How to become president: a guide for sixteen-year-olds

Futility Closet, "an idler's miscellany of compendious amusements," quotes legal scholar Mark V. Tushnet explaining by way of example that there's no element of the constitution, no matter how apparently obvious, that does not require interpretation:

“Suppose that the guru’s supporters sincerely claim that their religion includes among its tenets a belief in reincarnation. Even on the narrowest definition of ‘age,’ they say, their guru is well over thirty-five years old even though the guru emerged from the latest womb sixteen years ago.

“Further, it would have been an establishment of religion for the President of the Senate to reject their definition of ‘age,’ and it would violate their rights under the free exercise clause … for the courts to overturn the decision made by the political branches.”

Transitions from knowledge to literacy (as regards Comic Sans)

I just watched the new VSauce video about Comic Sans, which made a lot of points I already knew (like that Comic Sans is incredibly readable on aliased screens) and a lot of points I didn't (The British Dyslexia Association recommends Comic Sans for children who struggle with making out letters.[1. I checked out their Dyslexia Style Guide, I'm doing pretty well here, I think, but there's room for improvement.  I will keep it in mind next time I make changes to the website design.]). One of the things he talks about is that Comic Sans hate might be a symptom of increasing design literacy following the digital revolution, the way there was increasing regular literacy following the invention of the printing press.

This inspired a wild speculation that I wanted to expand on here:

Every time new types of media come out, there are people who complain that it's going to ruin knowledge, because people who write things down will stop bothering to remember them / people who watch TV are going to forget how to read / people who get all their entertainment on the internet have no attention spans anymore.

And, in fact, there's some science to back some of that stuff up.  Not all of it, but some.  The Google Effect, for example, describes a tendency for people to not bother remembering things they believe they can easily find out online.

My thought is that, as humanity's knowledge grows, and our base of understanding progresses, we do start to forget the earlier layers of stuff.  Rather than trying to know everything that an individual would need to have known a hundred years ago -- stuff that's still important, but that not everyone needs to pay attention to -- instead we learn a system for acquiring that information, and entrust it to our civilization to continue to provide the infrastructure that backs those skills up.

And that's what I mean by literacy -- it's a systematic replacement of specific knowledge with a general method for acquiring that sort of knowledge.

Now, I think there's a lot to be gained by having a lot of stuff in your head.  But there are types of things that are easier to leave to Google, and types of things that are better to store all together in your mind.  You often learn the first chunk to move on to the second -- learning who various politicians are in order to understand a political system -- but if it's not part of your everyday job, it's okay to just understand that system, and be ready to Google a name you know you recognize but you can't place.

I really like the idea that we're acquiring design literacy as a civilization, because it means that individuals are taking into their own hands the responsibility of making their lives and their world beautiful -- which is, like, super-important.

The minutiae of politics

The first time that we set out to collect data on this and associate it with political or moral beliefs, we found a general pattern -- this is with the psychologists Yoel Inbar and Paul Bloom -- that in fact, across three studies we kept finding that people who reported that they were easily disgusted also reported that they were more politically conservative. Another way to say this, though, is that people who are very liberal are very hard to disgust.

It's getting very close to the election, and I wanted to do a post about politics.  I had a long conversation with my father earlier about immigration and poverty (which was fun...) and I've been trying to stay on top of the issues, but all that I keep coming back to focusing on is how ridiculously big a deal an election is, and how trivial we make it.

This popped up on Reddit earlier today:

The TED talk above is about how stuff like being near a sign reminding you to wash your hands makes you answer questions more conservatively.  I wonder if that means a biological outbreak is good for a conservative candidate?  Did swine flu sway an election?

Not that I can come up with anything better.  I often paraphrase Winston Churchill (who was himself paraphrasing someone or other): Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the other ones we've tried.  I'm terrified of the consequences of next Tuesday's election, because it seems ridiculous to put the future of the country in the hands of the people of that country.  I'm just more terrified of everyone else we could give the power of that decision.

Here's an idea we could try:  Let's swap it around -- rather than Americans electing the American president, everyone in every other country should vote for it.  Same standards: has to be an American, at least 35, and so on and so on, but everybody in a Democratic nation gets to vote for America's new president, except Americans.

We could do the same thing in reverse:  all the other countries' presidents and prime ministers could be elected by the rest of the world around them.  It would force everyone to start paying attention to world politics, and being nicer to other countries -- I think.  If your only way to improve your own country is by putting other countries in a position to do better by yours, I imagine a lot of people would do a better job of looking out for the rest of the world.

But maybe that would backfire horribly.

Oh well.  I'm voting for Obama on Tuesday, and I hope everyone reading this does, too.  Or at least votes.  Please at least get out and vote, if you're allowed.  There's nothing better to do.

Self-driving cars

In his most recent talk, Cory Doctorow talks about the likelihood of the existence of self-driving cars in the future.  In it, he points out that humans are awful at driving.  We kill ourselves and each other in cars all the time. I spent some time thinking about that this morning, and thinking about the way people get squicked out by new technologies that do something for them which they were used to doing for themselves.  It occurred to me that there would probably be way more outrage about self-driving cars killing people than people killing other people with cars, even if there were far fewer deaths by self-driving cars than human-piloted cars.

And there would have to be less.  There's no way a self-driving car would make it to market if it were only as good as humans at driving.  It would have to be far better at driving, at adapting, at dealing with bad roads and reckless drivers, than the average human.  It would have to be comparable to a stunt driver in capacity, so that it would be comparable to a very good driver when piloting a badly damaged car -- because who maintains their car as well as they really ought to?

But, still, humans would hate it.

I think the reason is that there wouldn't be someone to blame, when people died.  The amount of death caused by cars used to horrify people -- I remember once hearing it referred to as genocidal in scale.  But we got used to it, and we built a comfortable narrative in which it's always someone's fault.  The drunk driver, or the reckless driver, or the person who shouldn't have run that light, or the person who didn't take care enough of their car.

If the cars are self-driving, there won't be that excuse.  It won't be easy for people to talk their way out of caring about accidents.  So, at least until we adjust as a society, people will be horrified at every death by a self-driving car.

Apart from that, it likely won't be the same people dying.  Drunk drivers will be dramatically less a problem.  The same with people who text while driving.  The people killed will be random, or will be based on the quality of the roads they're driving, or the quality of the maps their GPS uses.

I hope that none of this is a problem, because I hope that we shift to comprehensive public transportation before we have cars good enough to drive us.  I know the latter will be within my lifetime, so I hope the former will be, too. Public transportation will cut down on deaths even more, although I imagine people will still be more afraid of it -- people are more afraid of planes than cars, so it stands to reason people will be more afraid of vacuum tubes and buses, as well.

Surfing the Blagosphere

I was talking to a friend of mine today, about one of my favorite things about the internet -- how completely silly it has made language.  Describing your experience on the internet with even the slightest bit of detachment makes it sound like you live in a cartoon.  There are bloggers and pirates everywhere, arguably the most important website is called Google, one of the best news sources is called Boing Boing.  Another one's called Reddit. Sites like TVTropes make literary analysis sound like rambling nonsense from a children's cartoon: "Yeah, it's a Hollywood science follow the leader, but at least they hang a lampshade on the unobtanium, and I think the whole thing might have just been stealth parody."

My friend suggested that eventually all conversation is going to sound like that.  Maybe he's right -- maybe one day, legal contracts will be written like Doctor Seuss books.  But a certain amount of language isn't just fluidly reflective of the language around it -- it's buried in the way we hear it.  Some sound forms just sound more serious, and I don't think we'll ever run out of uses for them.

The change I've got my fingers crossed for is a massive increase in the amount of, acceptability of, and reference to bathos.  I want to hear bathetic style shifts in newscasts and presidential speeches.  And, especially, I want the word bathos to show up more in public conversation.  Right now, people just mostly think you hit B when you meant to hit P.

Feverish rambling

I mentioned earlier that I'm getting sick, and it's seriously impacting my ability to string thoughts together.  So, I figure, what better time to rant about my views on language? I've been trying for a while to think of a way to explain this point, but every metaphor I come up with sucks, so bear with me:  People tend to think of the act of speech as being a sort of telepathic transmission.  Obviously, nobody believes that out loud, but it's how almost everyone assumes speech works when they're not thinking about it. You think, "I know what this sentence means.  That is WHAT THIS SENTENCE MEANS. Other interpretations of this sentence are invalid."

In reality, words and sentences don't work at all like that.  It's less like telepathy, and more like throwing darts.  Each word hopefully lights up the right areas in the other person's brain, to illuminate the shape of the idea you hope to transmit.  You're not using words to impart knowledge -- you're taking your wordless concept, and using words as tools to attempt to sculpt that wordless concept in the consciousness of another human being.

This works great for close friends, family, people from similar regions or socioeconomic backgrounds or cultures.  But it seriously breaks down when talking to people who are in any way part of a different group than the speaker, because more often than not, suddenly the speaker is in a position where they have no idea what each word is going to do in the mind of their conversation partner.

But because people assume speech is like telepathy, nobody likes the idea that they're using words wrong -- that the words they're choosing are either outright incorrect, or wrong for this situation, or that a word can mean totally different things when presented in different contexts.  (Fun fact:  All words ALWAYS mean different things in different contexts.  Words don't have meanings, they have effects on perception of meaning.)

This breakdown doesn't cause many problems, but it's one of the hugest barriers in the way of solving the massive intercultural problems that exist everywhere in the world, all over the place.

I'm going to go drink fluids, take pills, and try to sleep.  Best wishes.

WE DID IT -- Curiosity successfully lands on Mars

It was a weird, scary experience, watching the livestream of the NASA control room while Curiosity attempted to land.  They were reassuring.  Pretty much every new development, they said "Which is what we expected," or "Which is normal," which managed to mitigate the tension pretty successfully. Still, it's scary to watch like a hundred scientists -- some of the smartest people in the country -- sitting in a control room, relaying information that's almost ten minutes old, and knowing that, no matter what happens, there's nothing they could do.

I don't think there are very many times in human lives when you get moment-by-moment information about something happening, that's already happened.  It screws with my perception of causality.  Even moreso, this time, because it was the same seven minutes late for everyone. And it was on Twitter.

I imagine I'll be gathering my thoughts about this over the next several days, weeks, maybe years -- it could be a very long time before we have any clue how important this day really is.

DFTBA, Curiosity.  Best wishes.

My calendar problem

Today is the last day of the month.  I've been paying particular attention to this because it's the day I've been planning to announce my intention to leave Facebook to Facebook, and it starts the one-month clock during which I have to make sure I've removed all the relevant permissions and not left any documents I want to preserve on Facebook to disappear forever[1. By which I mean get saved and shared with marketing execs in a folder labeled "23 year old progressive male northeast US"]. The thing is, since it's the last day of the month, I keep thinking it's the last day of the week, too.  I've had to consistently remind myself that it's not actually Friday right now.

Obviously, the entire world timekeeping system should be rearranged to fix this error.

The Gregorian calendar is awful.  Both the starting date for counting years and the decision to divide weeks into 7 days are directly religious in nature, and even then, the Abrahamic religions can't work properly with it -- Easter, for one important date, is on a different day every year.

Better options have been proposed.  During the French revolution, a Decimal calendar was proposed, which would have divided the year into twelve months of three ten-day weeks, and five extra days, called Sanscullotides, or six, on leap years.

But the best option I've seen was one brought up on the xkcd forum:

I came across [...] the Sol calendar. [it] consists of 13 months (All of our normal months and Sol between June and July) of 28 days each and one day that's not technically in a month, which can be placed anywhere, but I like the idea of putting it as the first day of the year. The leap-year system is still employed, and Leap Day becomes December 29.

I thought the most interesting part of the system was that all of the days of the week remain the same through the entire year. I even came across one person who proposed naming the months Ace, Two, Three and so on up through Jack, Queen, and King, then naming the weeks in each month after the suits in bridge order, so as opposed to saying Tuesday, March 13, you could say Tuesday, Three of Hearts.

I'm having trouble deciding which system I like better -- the one that names the year after a deck of cards, or the one that has five days out-of-time, the way extra days should be handled, rather than tacking them onto one of the months.

Class inequality

I'll admit that I got this topic from my friend Mike, (the star wars geek recently featured on my blog) who is sitting behind me at the moment, snickering.  I'm in a rush to write a post because I have to leave for Readercon's first evening within the next half hour, so I'm going to try to say something intelligent about class inequality in that time. [warning]I'm writing this post inside a half an hour, and I'm trying to say something intelligent about class inequality.[/warning]

There's a Ze Frank video I've been thinking a lot about for the past week or two, called Unfair.  Here it is:

In the video, he talks about the Power Law curve.  In the context, he suggests that efforts by socially progressive people might be inherently doomed to failure -- 20% of the people will inevitably control 80% of the wealth, no matter what.

He says that trying to change the curve is like trying to push back the tide with a million hands.  But I don't think the goal is to change the curve, at all.

I think the goal of socially progressive politics is to create artificial entities at the top of the curve -- governments, nonprofits, etc -- who are explicitly designed and required to use that disproportionate control of resources for the general good, building infrastructure, providing healthcare, and etc.

That doesn't change the way the curve is shaped, it just means that all or most of the actual people, rather than the artificial entities, will be on the long tail rather than the sharp peak, and the peak's resources will be used to make things nice for the people along the flat.

Anyway, that's what I came up with inside a half an hour.  What do you think?  Let me know via email ( or in comments.

The Magic Clock

(via Massimo Banzi's TED talk via Boing Boing) I've felt for a long time that the best way to make sense of science, as an element of human ability, is to think of it as being, basically, magic.

That's not to say I think science is, or should be, inexplicable.  But science in real life and magic in a lot of fantasy novels have something essential in common -- they're about learning the basic rules of the world's behavior, so you can exploit, bend, or hack them.

Sometimes it feels like this is a tough sell.  But sometimes, it's just incredibly obvious that I'm right.

This is the clock from the Weasley's house in Harry Potter.  The one that points not to the time, but to the location of all the family members:

This thing works.  It actually points to the location of the family members displayed, using twitter to pick up location cues.  The only thing it requires externally is a place to plug it in.  This is the coolest thing I've seen so far this week, and I think it's proof that science is basically magic.


I'm watching Cory Doctorow's Google talk again, and there's a great bit in the first ten minutes where he talks about "The Information Age," which is just the industrial age with a different descriptor tacked on.  It's not really something anyone can make sense of, it's just something people think is a thing because we call the newest technology "Information technology." I've been playing around in my mind with a different model of the age-system of conceiving of the past, present and future.  I'm borrowing from philosophy, here:  the latest 'age' in philosophy, just sort of ending now, is post-modernism.  But post-modernism isn't really ending, because post-modernism is, basically, "Everything after Modernism."

Modernism, like every branch of philosophy, is hard to capture in words.  It's easier to explain than define.  But broadly, it's (a.) a shift in central question from "What is true?" to "How do we figure out what's true?", and (b.) a shift from the perspective of continuous, static society to the perspective of progress -- of things getting "Better," the narrative of myth-to-reason.  The guy to look at for (a.) is Descartes, and for (b.), Hegel.

Post-modernism is even harder to explain than modernism, and I'm far from qualified to make any really definitive statements.  But where modernism suggested singular avenues of increasing progress, increasing systematization, and further and further unity of perspective, post-modernism is a more fractured, diverse, and, frankly, utility-based set of views.  Modernism would say "X is true."  Post-modernism would say "X is a useful perspective for analyzing this particular situation."

I think what we're looking at coming up is not a new entity-focused era, but an era defined by the absence of, or contradiction of, previous entities.  We're not looking at an "Information age," we're looking at a post-industrial age.

At least, that's how it looks to me.  I think it's a pretty useful perspective for analyzing this particular situation.

Google brain: Woo!

(via SourceFed) Google is doing the best thing in science yet.  They're creating a "Brain-styled neural network," which they're feeding random information off from YouTube.

So far, the computer knows what a cat is.  That's awesome.  (It's also great that it's what it learned from YouTube.) This isn't really the first step towards artificial intelligence, Google made that first step a long time ago, but it's a big one, and it means we might be close to seeing a singularity-like event.

The fact that the computer is learning how to identify and define things like 'cats' means it will likely soon come up with a definition for 'human,' and that will answer a pretty big question.

I don't think you can just ask a computer what a human is.  I would assume it'd be obvious to anyone that a computer's estimation of what a human is would just be a useful set of guidelines that aren't representative of some deep, universal truth.

In fact, that's my point.  I love the idea of a computer that can learn, because I think it makes it a lot more obvious, and a lot more undeniable, that the way we categorize things isn't some magic, universe-piercing insight, it's just a categorization set that's useful to us.  Our goals are to survive, so we're good at categorizing things in ways that relate to our biological survival.

Google's brain computer's goal would be to successfully interact with humans.  So, it's going to learn how to categorize things in a way that enables it to achieve concept-overlap between itself and the people it talks to.

SourceFed has already given us an example of people freaking out because it's totally going to kill us all.  And it's not going to do that, because it's got no reason to.  What I'm really looking forward to seeing is the people who get obsessively indignant about how it's totally not a human or whatever, and it's an abomination, or shouldn't have equal status, basically the whole spectrum of anti-robot racism is what I think we have to look forward to.

Stuff I Like: Ice Cream

My computer's working again, but I'm still pretty stressed out.  I decided to have a bowl of ice cream to make myself feel better.  And since I don't want to talk about anything serious or awful today, I'm going to break down the possible objections to ice cream, and why I still like it.

It's not good for you

There's a pretty good case to be made that ice cream is bad for your health.  There aren't many vitamins and minerals in it, and it's really high in calories.  I'm not going to go and get the box to work out the relative health values to some of my other favorite comfort foods, like potatoes or macaroni and cheese, but it's probably a safe bet that I'm over the advisable caloric intake for someone of my activity level -- and whatever the recommended serving size is, I'll bet I had more.

That all said, I'm not having ice cream for breakfast every day.  I have a bowl every now and then, and I'm pretty comfortable with my body size and health level.  I'd like to be healthier, but at this point I think it's more an issue of getting more exercise than it is a problem with my dietary choices.

Dairy is exploitative of animals

I think I've mentioned before that I'm a weekday vegetarian -- so my dietary choices are already not super-respectful of the life-and-comfort rights of animals.  That said, I do have a lot of problems with the way cattle are treated in this country.

I like Temple Grandin's position on cattle -- that it's okay to use animals for food, as long as you give them a good life.  I'm not confident it's ethically perfect, but it's a lot better than our current position, and it's a compromise I could live with.

Cattle is bad for the environment

This is also true, and I do think we need to cut back on the amount of meat we produce as a country.  That would probably also mean cutting down on the amount of dairy produced, pushing ice cream, like meat, further into the realm of luxury food.

I think I could live with that, though.  If supply and demand led to its necessity, I could see myself paying 10 dollars for a bowl of ice cream.  Once in a while, anyway.  It's one of those foods that's just good, and I believe the demand for it won't go away, even if it gets expensive.

Plus, if there's just less to go around, that would help with the health decisions referenced in the first question.

I am translating the Valve Employee Handbook

I blogged last week about how awesome Valve's employee handbook is.  This weekend I decided to start performing, er, I guess you'd call it a cross-context translation, on it.  I'm about two thirds of the way through, and I'm beginning to feel like this won't be as easy as I thought. When I was reading the handbook, it occurred to me that it would be a great set of general instructions for living a happy, decent and productive life.  So in the rewrite, I'm basically just removing all references to Valve, and replacing "the company" with "humankind," "Customers" with "other people," and so on.

I think this is turning out to be a really good start, but it's going to need a few more versions before it makes sense.  The translation out of literal context and into a more metaphorical worldview-suggestion pamphlet is not a straightforward one.  Things that are clear in the book, like the lack of management, will require more explanation to get the appropriate metaphorical resonance out of it.

If anyone wants to help, I'll be finished the raw translation soon and would love input.  You can reach me at

Stupid smart people

(via Boing Boing) Jonah Lehrer, who I blogged about yesterday re: grit, wrote an article on Tuesday in the New Yorker called Why Smart People Are Stupid.

While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether.

This article is about the sort of thing I say all the time:  The human mind is bad at thinking.  We tend to assume that our brains do things mostly right.  In fact, our brains mostly do whatever it takes not to get killed, and to pass on our genes.  It turns out, that requires us to understand quite a lot of things very badly.

There were a few troubling points, that I wasn't previously aware of:

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.”

In fact, it seems that people who rank higher on scales of intelligence have bigger bias blind spots than everyone else.  (Although, they used SAT scores as a measure of intelligence, so that might not be incredibly informative.)

The bottom line, it seems, is that the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we perceive other people is, so far, insurmountable.  What this says about philosophy, my major, I'm not sure.

I got proselytized to today!

I was asked by a man in a parking lot holding something in his hand to delay getting in my car earlier today.  I'm not entirely sure why I thought it was a good decision to wait.  My first impression was that it was a cop, finally charging me with an actual crime for my terrible parking. But it turned out it was a man distributing pamphlets called "Steps to peace with God," by Billy Graham.  And because I am a sane and responsible human being, I stayed and talked to the man trying to convince me that there was a man in the sky who wanted me to believe his son was murdered and that means I get to spend eternity in monotonous bliss.

The man's position was that I was going to go to hell, that hell is a terrible place full of fire, demons, and fire (he was very adamant about there being fire), but that if I believed in his version of god, I could go to heaven.

I asked him what he thought heaven was like, because I find most people seem much better at imagining transcendent pain than transcendent pleasure.

In his vision, Heaven is a planet (Like the hellfire, he was adamant that heaven is a planet) with beautiful meadows, and crystal oceans so clear you can see all the way down to the ocean's floor.  I have to hand it to him, he did a nice job on the heaven imagery.  I can't fault him on that.

Billy Graham gives four steps to peace with God:

  • Understand God's purposes -- peace and eternal life
  • Admit the problem -- our sin and separation
  • Discover God's bridge -- the cross
  • Embrace the Truth[1. In the pamphlet these are all in all-caps, so I'm just guessing that he meant uppercase-T Truth.] -- receive Christ

There's plenty in this pamphlet I could pick apart, but better writers have done it better than I can.  There's just one sentence, at the very end of the very last page, that annoys me enough to respond to specifically:

"Thank you for the gift of eternal life!"

This is part of a suggested prayer to Jesus.  What kind of gift is that?  I would very much like the gift receipt, please.  I'm not particularly interested in an eternity with no emotional growth or progress, and I'm definitely not interested in an eternity of proactive torture.  If there were a god, this would be kind of a dick move on its part.  You don't get to give people stuff that's just going to be a pain in the ass (Either way -- either I have to kiss up to Jesus for the rest of my life, or spend an eternity suffering afterwards) and call it a gift.

Fountain Pens making a comeback...ish

(Via Neil Gaiman on Tumblr) The BBC reports on the recent trend of fountain pens steadily increasing in sales, exploring the reasons such an arcane writing device might be coming back.

[...]the rush to fountain pens is not part of a wider handwriting boom. Sales of ballpoint pens are stable.


Somehow, the fountain pen became a luxury item and found a niche.

If a president signs a treaty, they don't do it with a Bic Cristal. If you give a loved one a pen, your thoughts might be more fountain than ballpoint.


And those who buy them for themselves are making a very self-conscious choice. They are saying: "I want to write in the old way."

This makes a lot of sense to me -- I've heard similar stories about the resurgence of vinyl sales even as CDs decline in the face of mp3s.  There seems to be a meme growing as technology affords us more convenience, that some things should be done the hard way, should be earned, should be a meditation in the doing.

I've also heard a lot of complaints about this kind of thinking.  I remember a magazine I read once, about tattoos, in which an older artist complained about the way young artists glamourized some old kind of transfer paper, which was apparently horribly unpleasant to work with.

Maybe it is just cheap nostalgia, and we're holding ourselves back for fear of the future.  But I think it's probably more complicated than that.  I know that I enjoy writing with a fountain pen from time to time, and Neil Gaiman gave a side interview in the BBC article about writing with them:

I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.

Link back to the full article

Ze Frank on Brain Crack

Ze Frank has been a major figure on the internet for a long time.  He's been a major influence for a lot of people, and he's still an inspiration today. He recently started up a new show, "A Show," and on the YouTube channel he posts it on, he occasionally posts videos from the old series, "The Show."  One of his most well known, most inspiring videos, is the one about "Brain Crack," which he just reposted today.

(Link to PG version, embedded; Original explicit version)

The right to eat fish

One of the more infuriating arguments I've had in the last few months centered around this premise:  "Liberty is the only important government guaranteed right, because all other rights are meaningless without it, and necessarily follow from it."  It was from this premise that the person with whom I was conversing argued that we didn't need a constitutional guarantee of healthcare, or amendments to address copyright issues, or basically any legislation, because if you just took the liberty guarantee seriously, a perfect system of governance inevitably follows. By way of analogy, I would like to explore this premise by proposing a different fundamental right: the right to eat fish.

The right to eat fish obviously guarantees the right to life, because you can't eat fish if you're dead.  And it guarantees the right to property, doesn't it?  Because you have to be able to own fish in order to justifiably eat them.  It guarantees the right to healthcare, at least insofar as you're protected from becoming too infirm to eat fish.  And it must guarantee the right to eat a variety of foods, because if your diet isn't balanced, you won't survive for very long to continue eating fish.

It guarantees the right to good copyright legislation, because without vigorous cultural discussion, our right to eat fish falls into jeopardy.  It guarantees the right to good legislation because a badly run government can't effectively guarantee the right to eat fish.

This argument is plainly stupid, and so, I would argue, is the claim that liberty is the only fundamental right.  I last discussed this in my post, Fundamental Rights: last-in, first-out? where I pointed out that holding life as the only really paramount fundamental right is inherently destructive of the other rights.  I would argue that holding any right as more fundamental than other rights, if you believe those rights to be valid, is inherently destructive to those rights, and it should be apparent why if you just look at all of the obvious flaws in the guarantee to fishy rights.  If that is the most paramount right, then the best way for the government to protect it would be to imprison everyone and feed them only fish.

Now, not all rights-claims boil down to imprisonment.  A guarantee of liberty, for example, necessitates failing to regulate people's behavior in such a way as could seriously risk other people's lives or pursuit of happiness (or access to fish).

I want to reiterate what I said before:  the rights-based system of government works best when all rights are held in tension against each other.  All rights must be compromised, but no right can be ignored.  Our liberty is limited in protecting our lives, and the lives of others.  Our pursuit of happiness is limited in protecting our own lives, others' lives, and others' liberty, and our lives are protected by limiting our own liberty, the liberty of others, and everyones' pursuit of happiness.

(By the way, why is pursuit of happiness a fundamental right?  That's a terrible fundamental right.  Pursuing happiness is practically guaranteed not to cause it, and places the responsibility for happiness on the citizens, no matter their circumstance, rather than on the government to govern in such a way as to maximize incidental happiness.  More on that later.)

Some quick thoughts on relativism

"You can't know anything, there's nothing you can say with 100% certainty." I've had this sentiment quoted at me more times than I care to contemplate.  It's one of the most annoying sentiments I know, because it usually only shows up at about the point in an argument where the facts I've pointed out irrevocably conflict with the beliefs the other person really doesn't want to stop holding.

But aside from the almost-ubiquitous hypocrisy in which context this argument is usually trotted out, it just occurred to me that there do, definitely, exist statements that are definitely true.

Not just statements in mathematical or logical abstraction, either.  Statements about the real world, real people interacting with real things.

I can say, to 100% certainty, that no one, anywhere, has ever won a game of Tetris.

That's not, like, a thing that I could be wrong about.  There isn't some potential mythical win condition for Tetris.  If nobody exists, then no one has won Tetris.  If Tetris is a mass delusion, then nobody has won Tetris.  And, vitally, if someone has won a game that resembles Tetris, that game wasn't Tetris, because Tetris, by its very inherent nature, (Spoiler alert!) does not have a win condition.  It just keeps going.

It's stuff like this that annoy me about the absolutist relativist argument.  I've never seen it brought up in a conversation (apart from when it's brought up so we can all mock it) where it isn't being brought up to try and shut the conversation down.  But if you take the premise seriously, you can build an argument from principles of near-unknowability and still come to conclusions that are relevant to the conversation.