From the year 2015
Once upon a time, a man drowned in a river, so they put the river on trial. “It is clear from the evidence,” Outraged Prosecutor declared, “That this river caused the death of this poor man!” But Clever Defense Attorney was clever. He twirled his black mustache and made direct eye contact with the jury as he smiled, and said: “Let’s approach this rationally and scientifically, shall we?” The heads of the jury members bobbed in unison: it’s always good to approach things rationally and scientifically! “I have in my hand a drop of water from that river…..”
Friend of mine, who happens to be a successful writer and online personality, recently told me: “I don’t write for stupid people, and neither should you.” As I’ve been spending the winter holiday season reflecting back on the year, and contemplating life, love and happiness, I’ve also spent time reflecting on this bit of advice. And I’ve decided I disagree. So in the spirit of the holidays, I’m going to share with you 12 random bite-sized little thoughts — little meditations, if you will — on why I disagree: one for each of the twelve days of Christmas.
Do you have reasons for making the choices that you make? If you do, then you don’t have “free will”. If you don’t, then you also don’t have “free will”. It’s really just that simple.
Are you religious, or are you an atheist? It’s a pretty common question, and it goes hand-in-hand with a pretty common assumption: you’re either one or the other. If you identify as “an atheist” you are presumed to not be religious, and if you identify as “religious” then you are presumed to believe in some kind of god. But this idea is completely wrong. There are religious atheists, there are areligious theists, and an incredible tapestry of different combinations in between.
The most recent episode of Futuristic Now, a podcast by my friend Gray Scott, is about The Simulation Theory: the idea that the entirety of our experience–perhaps our entire universe–may be some form of simulation. Gray goes over some of the ideas people have put forth, and talks about some ways this view could be interpreted. As is always the case with his thought-provoking podcast, he brings up more questions than answers: If we are a simulation, who or what created us? What would the purpose be for creating a simulated universe? Does the mere existence of a simulation even require that there be a “creator” at all? As always, I like to dig in and get technical, and ask what it means for something to be a simulation in the first place.
My latest chit-chat interview with Josiah Jennings is about trigger warnings and political correctness in academia. It was really prompted by two articles, one from Vox and another in The Atlantic. Both articles talk about political correctness being the major force of censorship and limitation in classes. But Josiah and I talk about some of the drastic misunderstandings there are concerning what “political correctness” and “trigger warnings” really mean, and some of the motivations of the people spreading misinformation.
If I see another woebegone think piece about the horrors of “internet shaming” I’m going to spew burrito chunks. They are all just so saccharine, and can be summed up in a handful of buzzwords each. Not only are these articles tedious in their moralistic cluck-clucking, they spend very little time trying to root out the real source of the problem. Internet shaming isn’t just a product of “the internet age”, and it isn’t just a case of mob mentality or immaturity. It’s a symptom of a deeper underlying problem: a problem with our culture that needs to be fixed before we can expect internet shaming to get better.
Privacy is an illusion. It simply doesn’t exist. You probably don’t believe me. Until recently, it was easy for us to have the illusion of privacy. Now, with accelerating increases in computational power and storage, and the incredible sophistication of data mining and machine learning, that fake veil of “privacy” is about to be torn down–and it will be shown to have been nothing more than a mirage in the first place. But that doesn’t mean you should freak out. It also doesn’t mean that we should just ignore the legal concerns that people associate with “privacy” in our society today. All it means is that we need to re-frame these problems in a different way.
For the last few years, conservatives in various states have been pushing to have monuments to the 10 Commandments erected on state property. The standard line is that it isn’t a “religious symbol” but rather is a tribute to the influence that the 10 Commandments have had, culturally, on our laws and legal system. But if we take that argument seriously, we have to consider: were the 10 Commandments REALLY the very beginning of these traditions? As it turns out, there is a legal system much older that, when you do the math, is even more strongly related than the 10 Commandments is to the laws we have today.
I am a transhumanist: I really believe that eventually our technology will advance to the point where we are able to replace the biological parts of our brains and bodies with mechanical or artificial replicas, or will be able to “upload” our minds into machine bodies. But if humanity transitions to synthetic, non-biological bodies… what will that mean for sex and gender? What will it mean for sexual orientation? Do terms like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” even have meaning when our bodies are made of nanobots or plastic and wires?
Elon musk was a co-founder of PayPal, is the CEO of both electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors and the spacecraft company SpaceX, and he is chairman of SolarCity. He’s trying to make zero-emission electric cars widely available, launch spacecraft into orbit, invent the perfect battery, and create an effective solar-powered energy grid. These are incredibly broad “infrastructure-level” initiatives. Rather than throwing his power and money into inventing a gadget with his name on it that will appear in people’s homes, he is building the services that eventually all of the gadgets you use will completely and utterly rely on. And you will look back at the fact that he used your tax money to do it, and you will thank him for it.
If you are like most people, you celebrate your birthday on the same calendar date each year. For example, since I was born on May 4th 1973, you probably consider today, May 4th 2015, to be my birthday. But this is extremely arbitrary and culturally biased: calendars vary from culture to culture, and change over history. Wouldn’t it be nicer–both more objective and more natural–to celebrate the anniversary of your birth in a way that was more connected to the natural movements and rhythms of the earth and the universe?
I have been dealing with a common and recurring logical problem that I see in cultural and political discussions, and it has come up often enough lately that I’d like to actually give it a label and a definition. I’m going to call it the “fallacy of incorrect scoping”. I’m using the term “incorrect scoping” to refer to any time there is some trait X that is bad, and because that trait is correlated with group Y, people will identify it as a “Y problem” or as a “X&Y problem”, even though the only thing that is actually causing the problem is X. It happens constantly in political and social debates, and it is completely and disgustingly wrong.
Yesterday’s episode of the Chris Krok radio show, a local Dallas conservative talk show, was entirely dedicated to the extreme anguish that Texans apparently feel when confronted with the question, “What do I call someone instead of ‘black guy’?” Chris Krok spent a good 30+ minutes talking about this issue, and spoke with many listeners who called in to opine on the subject. And in that entire time, not a single person addressed the actual issue involved, or the way to solve it.
This is one of my favorite “micro-fiction” short stories from Fredric Brown. He went through a phase in 1954 where all he wrote was science fiction short stories that were less than a page in length. Generally they just contained a single joke, a single cool or thoughtful idea, and that’s it. Of the many, many short stories he published in that year, this is my favorite. It’s shorter than any of my other readings, so you should be able to make it through to the end! And make sure you do: the entire point of the story is the “twist” in the very last line.
When I was in college and did a lot of LSD (that’s ok to admit these days, right? I mean, it was more than 20 years ago), I gained a real appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the world around me. I was a cognitive science major, and already had a deep appreciation for computational complexity and the profound nature of systems theory. But while on LSD, that intellectual understanding was transformed into a strong emotional sense–a feeling of awe. And that feeling had a strong influence on how I view both the physical world, and spirituality.
For this installment of my science fiction reading project, I wanted to share with everyone a chapter out of one of my favorite “fantasy-like” science fiction novels: The Celestial Steam Locomotive Volume I of The Song of Earth. I found this novel quite randomly when I was 15. I was wandering around the school library in the science fiction section, and the cover and title of the book caught my eye. So, I picked it up and started reading. This chapter stands on its own as a fable that teaches a lesson about jealousy, explains continental drift, and explains the name of a particular animal….
From despondent hand-wringing teen boys in their basements to angry unshaven men drinking their lives away a the corner bar, you can hear the eternal refrain, “Why are women so…….?” It is reflected on the internet, as well, with the lonely and the heartbroken howling the question into the void: Why are women so mean? Why are women so needy? Why are women so dishonest? Why are women so immature? Why are women so confusing? Why are women so difficult to figure out? Well, I hate to tell you this: but you are all asking the wrong question.