culture) is that I'm/we're reasoning backwards... that the rights are collective, and individual rights derive from that.

I'm reminded of a linguistics problem set that infuriated me decades ago, having to do with deriving the phonetic rules governing the pronunciation of Turkish plurals (I think). I simply could not work out rules that described the data.

The reason for that turned out to be that there were no rules for deriving the pronunciation of Turkish plurals. The plurals were the root form; the rules derived the pronunciation of singulars. Once I understood that, deriving the rules was easy. Until I understood it, deriving the rules was impossible, because they didn't exist to be derived.

That something similar might also be true of plural and singular rights is, to say the least, not a popular idea. ny


Who will love a little sparrow?

I am finding myself struggling with the reality that the only way I know of to address a group of people is by crafting messages to be received by individuals in that group, even though individuals in that group will process those messages as individuals.

This is tricky when I want to express something that's true of the group, but not necessarily true of any individual.

Like, if there's some task that I think is really important for the group to perform, but which can be done even if half the group doesn't participate, pretty much what I say is some version of "Hey y'all! We need to perform this task!!!" And some people will reply "Nonsense. I don't need to perform this task at all. It will get done without me, and I don't wish to perform it."

For example, say I live with four housemates, and the trash needs to be taken out every week, and requires two people to take it out. I say "We have to take out the trash." And some of us say "Nah. It will get taken out without my involvement, and I have more important tasks to perform."

And, well, it's complicated to say whether we're right or wrong as individuals when we say that. If all five of us do that, then arguably 3 of us are correct, since the task only needed 2 people, but there's no telling which 3 it is. Perhaps it's more reasonable to say that each of us is 3/5ths correct. Perhaps it's more reasonable to say that we were all incorrect, since the trash didn't get taken out.

OTOH, if only 3 of us do that, maybe they're correct. After all, the trash got taken out, didn't it?

I don't know.

What I usually tell myself in such cases is that the individual is the wrong unit of analysis. What's clear in the first case is that collectively, we failed to perform the task, because collectively, while we believed that we needed to perform the task, we also believed that we didn't need to perform the task, and we chose to go with the latter.

Which is true as far as it goes, but isn't really helpful. The purpose of an ethical framework is to guide right action, not simply to judge it after the fact. And the closest thing I have to a guideline for how to get from individual ethics to collective ethics is the Categorical Imperative, which works OK for bright-line cases, but gets really squirrelly at the edges. ("Is it ethical to go see $movie tonight? Well, jeez, imagine if everyone did that!") The lack of better tools for that has frustrated me for decades.

I have friends who think that I'm just kind of silly when I think this way, who tell me that there's just no such thing as a collective ethical responsibility, and that the reason I'm confused is that I'm treating collectivist fictions as reality. I, as an individual, either have an ethical responsibility to perform the task, or I don't. End of story. Other people don't enter into it.

And I say "Well, OK, but what about the trash? That's what's really tripping me up here. It really does seem that the difference between taking out the trash and failing to take out the trash is important here."

At this point, some of them tell me that my problem is I've fallen for consequentialist fallacies, and that whether or not the trash gets taken out isn't actually relevant to ethical decisions about right action. Either I have an ethical duty to help take out the trash, or I don't, and if I'm not sure which it is I can refer to the documentation, which describes my ethical duties. If I do, then taking it out is right action and failing to is Wrong. If I don't, then taking it out is supererogatory and failing to is ethically OK. The state of the trash has nothing to do with ethics, and vice-versa.

At which point I usually mutter something unkind. If ethical behavior doesn't get the trash taken out, why should I prefer it?

So... I dunno. I acknowledge that the individualist deontological ethical model causes ethical problems that I find intractable to evaporate, and that in general that's a really good property for a model to have. But I really want ethics to have something to say about whether or not I should take out the trash, and I really do want it to be grounded in something other than being authoritatively informed that I have a duty to take out the trash.

So... it seems that for good or ill, rightly or wrongly, I do in fact subscribe to collectivist consequentialist ethical views regarding right action. Perhaps as I grow older and wiser and continue exploring these questions, I will eventually learn better, but for now I have to start from where I am, with all of the struggles that entails.

And as I said to start with, one of those struggles is about messaging. When I say "We have to take out the trash," and Sam replies "No, I don't"... are we even disagreeing?

Of course, the language is tricky, because English lets me say "You have to take out the trash!" in an ambiguous way. It might be a general observation, or it might be a targetted instruction. If I say it that way, then in the latter case "No I don't" is a disagreement.

And even if I'm careful to use first-person pronouns, not everyone is.

So... I am finding myself struggling with the reality that the only way I know of to address a group of people is by crafting messages to be received by individuals in that group, even though I know individuals in that group will process those messages as individuals, even when I use first-person-plural language.

And, yes, of course I'm talking about the election.

I'm feeling old, politics edition.

A comment in another discussion, captured here wth minor edits.

I'll be honest: from my perspective the idea that "oh look, there's a primary contest within the party between a consummate party insider whose great strength is managing and maintaining personal working relationships with people in power and has been actively working within the party at the highest levels for decades, and an outsider who wasn't even a member of the party a year ago, but the party officials will of course be neutral and not 'stack the deck' or otherwise behave partially" was always ridiculous.

The advantage of campaigning as an outsider is you get to run a populist campaign, take no responsibility for anything that's happened in the past, and appeal to people who are anti-politics-as-usual. You get to blame the insiders for everything that's gone wrong in the past and try to channel the vague unhappiness that is always bubbling up within the electorate into specific support for you. And Sanders took full advantage of that, and Clinton took the brunt of it.

The disadvantage of campaigning as an outsider is that the party insiders don't trust you and don't want to work with you. And Sanders took the brunt of that, and Clinton took full advantage of it.

All of that was perfectly predictable going in, and perfectly obvious six months ago. The question was, which way would the balance tilt: towards the consummate insider or the consummate outsider?

So we ran the test and we got our answer.

And I try to be sympathetic, but since you bring it up... the idea that this constitutes some unique or unusual form of "denying the will of the people" frankly strikes me as tediously naive.

This is how partisan politics works: a group of not-entirely-aligned people agree to benefit from collective bargaining power, and then struggle internally to determine whose agenda that power will support. Usually it's done in private rooms; this year it was done out in the streets with the cameras rolling. And I get that seeing a slaughterhouse in operation for the first time is viscerally disgusting, but to rail against it with a hamburger in one's hand isn't a good look.

Or perhaps I'm just being too knee-jerk cynical about partisan politics.



So, I thought I was done explicitly acknowledging these anniversaries, but, well, clearly I was wrong.

(That's fine, there's absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to acknowledge them explicitly. I just mis-judged where I was on this particular road.)

For those of you wondering what I'm talking about: eight years ago today I had a major stroke.
I got better.
If you want details, check out my "stroke/recovery" tag.

Here's what I'm going to say about it today:

I was enormously lucky to be able to focus all of my attention on recovery. I had work benefits that not only made the medical bills affordable but kept paying the bills while I stayed home, I had a partner who took care of everything around the house and drove me to all my appointments and put up gracefully with all of the fundamentally unattractive behavior that comes with major illness, I had competent and responsive health care... hell, even my insurance company was basically supportive. I pretty much didn't have to do or worry about anything but getting better, and I am more grateful for that than I can say.

It makes a huge difference, and not everyone gets that privilege.

I hope my country can transition smoothly and soon to a system that at least makes some of those privileges available to all of its citizens.

Myths and maths.

So, I'm friends with a lot of people who identify as rationalists of one sort or another. I went to a very technically-minded school, and my career is in the computer industry, and while not all of my friends work in science or tech it's generally the way to bet. So it's unsurprising that I see a lot of posts and shared articles on social media about how other people have their facts wrong... about science, about politics, about just about anything.

And that's great. Facts are really important. Engaging in rigorous analysis and exchanging the reliable facts that come out of that analysis is the basis of a lot of really good things we've created in the world, and we should be proud of that. And challenging other people's proposed facts is part of that process. We ought to be doing that, and doing it proudly and visibly.

But the problem I have with a lot of those posts and articles is the implicit and mostly unexplored assumption that it's the only thing we ought to be doing; that the stuff they condemn is a failed attempt at participating in this process, or a struggle against it, or in some other way should be understood in terms of that sort of rigorous analysis.

And the reason I have a problem with that is because, while it's a valuable and important thing to be doing, it's not the only thing.

We tell stories. We tell them to reinforce our understandings of who we are, and to challenge those understandings, and to communicate them to others. We tell stories to improve the social status of our selves and our allies and to diminish the status of enemies and rivals and potential rivals. We tell stories to give our aspirations and our fears concrete form, so we can engage with them concretely. We tell stories to build social constructs... to draw lines in the sand about what is acceptable and what isn't, what we value and what we reject, about who we are and who we want to be, about how we distinguish our families, our organizations, our groups and factions from everybody else. We tell stories to reinforce our relationships, and create and maintain shared understandings of what those relationships are based on and how they work and how important they are.

And those are important things. Some of them are importantly wrong, and we ought to stop doing them. Some of them are importantly right, and we ought to keep doing them.

"Sure, I've made my alliance with reason and science
and praise them for all that they've done,
but I've found me some flaws in those old Thermo laws:
I not only broke even, I won.
And I sure can't complain that I'm still in the game
when the game gets to be this much fun.

I keep getting more out than I ever put in.
They keep telling me that can't be done."

In other words: there's math and there's myth. And it's good for a culture to have a rich corpus of both to rely on. And I think we do, but we get the two confused a lot. And that's no good. When we try to build bridges using myth, our bridges fall down. When we try to build culture using math, we alienate people.

But, I don't know... somehow we seem to have ended up in this weird place where we get our myths and our maths mixed up. We tell myth-stories and challenge myth-stories as though they were factual analysis, and while the latter on its own is as absurd as objecting that Paul Bunyan and Superman couldn't possibly have done those things, the existence of the former makes the latter kind of necessary.

I'm not sure how we get out of that hole. But I wish we could.
I was recently reminded of the line from the Song of Solomon:
"שְׁנֵ֥י שָׁדַ֛יִךְ כִּשְׁנֵ֥י עֳפָרִ֖ים תְּאֹומֵ֣י צְבִיָּ֑ה הָרֹועִ֖ים בַּשֹּׁושַׁנִּֽים׃"

""Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle Which feed among the lilies."

This in turn reminded me of a time, back in my sleeping-with-women days, when I more than once considered quoting that line at some appropriate moment.

Ultimately I concluded that there were no such moments.

(It's possible that I concluded this empirically. I think the people most likely to have been my experimental subjects read my social media posts, for reasons known only to them, so perhaps they can confirm.)

I mean, it really does seem designed to elicit puzzlement at a moment when puzzlement is not precisely what one is going for. (Admittedly, this is true of my life more generally.)

Like, what the heck does that even mean? That they're pleasingly symmetrical? That they are adorably cute? That they're kinda wobbly? That he wants to feed them grass? What?

Is there some deep kabbalistic understanding hidden beneath the puzzling surface meaning? "צְבִיָּ֑ה" is TZADAI BEIT YOD HEI. From the specification of twins we derive a division of that into TZADAI-BEIT and YOD-HEI.

YOD-HEI is of course the first half of the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, from which we learn that her right breast (reading right-to-left, as one does, unless engaging in rear-entry, in which case her left breast) is like that of a demigod, which seems like a nice enough thing to say about a partner's breast.

But what of the other breast?

TZADAI corresponds to a fish-hook, which... no, I'm not going there.

But in the Sephirot, TZADAI is the eighteenth path within the tree of life. Eighteen, of course, is the age of consent in most of the U.S. It's also the gematria value of HEI-YOD, "חַי,‎‎" which means life. This is not a coincidence, because in Kabbalah nothing is coincidence, but also because it is the mirror-image of YOD-HEI as it would appear while examining one's breasts in a mirror. And thus we derive that consent is life!

At least when it comes to one's left breast. (Or one's right breast, when engaging in rear entry.) But of course since the two breasts are described as twins, what applies to one applies to the other.

But what about BEIT? In the ordinary sense this of course corresponds to the Hebrew word bet, meaning "home of" (often transliterated as "Beth" in the names of American synagogues). The Kabbalistic correspondence is obvious, and unpacking it is left as an exercise to the reader.

Admittedly, the bit just before it about her having a neck like the tower of David is even more problematic.

I mean, leaving aside the whole "is neck like bull!" thing... all the round shields of mighty men hung around her neck?

Is that a kinky thing? A gay thing? Is he admiring her necklace? I don't know!!!

Also I really ought to be getting work done.

On not being allowed to talk about it.

(What started as a comment in a conversation about "politically correct speech," and expanded because, well, I'm me.)

"what are you going to do when you are not allowed to talk about a topic because it is offensive to a conservative?"

This is, as far as I can tell, a sincere question.

This bewilders me a little, because of course, this is not some kind of hypothetical about the future. This has been true for large parts of my life, and is true for many people I know today, and is mostly no longer true of me largely because of where I've chosen to live, and is no longer true there largely because a lot of people worked hard and subjected themselves to a lot of suffering to create an environment where I have that freedom.

In fact, I just got finished saying pretty much that to you at some length.

But anyway, to answer your question: when it happens, what I do is I stop talking about that subject around conservatives who have any power to hurt me.

I'm good at that. I've spent much of my life practicing... at the family dinner table, in school, in temple, on the streets. At work, sometimes, though I had more control over what workspaces I spent time in, which made it easier.

Of course, just shutting up only takes me so far. So when I want to talk about stuff that I'm not allowed to talk about because I might offend a conservative, I seek out spaces where I can talk about that stuff in relative safety, to people I'm pretty sure won't attack me for my ideas or for the way I live my life.

Marginalized communities are accustomed to doing this.

And yes, I know, the "safe space" culture that makes this possible is part of the whole cultural shift you object to, part of what you call "political correctness." But when I am "not allowed to talk about a topic because it is offensive to a conservative," as you say, those spaces really are valuable.

That said, I understand that you probably don't want to use that strategy... you probably want to talk about whatever you want and have, as you say, a "civil conversation" without worrying about who is listening, or how they might react, or what they might do to you. That you think the loss of this freedom is a bad thing; that it is equivalent to the loss of free speech itself. That your inability to have such "civil conversations" with anyone you choose is a sign that "PC speech" is becoming fascist.

And I can understand the emotions that underlie those beliefs. Certain people in this country are accustomed to getting to talk about whatever we want to talk about, whenever we want to talk about it. And it's very frustrating to grow up being treated that way and then find that privilege suddenly being denied that in some areas. Scary, sometimes.

At least, it certainly was for me, growing up in the intersection of several marginalized communities in the 70s and 80s. It was for a lot of my friends.

Frustrating, and scary, and infuriating.

As I imagine it is for you now.

I recommend you get used to it.

I mean, I realize you don't like that. I realize you want to be able to share your view on same-sex marriage anywhere you choose and have a "civil conversation" about it without running the risk of offending anyone.

Me too, actually. (For much of my life, I didn't have that privilege. I have it now, modulo explicitly conservative and I enjoy it immensely.)

Or at least, without running the risk of suffering any consequences for having offended anyone. Hurting people's feelings might be OK, but if we can be reported to HR for having done so, well, that's something else again.

And I assume that seems fair to you... you want the freedom to do that, just like I can reliably share whatever opinions I might have about other people's wives, husbands and families without running the risk of offending anyone.

Except of course I can't actually do that. There's a million things we can't say about other people's families because it's considered rude to do so. We all grow up knowing that. That's part of what "civility" means, is that there are some things we just don't say.

If I'd told my neighbors when I was a child that they and their wives and husbands and children were an abomination before God and destroying the framework of civil society, my mom would have slapped me and fallen all over herself apologizing to them and felt like she'd failed as a mother, because decent people just didn't talk about other people's families like that!

Well, not straight families, anyway.

If I'd told my neighbors that it was nice to see them acting like decent human beings, marrying and raising a child together rather than running around in the streets like wild animals the way most of their people do, my mom would react similarly. Hell, if I'd talked about them that way at home, she'd do much the same, because talking like that was rude.

Well, it was rude if they're white, I mean.

Saying stuff like about queer and black families has been part of "civil conversation" most of my life. In many places it still is. People could say that stuff at the dinner table and the water cooler, newspapers and magazines could print it, preachers could shout it from the pulpit, and all of that was perfectly OK.

Not because speech was free... if that were true, then everything would be fair game to say at the dinner table. But not everything was. Saying the same stuff about straight couples and white families was rude, and well-behaved people didn't talk like that. That wasn't part of "civil conversation."

Not in public, anyway.

So no, it wasn't because speech was free.

It was because the straight white folks had the power to set the rules of social discourse. They got to define what was and wasn't "civil conversation" and punish public violations of those rules.

Which they did. All the time.

And the rest of us got used to it. We listened to those conversations at the dinner table and the water cooler, and we kept our mouths shut. We read those articles in the newspapers and the magazines, and we kept our mouths shut. We heard the shouts from the pulpit, and the "Amen"s from the congregation. And we kept our mouths shut.

For decades.

Because it wasn't safe for us to get frustrated, or scared, or angry.

Because it wasn't "civil conversation" when we said what we thought.

So, anyway, I don't really expect you to care about any of this stuff. I don't expect you to care about us. When the rules constraining civil conversation allowed people like you to say the stuff you wanted to say, you were fine with that... as far as you're concerned, that was "free speech," and all was right with the world.

And there's nothing exceptional about that. I mean, there are lots of marginalized communities still operating under those rules today, and there are many of them I don't pay much attention to myself. Most of us do that to some extent or another. My point here isn't to condemn you as an awful uncaring person or anything. I'm not in a position to cast the first stone.

I'm just saying: I don't expect you to care.

You only worry about the rules constraining "civil conversation", you only experience those rules as fascism, when they start to exclude things that you want to talk about. It's only a problem for you when you can't have a "civil conversation" about your views on same-sex marriage or climate change or whatever. It's only a problem when it starts to affect you.

And, again: I get that.
I'm not asking you to care.
I don't expect you to value other people's freedom to speak as much as you value your own.

I don't even expect you to notice that what you think of as the start of a fascist attack on free speech was for some of us the end of one... was the first time in our lives we were able to hold our heads up high and be ourselves in public. Even when I hold your hand and lead you through it, I don't expect you to actually think about it.

Frankly, I expect you've skimmed over the last few paragraphs hoping I'll eventually get to something interesting.

But I'm talking about it anyway, for a few reasons.

One of those reasons is because I want you to understand that this thing you're going through now? This worrying that maybe you can't bring up certain topics in certain places? This sense that there might be consequences to saying the wrong things, to believing the wrong things, to being the wrong things? These feelings of anxiety and unfairness and fear of fascism and lack of freedom of speech that you're experiencing?


It just didn't used to affect you, and now it does.

What's changing is that people like you are no longer quite so reliably and disproportionately the beneficiary of the rules about what kind of speech is OK.

And I recommend you get used to it, because WE ARE NOT GOING BACK TO THAT. Because we don't want to live that way, any more than you do, and we never have wanted to.

So, as I said at the start, here's what I recommend you do... what marginalized voices have done all throughout history:

1. Seek out private safe spaces where you and your fellow conservatives can say whatever you want, without having to worry about anyone else's feelings. (Yes, I know this is more difficult now that the office water cooler and the newspaper op-ed page and so forth are no longer reliably safe spaces for you. It's frustrating. I know. Do it anyway.)

2. When in public, pay attention to the feelings of those around you and avoid doing and saying things that hurt those feelings. (This is actually much easier now than it used to be, because we're more likely to tell you when you say hurtful shit. I know that it's hard to learn better when nobody corrects your mistakes, and for many decades we weren't correcting you. I'm sorry about that. We are now, though. You're welcome.)

Now, I expect you're probably thinking something about how this is not OK because it's polarizing and destroys the ability for people to share ideas and yadda yadda yadda and echo chambers and I'll be over here.

But there are ways to deal with that, too. Here's what I recommend:

1. When you want to learn what other people think, listen to them.
a) You can do that in public, initially, because other people are able to say some of the stuff we think there now, so there's more opportunity to learn.
b) They might suggest reading material so you can learn more. Read it.
c) If you're invited into their safe spaces, go there and listen some more.

2. When you want to teach other people what you think, talk.
a) You can do that in public, within limits.
b) If those limits are too constraining at first (which I totally sympathize with... they really can be, when other people don't want to learn what you want to teach), do it in safe conservative spaces instead. When you find the occasional liberal or progressive who genuinely seems to want to learn what you think, invite them to join you in those safe conservative spaces -- an email conversation with you, for example, or your own Facebook wall -- and teach them what you have to teach them.

Eventually, as you get good at this, you'll build up a network of mutually respectful relationships with people who may disagree with you, but with whom you can have civil conversations where you aren't saying hurtful things to them and you aren't worried that they'll report you to HR and you're both learning from each other.

Good luck!

Calibrating therapy

(A stroke anecdote I started telling in a FB comment, but was way too long.) 

One of the things that made speech therapy (which for me was less about speech and more about repairing cognitive deficits more generally) tricky was that calibrating with therapists was not a well-established thing.

Like, it's pretty well normalized that there are athletes, and there are more sedentary patients, and there are just very different treatment modalities for the two. Physical therapists know to ask and know what to do with the answers. You don't treat professional football players the way you treat someone who maybe goes for a long walk every now and then.

But the analogous continuum for speech/cognitive therapy is, um, less normalized.

My outpatient speech therapist, in our first session together, had me do a simple logic puzzle of the "alice, bob, and carol have an abacus, some bacitracin, and a coelocanth" variety, and she asked me if I was acquainted with the type of puzzle.

"Sure," I explained. "I do them all the time." And then completely failed to be able to solve it, because I had completely lost any ability to hold two thoughts in my head simultaneously. And after a while of my sitting there, muttering things and scrawling proposition logic notation on a sheet of paper and growing increasingly frustrated, she prompted me to "draw the grid."

And I said huh?

And she drew the grid, and I blinked and said "oh! Much easier that way!" and solved it. And she looked puzzled and said "You said you've done these before... how do you do them?" And I said "What do you mean, 'how?' I look at the puzzle and... solve it?"

So we did more of them, working our way up to greater and greater complexity. Towards the end it was really an exercise in maintaining focus for long enough to complete one of the really complicated ones, and we agreed that there was probably no point to continuing along those lines, but I mentioned that the edge of deficit at that point was often when I was fatigued, so maybe we could work on simpler puzzles while I was exerting myself physically?

So we went back to the simple three-statement versions, except she would read them out loud while I used the treadmill, and I would solve them in my head. And we worked our way up to five-statement or so versions, and I said "OK. That last one feels like something I would have had trouble with before the stroke, too... I think we're done."

And she commented that during our first session, when I'd talked about being accustomed to solving these sorts of things in my head, she'd figured I was just confused... but that no, it was obvious in retrospect that I'd had a very clear idea of what my deficits were.

And I was like, well, yes! Thanks for noticing!

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