Pseudonym Writes

Just another site by someone who refuses to give their own name.

All Finite Recursions are Infinitely Deep

So Eliezer has argued that all infinite recursions are at most three layers deep.

After all, you can argue about the object level, the rules for arguing, and the rules for arguing about arguing – but any “deeper” argument is still just another form of arguing about the rules for arguing about arguing.

I think the opposite is also true. All finite recursions are in fact extremely deep, perhaps hyperbolically so. And everybody involved has lost sight of the object level so long ago that they’ve forgotten what “object level” looks like, and will only occasionally take a step back from attempting to crack the ceiling and make room for yet another layer of meta to glance at the layer of meta-meta immediately below the current meta-meta-meta-level they’re standing on while congratulating themselves for getting down to basics.


Consider the following example.


People invented property rights to simplify and organize resources. This person owns that thing, and they get to use it.

Sometimes they could get pretty complicated – that person inherited that thing from his grandfather who stole it from her, but she originally paid for it with money she had no right to anyway, and the current owner is in debt for more money than the thing is worth and they’ve mortgaged it to a fourth party who says they partially own it now until the mortgage is paid – but it’s simpler than allocating everything individually, which only works in groups of a few people.

Because property rights and other rules of society are so complicated, you need a centralized government to run them. After some experimentation, people created nation-states, meta-groups of people who would meta-own an area – and anything in that area – and run the ownership rules, which (as we noted) could get quite complicated.

After a while of these meta-owners (or “rulers”) getting into trouble over things they meta-owned – causing inheritance disputes over who meta-owned (“ruled”) what land, having stuff stolen and starting fights, trying to sell parts of it to cover their real debts and meta-debts they incurred from the previous – they (re) invented democracy, which simplified things to keep track of who was in charge of which place. Everyone would vote regularly, and the people who won the vote would run things.

In order to better organize voting blocks, make compromises, and establish coalitions and common ground, political parties were formed. Pretty soon, these conglomerated into two main groups, which were stable even as every constituent part of them changed and their “real” political positions altered.

Of course, it didn’t take long before people realized that two political parties could form a spectrum; with people who were abhorrent to the other party at the far end, typical members closer in, and people who were unusually palatable to the other group toward the middle.

Cultures and subcultures grew up directly attached to their place on the spectrum – sometimes even after it had moved – and with deep ideological ideas about the nature of the spectrum and it’s place in the universe.

Soon a well-recognized cycle developed; each generation would adopt views toward the edge of the spectrum, which would move toward the centre as they grew and absorbed other groups, eventually scaring the crap out of everyone theoretically on both sides in the middle. This cycle repeated itself and became a well-established fixture; many groups even adopted their identity based on it.

Some people began to complain that they were losing out based on the signalling of their place in the cycle – the Establishment was keeping them down, they weren’t hip enough, etc.

Discussions of this signalling became a major topic of discussion in themselves. Was our media being dominated by faux-conservatives trying to pretend their latest fad was Ancient Tradition? Were progressives ruining everything by insisting everyone stuck to their latest stupid idea?


Anyway, a century or so after that, we’re in the middle of a university campus.

Support for Donald Trump (yes, this article, like all articles, is now about Donald) – a wealthy atheist who’s in favour of abortion, gay marriage, and legal immigration; who openly, constantly lies; and whose policies are almost entirely “keep doing things the United States is already doing” – is being called “disruptive to free speech” and “deeply offensive to Latinos”; Trump-ish slogans, posted on a “free speech wall” on campus, have resulted in cancelled events and talk of mandatory sensitivity training.


How many layers of meta are we on, again?

Death Rates by Terrorism in France

The attack in Nice killed 84 people. There are 66.4 million people in France.

That’s one in every 790476 people, or about 1.3 in every million. Slightly over one micromort. Given that we’re six months into 2016, that suggests a base rate of round two micromorts per year.

Of course, it would be foolish to base your estimation on one data point. Besides, the year 2016 is an arbitrary human construct, and there’s no reason to believe there will be another attack this year.

Last year, 137 people were killed in the Paris attacks. That’s 1 in 484672, or almost exactly two micromorts.


By way of comparison, this is about the risk you take every time you go bungee-jumping. You experience two micromorts for every twelve miles you drive on a motorbike, and every litre of wine you drink.

Every year, you experience one-fifth of a micromort from the risk of being struck by lightning.

In England, you experience about ten micromorts a year from homicide; in the US, this rises to 48 micromorts a year.

France falls closer to England; in 2014, there were 792 intentional homicides in France – 12 micromorts – of which only one could reasonably be called a victim of terrorism. As such, you are now roughly a sixth as likely to be killed by a terrorist in France than anyone else.

During the Troubles in Ireland, civilians in the North experienced perhaps 45 micromorts a year on average from military and paramilitaries both.


Of course, homicide is rare. The three countries, France, Britain and the US, have similar death rates; in which all homicide is essentially a rounding error. People living in the US face an average total of 8100 micromorts a year.


I wrote this article not to “debunk” claims that we should be worried about terrorism. Nor do I write it to demonstrate that terrorism is a real threat.

These are just the facts, and I think we should base our actions on the facts.

We pay a lot of attention to causes of death that are rare. Part of that is that we are fearful and stupid and have no head for numbers.

Part of it is that we are hopeful. Violent crime is on the decline, and we all have ideas for how we might make it decline even further.

Terrorism is not on the decline.

Of course, most deaths from terrorism do not occur in France. Nor do they occur anywhere where people read my blog. It may well be that this is more meaningfully similar to a school shooting or serial killer, a copycat inspired by a similar attack or simply a man who was drunk and angry and went on a rampage. It may well be that our general views on terrorism should not meaningfully be changed by anything I’ve written here.

Nevertheless, terrorism is a form of violence which is not on the decline globally or in the West.

And that’s … concerning.

Surprising Sense of Fatalism Grips Nation

Faced with the abject failure of all their predictions about Donald Trump, Americans are reporting a new sense of certainty in their latest predictions about Donald Trump.
“First it seemed like he would drop out of the race early on, and he didn’t,” said one reporter. “Then it seemed like he would probably be defeated by more establishment candidates, and he wasn’t. Now it seems like he might actually win, so that’s definitely going to happen.”


This latest campaign has confounded expectations in many ways, including the surprising success of Bernie Sanders, who will definitely stop doing about as well as Clinton and drop out any day now, and remarkable voter turnouts in key states. But it’s unthinkable that any candidate who’s done so well in the early days could possibly face problems later. Many are starting to agree that despite polls predicting Trump’s success among Republicans from the very beginning, the fact that they show he can’t possibly win the election probably really is a statistical fluke.


“Both Clinton and Sanders have received overwhelming support from their party from the very beginning”, said our usual political columnist, who declined to give his name. “And both poll very well among Republicans, almost as well as Trump does. Sanders actually polls higher, which is unprecedented. But the idea of Americans voting for a woman or a liberal who promises “change” is absolutely unthinkable, whatever the actual voters say.”

Even the man on the street seems to be considering voting for Trump.
“I realize he’s an abject liar who constantly lies about everything, and definitely lied about all the things I disagree with.” Said one man this reporter met on the street. “But I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth about the issues I care about. Like, he’ll definitely deal with our immigration problem, despite having married two immigrants, one of which he has three kids with. He mentions that he’ll do something about immigration a lot.”
The man lapsed into silence for a minute.
“Yeah, he’ll definitely do something about immigration. And the jobs. He seems like a guy who cares about the working man. He tells it how it is, you know? Not like the liberal media.”

trump's daughter.PNG

Trump’s Daughter doing her best impression of Trump the time he admitted to her they were personally bankrupt. No, really.

“He can afford to say what he wants, because he’s worth, like, ten billion dollars. I heard his campaign is almost entirely self-funded, that’s why it’s important to donate. He seems like a guy who doesn’t care what people think,” said the one guy, who’s probably a representative sample, of the candidate whose campaign is one-third funded by donations and two-thirds funded by a personal loan which his campaign is going to pay back with interest out of donation money, and who obsessively pesters a reporter who called him a “short-fingered vulgarian” with pictures of his hands, facts never reported by a blatantly liberal media who are definitely trying their hardest to take down Trump.

Cb3XxqOUsAApk_8.jpg“Yeah, I’m sure the public will continue to warm up to him,” said the man, who declined to give his name in case his neighbours or family found out he was considering voting for Trump. “He’s bravely told his supporters to beat people up, after all, and then bravely lied to people’s faces, claiming that he didn’t promise to pay for their legal fees when they’re inevitably arrested even though it’s on tape they can run opposite this astounding claim. I wouldn’t have the guts to do that, even if I did have a Secret Service detail.”


Meanwhile, experts agree that a non-politician like Trump with no political experience couldn’t possibly win based on sheer charisma, pointing to the examples of Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt etc, and a political tradition dating back to noted politician George Washington.

Personally, I have faith in democracy and the American people, and all this only proves that the American people are idiotic racists for disagreeing with me.

Apocalypse joke!

Some Thoughts on Jesus on Political Correctness

Political correctness is a weird concept.

Donald Trump: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” says the Irish Times. WikiHow tells us, “‘Politically correct’ is a bit of a misnomer—it isn’t about being right, it’s about being respectful and considerate.”

(Those are the top two Google results I got for “politically correct” that weren’t dictionaries or Wikipedia, by the way.)

As always, in these troubling times, we must turn to the Bible.

Nah, just kidding. But I was looking at Bible quotes (specifically, a list of “Bible quotes on politics”,) and I noticed something.

See, political correctness isn’t new. The term is new, sure, but the actual phenomenon? People dancing around stuff because it isn’t “politically correct”? That’s ancient.

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?” – Matthew 22:15-17

Now the trap here – as you’re presumed to know – is that it’s politically unpopular to support the occupying army’s right to levy taxes (for obvious reasons); but, for equally obvious reasons, the Roman Army will be gravely displeased with anyone caught preaching that you shouldn’t pay their taxes.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.”

What is our hero to do?

We all know how this ends. Money is a construct of the State, or of the World, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc etc.


Guys, it doesn’t matter which word you use. Seriously, it doesn’t. This is the smallest of small things. You are literally debating over which of the mouth-noises … dear God, people!

Quick question: was I just yelling at liberals, or conservatives?


Have you ever noticed that, statistically, you’re probably wrong?

I mean, about half of everyone disagrees with, approximately, the other half. So almost half of everyone is wrong. And it seems, just thinking about history, like the correct answer a lot of issues turn out to be something revolutionary neither side realize, right?

Like, it’s great that you think John the Fourth would make a great king, and they think Edward the Twelfth would make a great king, but actually you’ll all be outcompeted in about a hundred years by mega-states run by a “democracy”, which … uh, have you heard of Athens? It’s like them, only … not, and … anyway, they’ll have a much better standard of living than any unelected dictator has, and …

But of course, you have the facts on your side. Not like all those people who just think they have the facts on their side.


But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. – Titus 3:8-10


Fantastic; or, Reed Richards is Useless

I never liked biology.


Even before I was a superhero, I was gifted. My intelligence just a little too far outside the bounds of the bell curve. It wasn’t even intelligence, not really; not as I’ve come to understand the term. It was … insight.

When I was eleven, some fellows from the government came to see me. They weren’t interested in the fact that I’d build something that could probably vaporize a city if scaled up correctly in my dad’s garage, which was a surprise; what I’d later realize was the first fumbling steps toward a teleporter. No, they were interested in my science project: enhanced frogs, intended to help the species repopulate and bounce back from the edge of extinction.

I turned them down, of course. I didn’t want to be that guy. But it bothered me that the government – the military, if I was honest with myself – were interested in my frogs.

I turned that same insight that had told me how to mix chemicals so my frogs would grow up big and strong, and have lots of babies, and breed true, on something new. I asked that part of myself why the military guys would be interested in my frogs; at which point, of course, the answer was obvious – trivial, even – and I felt silly that I had ever wondered. Embarrassed, even.

And that might have been the end of it, if I hadn’t kept thinking about my frogs.

I had looked for insights into how to make my frogs stronger. And I’d found them. Now I wondered what would happen, when I released them into the wild.

It was, of course, obvious. I stopped doing much biology, after that.


We were all pretty gifted, my little team. We had to be. We were the best, and “the best” has no respect for bell curves.

I had singlehandedly rebuilt NASA. Nobody mentioned it, of course, but it was true. There were maybe five people who could have done that – more now, of course – and I had been the only one to try. I’m still quietly proud, of that.

I’ve long since considered the why of why we were so gifted, of course. It’s hard to get truly solid answers to these things. We were all a little bit … inhuman, I suspect. John was unruly, had difficulty with boundaries; Susan had difficulty in social situations. Benjamin can plot movements, forces and vectors and breaking points, better even than I can when I turn my mind to it – which is saying something, believe me – but he was just a little too quick to use those trajectories and stress points to take someone apart if they go in his way.

And I was … myself, I suppose. It could have been Asperger’s, or ADHD, or simple emotional problems; but it wasn’t.

We weren’t entirely human, even then.

And then we went to investigate a comet that wasn’t a comet, like a cloud of exotic gas skimming the atmosphere; and then we got superpowers, and then everything went to hell in a handbasket.


I’m not actually all that worried about supervillains, in the end.

Sure, we’ve been getting steadily better at human enhancement since the 40s; and sure, pieces of magical god-tech occasionally fall from the sky and give some god-forsaken eye beams or whatever. And sure, some of them will occasionally use that for evil. That’s not what concerns me.

I’ve heard the occasional supervillain rant at me about the Neanderthals, about how my kind or theirs has to be wiped out, because this planet is a small place and supers will inevitably outcompete the others. I’m not particularly worried, honestly. It’s like seeing a disabled person ranting about how it’s them or us, no species can possibly survive in the same ecological niche as an identical species that also has legs.

I’ve never taken military contracts, myself, but I know plenty of people – good people – who have. Heck, I have good friends who were made in military contracts. There’s really only so much ability to kill people a single person can have, and the military already has that power.

No. But let me tell you a story.


Once upon a time there were two kingdoms in the desert; the Ussians and the Ussars.

Now, the two kingdoms really had a great deal in common, from an outside perspective – even their names sounded similar, and they had similar beliefs and ways of life, although the Ussars were somewhat poorer – but, as is so often the case, they had different religious beliefs, and so considered themselves bitter enemies.

Now, the Ussars were quite worried, because a magician who worked under the Ussians – Alberto – had recently summoned a powerful demon, which destroyed their only mutual enemy, the Naztecs. These Naztecs were thoroughly nasty people – they were aggressive conquerors, and they practiced blood sacrifice of their own people and of captured children – and they were their enemy to boot, so both kingdoms were glad to see the back of them. But still, it was worrying to see that they had so much power.

Indeed, the Ussars feared that the Ussians might summon the demon against them, and it would devour their land, too; so that the Ussians would live alone in the desert, and rule supreme among the desert-dwelling nomads. So they sought out a wizard of their own, and compelled him to learn for them the name of the demon; and they swore a mighty oath, sealed with magic, that should the Ussians attack they would summon the demon themselves and set it upon Ussian kingdoms. And the Ussians swore this oath as well.

And so there was peace, if an uneasy peace; and all was well, but for the petty atrocities all kingdoms commit from one time to another against rebels or the poor.

But one day, two bands of them met in the desert. There was a mountain there, which some said was filled with gold – although in truth some say it was barren, and they were fools – and they quarreled over who had rights to it.

Now the story diverges. Some say that one man drew his dagger and stabbed another; while others said that a snake sprung up from the undergrowth and struck him.

And the chief of the Ussars had to make a dreadful choice; for he was sworn to send at once to destroy the Ussians if they attacked his subjects, and he knew they were sworn to destroy him and his own, if they saw the demon on the horizon. But he truly did not know if they had done so. Was he to destroy them both over a rattlesnake in the desert?

The king slept fitfully that night, and when he awoke, he sent a letter urging restraint to all his men, and forbidding the wizard to take action, for he did not believe the Ussars were such fools that they would do this thing. And that day, the king of the Ussars fell from his tallest tower, and the oath was broken, and both kingdoms swore less binding treaties to hold them to peace – although neither truly wished to give up the power the demon granted them to defend themselves.

Again, uncertainty: some say the king threw himself from the tower, for he saw that such mistakes were inevitable, and his death was the only path that did not end in an empty desert and the demon’s mocking laughter. Others say he was forsworn that day, and the gods hurled him from the tower for breaking his oath. Others still say that the gods saw that he believed the reports that the Ussians had attacked, and they acted to destroy him before he could wipe out his subjects.

Myself? I think his aide wrote the orders to stand down, after hurling his master out the window – before he could ensure both their deaths, and the two kingdoms alongside them.


It’s obvious that my genius does not exactly extend to writing. Still … I think it’s a story worth telling. As you’ve doubtless guessed, it’s a true story; it could be based on one of a dozen such incidents from the height of the Cold War. Perhaps I’ll knock together a scriptwriting AI that can polish it later.

The average supervillain is capable, given time and a lack of organized opposition, of leveling a city. Some are capable of less, or of more subtle (but no less damaging) forms of destruction. Some – myself included – are capable of much, much more.

I once fought a man who could call down planet-killer asteroids from the sky. One of my closest friends once created an AI – a flawed upload of his simulated brain – that was quite capable of turning the world’s nukes on us had it not been stopped. I, personally, have destroyed far too many of my inventions after I thought to ask myself whether they could destroy the entire planet and found the answer not to my liking.

The military has, on the quiet, people who can level a city block with their bare hands, or dodge and weave through an entire squadron of soldiers and machine-gun fire, or blow people up or whatever. I don’t really care that much. Sure, a war fought with superpowers could be devastating, but no more so than a war fought with conventional weapons. And if they go rogue, well … it’s not as if treason is a new concept to most militaries

But every day, someone enhanced with some supersoldier formula has a child, or a company brings out a product that makes you a little closer to superhuman, or someone … gifted, like me, has an accident near some hi-tech machinery that makes them a bit more gifted.

And society simply doesn’t know how to cope when civilians can divine someone’s secrets with a few minutes work, or construct a bomb capable of levelling buildings in their kitchen, or 3D print a gauntlet that will let them blast a hole in someone’s chest if they piss them off.

Vigilantism helps hold things together, when there are only a handful of telepaths and geniuses and gods. Now. But every day we all get a little bit more advanced, a little more powerful; and one day we’re going to be powerful enough that we can’t restrain each other.

And then someone will end the world, not because they’re a supervillain, but because of some stupid mistake. And it won’t be their fault. It’ll be the fault of all of us, the scientists and visionaries and so-called geniuses who made everyone a little bit more powerful in exchange for making ourselves a lot more powerful.

Who did you blame, in the story? The soldiers? Or the kings?


The government has introduced laws, cracking down on superhumans. They’re right, of course. Obviously right.

But everybody prefers making things just a little worse for everyone, in exchange for making things a lot better for themselves; even when they know that everyone is going to keep making things a little worse until we’re all dead.

Vigilantes work to stop the occasional person who goes out of line. They don’t work to enforce laws, not when any real subset of the population wants to break them. For that, you need policemen; and we don’t have policemen for superheroes.

So I’m turning to biology. I can clone the tissue required for most powers; and I have the insight to build technology capable of replicating anything else.

There’s a god sitting on a slab in front of me. I made him. He’s physically strong enough that he would probably cause a nuclear winter if he hit the ground full-force. He has weapons enough to fry effectively anything that gets in his way. It’ll mostly be equipment, hopefully. I have the insight to tell this one how to beat anyone he needs to. There will be others. They’ll help keep the peace, a stopgap measure until we can get more supers to do the job. And they’ll get rid of anyone too powerful to contain.

I’m not an idiot, even if I’m … not a genius, not really. I know what resentment this sort of thing breeds. Imprisonment without trial, summary execution. Legalities aside, I just became a supervillain who makes other supervillains.

But … I asked myself, once. How can humanity survive the next few decades? And the answer was not like this.

Genie of the Lamp

I’ve failed.

I’ve bent the Sultan’s ear to my words with my petty hedge-magics; and the corrupt palace guards who support him listen to me, if they know what’s good for them. But I’ll never be able to throw the fat sultan from a throne he barely knows the meaning of; never be able to restore justice to Agrabah without the power to overthrow the kingdom! Without the Djinn, the Shining One of gold and frankincense, we are all lost.

I’ve failed my country and my God, and in a thousand years, Agrabah will sink beneath the sands and be forgotten.


I had thought myself so clever.

I pored over books and scrolls and legends, sifting the rules and the histories for a key to power. The Fae were bound, long ago; and the places where they walk the earth are wilderness, space and time tortured by their alien favour.

A child turns away a hag’s offer of a gift, knocking at his door, and she rises terrible and gleaming to turn his retinue to clockwork and polished wood. A Good Neighbour, uninvited to a christening, spins green-glowing fire to strike the child with poisoned needles. A dead child, beautiful in her sunlit tomb, kindles love for her in men’s hearts until they burn their queen alive for daring to strike her down.

No. I will find no useful power there.

But in Arabia, our fiends were bound to serve us long ago, with seals and craftiness and magic. They can still grant boons to men, but limited ones, and they cannot curse us for offending them.

The markets here hold things capable of wonders, if you know where to look, and how to ask them.

And so I sought tales of Zion.


I wish I could say I was betrayed, misled by prophecy. But I can’t. This is my own doing, in the end.

I had found the Cave, and questioned the cave-guardian. I, a sorcerer, if a mean one, could not enter in search of power and live. Even my usual allies could not approach; consumed before my eyes by a sentry-beast of light and molten rock.

The whole structure was a test. The strong had no need of it’s gifts; and the weak would misuse them. Only someone with inner strength, yet outward weakness, could enter the final trial.

To keep things short – I found a boy. Of poor birth, illiterate, but talented. He was rotting in jail – not for stealing just to eat, but for humiliating the guards while he did it, making them look like fools. A good lad, bright. My auguries confirmed it.

Too good a fit, perhaps. Too poor a boy, one with too much potential. The cave must have tempted him with wealth, and power, a chance to change his station in life, and he took it.

And the cave took him, and sealed, and it took Zion with it. The lamp and it’s boons are beyond my grasp, and Agrabah an everyone in it will wear to dust before another chance such as this come close to the grasp of men.


He lives! Oh, praise God! The boy succeeded after all!

The idiot used one of the creature’s gifts to save himself from the cave’s wrath, and take some of it’s treasures with it. Worthless trinkets compared to the lamp, but he can have them.

He’s wasted another to give himself illusory riches, and a way in at the royal court. Not a bad wish, as these things go; he could do some good with the modicum of power it provided, and you can’t wish to increase your number of wishes.

But you can wish for more power yourself. That’s what he missed, what they all missed, even Solomon himself; a spirit can’t do things beyond it’s power, and it won’t give you more than it is bound to do – but it can give you some modicum of power yourself.

Let the boy keep his fairy gold, if he uses it well. I shall be the most powerful sorcerer-king the world has ever known; infinite cosmic power in the hands of a mortal man.

Agrabah will stand forever, shining, perfect and unforgettable.

Sick and Wrong

[content notes: homophobia, spiders, liberalism, conservatism, conclusions drawn from introspection rather than evidence]

There is a popular refrain in liberalism: “just because something grosses you out, doesn’t mean it’s actually wrong.”

When asked to defend this, the usual defence of this sentiment is that something is “not hurting anybody”. This is, taken literally, nonsense.
Look, everybody likes hedonic utilitarianism. Pain is bad, pleasure is good, right? I tend to use it as a rule of thumb myself, sometimes. But isn’t *true*. Pain is bad, pleasure is good, yes (maybe – there are probably exceptions to that rule.) But people want *more* than pleasure and the absence of pain.

It’s neurologically trivial to constantly stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for “pleasure”; even before you figure out how to fiddle with the insides of people’s heads, most societies have crude biochemical ways of approximating that. But this is almost universally regarded as a pretty sorry fate. This isn’t sour grapes, either, born of the practical difficulties of financing a life of bliss; most people, if you give them the choice, don’t *want* it. People want occasional moments of pleasure, yes, but there is no demand for wireheading, and – anecdotally – people don’t take drugs if they *expect* to become addicted. It’s a *risk* they undergo to have a bit of fun.
Conversely, chloroforming a homeless person so you can murder them in their sleep is generally considered unethical, even though it wouldn’t *hurt* them at any point in the process.
Look, what humans value is complex. We want art and happiness and meaning and challenge and and and … not all of that can ever be reduced to “happiness” or “preferences” or “telos” or whatever other simplification you just came up with, in my experience.

But that isn’t to say morality doesn’t exist, anymore than pointing out how complicated math is means 2+2 doesn’t equal 4. Some things are just inherently wrong. (Let’s not get into what “inherently” means, here, please.)
We don’t actually need to understand what that means, to discuss it meaningfully. Because *we care about morality.* Our consciences point us toward *something*, and we can talk about that-thing-our-consciences-point-toward as the Good.

So … when feel like something is disgusting and, in a word, wrong – that *is* evidence that thing is unethical and should be prevented?


My suspicion is that there are two feeling that are being conflated here – grossness, and wrongness.

Grossness – the feeling that something is disgusting, gross, horrible – is a real and important feeling.
It’s roughly analogous to taste. Some things taste really bad; that’s because we evolved to instinctively avoid them, because they’re usually dangerous and unhealthy. Other things taste delicious, which is because we instinctively seek them out. Which is perfectly reasonable; you can’t expect humans to understand everything on the first try, and some things are important.
But there’s more to it than that; much of our tastes are learned, unconscious associations (for example, if you fall ill immediately after eating something, you’ll probably go off that food; even if it had nothing to do with it.) Others are genetic. Some are even based on other, subtler things; what you “need” at a particular time can be down to a complicated combination of biochemistry, neurochemistry, and Pavlovian association.
In short, we can *account* for taste. Cyanide is known to be both poisonous and fairly tasty, so we avoid it. Pizza is known to be delicious but relatively unhealthy, so we try to eat some (to experience the pleasure) but not *too* much. Many medicines taste disgusting. But *by and large*, we just go with it.


Grossness is similar. SPIDERS!

Personally, I rather like spiders. I think they’re cute little things. But even I freak out a little when I look at my reflection to find there was one sleeping on my headphones and it is now exploring my face.
This makes perfect sense. You don’t want to get creepy-crawlies anywhere they shouldn’t be, in case they lay eggs or whatnot. Spiders are *inherently* gross (to humans); but I’ve learned not to find them disgusting most of the time.
And in some cultures, they eat spiders.


Being gay is bad for you.
There’s a higher risk of disease transference, at least among men. But worse still, it’s bad for your *genes*. Making out with someone of the same sex – even if you don’t mean it to go anywhere – would risk activating all the handy mechanisms evolution has set up to make mates pair-bond and look after the children; and human children do need such a lot of looking after. From an evolutionary perspective, having this misfire is Very Bad Indeed, even if the host were to live *longer* (lesbians are less likely to go through humans’ unusually risky childbirth process, for example.)
– Science would like to chime in and say that, while there are almost certainly genes that are more or less correlated with homosexuality in humans, that is probably a *tradeoff*. Any gene that made everyone that had it would almost certainly go extinct. Such genes as persist are surviving by providing other advantages. (Fruitflies with gay siblings have been found to have more children, as this logic would obviously predict, although research into humans has yet to show anything really conclusive.) Personally, I’d imagine there are quite a few such genes, impacting homosexuality risk in different ways and offering different reproductive advantages –
So it’s not surprising that gayness is kinda gross. When internet trolls want to gross someone out, there are four things they go for – serious injury, particularly horrible diseases, bodily fluids, and gay sex. Preferably in combination.
… seriously, ew.

It’s also not surprising that some people don’t share that taste. Entire civilisations have institutionalized gay sex of various kinds. I’m *not* going to list fetishes that are kinda gay in one way or another, if it’s all the same to you, but they exist.
And then there’s the gender stuff. Heterosexuality has to activate based on both you and your partner’s sex, just like a taste for various nutrients has to activate when you’re in need of those nutrients. People who are atypical of one sex or another might accidentally activate the recognition mechanisms for the other one in people. The mechanisms for creating disgust at the idea of your on sex might fail to activate, and the mechanisms for creating desire for the opposite sex can likewise fail. And let’s not even get into how much of gender is designed to conform to semi-arbitrary signals decided on by your society, or to be learned via association with other things throughout your life, or even based on your own explicit beliefs about things.
There are just … *so* many ways it can fail. But how should we react when it does?

Because, ‘yknow, just because something is gross doesn’t mean it *isn’t* bad. Horrible torture is really, truly*disgusting*, but it’s also one of the most obviously, uncontroversially Bad things out there. Slipping faeces into someone’s food is both pretty disgusting and, y’know, terrible. Indeed, because our instincts were created largely to warn us against things *we don’t want to happen*, things that are absolutely horrible also tend to be terrible ideas.
We could try reasoning from first principles, but of course most of us don’t actually *agree* on those very much. I think you’ll agree that most people’s attempts at “first principles” are horribly flawed. I’m sure Objectivists have no problem with homosexuality, but “A=A” is not actually a good or even sane principle to extrapolate your ethics from. To be fair, though, most sets of First Principles can only be argued to condemn homosexuality if some external source of ethics condemns it; if God wants it, and humans “really” want it, then that wipes out most of the possibilities; and both of those, as Jesus tells us, essentially reduce to morality.
So *is homosexuality wrong*?

There’s a trick I know, for telling what motivates your distaste for something.
It doesn’t tell you what’s *right*, because you don’t know that. It only draws on what’s already in your head, on your own motivations. If you don’t know that berry is poisonous, you *really do* hate it because it’s bitter, not because eating it is a bad idea. But nevertheless.
Do you care if something is going on where you can’t see it?
With torture, the answer is obviously yes. I care a heck of a lot if someone is being tortured in the next room, or even in Guantanamo Bay.
But with *images* of injury – which are equally disgusting, often worse, because they can be taken with an aim to shock – not only do I not care, I’m positively glad that doctors with stronger stomachs are doing it for me.
So … gay sex?

Guys: please do not have gay sex next to me. Or anywhere I might see you. In fact, let’s just extend that to any sex that doesn’t involve someone I’m attracted to, shall we?
(Insert “sexy lesbians do what you want, please” joke here.)
But elsewhere …

Look. I like to think I understand sexuality and attraction in relatively excruciating detail.I don’t care who you are; there are people out there who find things sexy that would *boggle your mind*. But as long as your weirdness it doesn’t cross any lines, nobody really tends to mind. So, based on what we know of sexuality … *is* it crossing any lines?

Having children is good, and gay people tend not to be doing too much of that. And surrogacy – of which you could argue adoption is an involuntary subset – has other problems, not least of which is that kids tend to want to *know* who their biological parents are and were, no matter how much they may well love *you*.
But gay relationships are still *ordered toward* having kids together, even if it’s physically impossible to have any within them; they still pair-bond, they’re still just as likely to *want* children as anyone else. It’s the same emotional architecture, just pointed toward someone other than normal. It’s like infertile people; sure, no children, but everything else we value is still there in the relationship. Even the Catholic Church says it’s OK to have sex in ways you anticipate won’t produce children, as long as it doesn’t break any other rules.

Yeah, yeah, there are minor disease risks, less with our current technology, gay people already know about those, let’s move on.

It’s not injuring anyone, consent seems to be OK, no obvious psychological or safety risks beyond the usual and homophobic –
– can we talk about what a terrible word that is? Homophobia? It’s not a phobia, people. Phobia has an established meaning, and you know full damn well that’s not it. It means we don’t even have a damn *word* for *actual* homophobia, which almost certainly exists and is a real, if hopefully not too crippling, mental condition. Literally the only reason for using that word is to take cheap shots at your intellectual opponents for being “irrational” when they’re not able to complain about it. It’s stupid. I’d suggest using “heteronormativity”, which is a preexisting if slightly longer word and slightly more accurate from a social perspective to boot-
– heteronormative objections, attacks, prejudice etc; which are pretty obviously fading into nothingness with astonishing rapidity in our culture.

So yeah, I think people’s objection to homosexuality starts out with “it’s gross” – a reasonable starting place! – and continues to a few relatively flimsy objections, which are basically false and/or misguided. People think homosexuality is wrong because they think it’s sick. But it’s just kinda weird.

Gayness is, I think, about as objectionable as the way your favourite food is made. Kinda gross, yeah; maybe even slightly unhealthy. But the end product is love, and I think we can all agree that stuff is very tasty indeed.

Privilege vs. Forces

Thing of Things

I’ve been thinking about alternatives to privilege-based models of oppression.

For the unfamiliar: the privilege-based model essentially divides the world into the privileged and the oppressed. For instance, white people are privileged and people of color are marginalized; straight people are privileged and LGBA people are marginalized; thin people are privileged and fat people are marginalized. The privileged group has negative opinions about the oppressed group. In addition, various institutional things screw over the oppressed (for instance, redlining, the illegality of gay marriage, and too-small airline seats).

However, I think there are some serious problems with this sort of model.

First, there’s the problem I wrote about in this post. Privilege models fail when the intersection of a privileged identity and a marginalized identity ends up giving you worse outcomes than the intersection of two marginalized identities. For instance, men of color are far more likely than women of…

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Some Random Thoughts On “Sneer Culture”

What is “sneer culture”? It’s … a thing … oddly, I can’t find where I first heard the term defined.

Try this:

When I think of sneer culture, I think of people who would never donate a cent of their own money to help the fight against AIDS, but will always go out of their way to mock HIV denialists and make them feel stupid, even if they’re minding their own business and not bothering anybody. This seems to me unvirtuous – I explained part of the reason here. But I think another reason is that when there are nonconformist beliefs that seem correct to me, or at least to have some fragments of correctness in them that are worth teasing out, the sneer culture people mock them just as hard as the HIV denialism. And when there are popular beliefs that are just as wrong as HIV denialism but would take some courage to go up against, then they don’t contradict them at all.

There’s correcting false beliefs as a terminal goal – which is rarely best achieved by mocking people – and there’s mocking people as a terminal goal – for which it is often useful to choose targets with false belief. People who have mocking people as a terminal goal scare me.

Or this:

What sneer culture members have in common is that they’re strongly reinforced by sneering, seek out provided info that they can sneer at, and hang out with other people who sneer at things in a group where they know they have an approved target.  There are more skillful professional sneerers who specialize in feeding those audiences, but the masses below are just as much a part of the culture.  “Lol homeopathy” skepticism is sneer culture, just as “Burn down the churches” atheism is hate culture, but neither of these are apex predators of Blue-coded spaces (if I understand correctly what that term means).

When I was writing the Sequences I was, in retrospect, flirting perilously close to sneer culture about religion, even though I had guardrails against ad hominem (there is nowhere I was flirting with hate culture, I think; I knew what Diane Duane would say about that).  I would not write “The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy” again, knowing what I know now.  It is too dangerous to seem to be inviting other people to laugh with you at an approved target.

Personally, my favourite definition is this.

Feh. I just typed up a whole thing on Sneer Culture and then my computer crashed and I lost it. I’ll probably write something shorter and stick it on Tumblr instead.

Anyway, I can assure anyone who’s wondering that there is Sneer Culture in the Red Tribe.

Red Tribe media works pretty much the same (terrible) way Blue Tribe media does. There are Red Tribers who will helpfully explain to you that there are studies disproving gay marriage, environmentalism, anti-racism and anti-sexism, abortion, taxes, every “sex-positive” thing; in fact, pretty much everything controversial (except for gun control, for some reason, the debate around which runs on Obvious Truisms.) A lot of transphobia runs on Sneer Culture; practically all of it, in fact. There’s a lot of sneering at the idea of feminists proudly dressing like “sluts” and then getting angry at anyone who helpfully suggests this might attract rapists.

I think Sneer Culture is extremely bad for it’s members, but arguably a useful resource, in that it’s existence can helpfully point out the weak points in essentially any movement. This requires people to actually seek out and engage with the actual criticism of their own ideology, however.

If you’re dealing with a certain kind of scrupulosity-type thing, I find reminding yourself that the Hated Enemy actually does contain plenty of terrible people can be useful for the purposes of helping you steelman the stupider people on your own side. Of course, you should only do this if you’re already being at least this charitable to the other side.

In conclusion: ner ner neh ner ner, Christians were talking about this problem and devising countermeasures before your civilization’s antecedents first arose. The recommended countermeasure is “humility” (not congratulating yourself on ow much more humble you are!), and remembering that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, especially you. IOW: you are anaspiring rationalist, not a True Rationalist, and you are wrong about some things you are currently very confident in.

In The Future, No-One Will Care About Security

The present is weird.

The present is always weird, of course – because every age is a product of a thousand strange and complicated forces, and they twist our societies into truly odd shapes. And people always seem to forget it, every time, because “normal” is … normal, to us. Even if it might take years of study for an outsider to understand our particular period in history. If you were an outsider.


Anyway, this is on my mind because I was reading some reviews of the classic sci-fi short story The Cold Equations. I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t read it – although it’s a pretty straightforward piece, especially now, when the twist feels less twisty because we’re not in the same cultural context it was written in. (Good, though, in my opinion.)

The story opens with a conventional-ish rocket being launched on a vital supply mission from a Hyperspace cruiser dropped briefly into realspace. The lone pilot in this stripped-down little ship – which has distinctly limited fuel – discovers a stowaway hiding in the cupboard …

… and about half of the reviews I’ve seen begin complaining that this is completely impossible.

Now, you can quibble over whether the cupboard is clearly far to large for a supposedly bare-bones mission – whatever, it’s part of the conceit, who died and made you in charge of worldbuilding? The author says the cupboards on a mission like this are big enough, just go with it. But the biggest sticking point seems to be the simple idea of stowing away on something.

After all, why didn’t they have tighter security? Someone could have put a bomb in there, or something! What were they thinking?


Modern terrorism is really quite interesting. Yeah, I know, I’m on a watchlist now. But it is.

I’m Irish, so perhaps I have a slightly unusual relationship with terrorism. It wasn’t so long ago that being literally blown up by terrorists was an actual, ever-present threat in parts of Ireland. That, and the fact that every flight I’ve ever been on had holes in their security you could drive a truck though (I know, watchlist) makes the whole “war on terror” thing seem … a little silly?

And it is silly, I should make that clear. Not because I’m Irish; the same sort of overreaction happens all the time and everywhere, now. It’s not a national thing, it’s a cultural thing.

(Hmm, how long ago would that sentence have been an oxymoron, because “cultures” and “nations” were the same thing?)

Some kid goes into his highschool and shoots the place up. Now, there are genuine questions why this happens (it doesn’t, here in Ireland.) But still.

There is an immediate national, even international crisis. Is is because gun laws aren’t tight enough? Is it because our modern media glorifies violence? Is it because of videogames, or mental illness, or are we not reaching out to kids enough? Is it … across the country, across the goddamn world, debates rage and untested new policies are implemented … because of, perhaps, at worst, maybe two dozen people died.

In a world of seven billion people. In a world where, by my back-of-an-envelope calculations, your child is about five hundred times more at risk crossing the street. This is such a miniscule risk the human brain is literally incapable of comprehending how small it is; it is so small you physically can’t take it into account without overcompensating by several orders of magnitude.

It’s a small flipping risk, is what I’m trying to say.

But it’s a news story. So it’s available.

And people rail at Republicans for wanting to play with their guns at the expense of children’s lives – won’t somebody please think of the children! – even when, as far as I can tell, the best available (terrible, unreliable) evidence suggests that guns in the US save more than they kill. Even when, according to this random internet article I just googled up for a handy talking point, the GOP preventing people from getting “Obamacare” cost maybe 10,000 lives in 2014.

But yes, I’m sure fifteen, twenty people a year dying from something you have no actual evidence is causally connected to Republican policies is just as important, maybe more so.

(Not that conservatives are exactly off the hook, since “videogames/rock music/D&D are corrupting our kids!” codes conservative, and the anti-videogame thing has been almost exclusively founded on the idea that they somehow caused school shootings.)

Why do we do this? Why do we panic about school shootings and terrorist plots, and pass stupid laws to “stop” them? Why do we freak out about illusionary plagues and This New Sex Thing kids these days are totally doing and crime waves that are absolutely sweeping the nation, we swear, look here are three similar news stories (one of which is fake and one of which is out of context)?

Well, duh, it’s the media.

But seriously, this is massively skewing our society’s perception of the world and it’s risks. Why do you think we don’t let children play on the street anymore? Why do you think we have fad diets, and health scares, and Cancer Cured In Mice Using Lingonberries?

There’s no War On Heart Disease, or War On Malaria, or even a War On Cars.


Gosh, but terrorism is really popular among … well, even in the “western” world, honestly. Makes you long for the days when wars were fought by armies lining up in neat lines, doesn’t it?

(Yes, it does. The Geneva Convention is founded on the premise that combatants won’t attack civilians or use unnecessarily inhumane weapons, on the understanding that enemy combatants will do the same. Asymmetrical warfare breaks that essential symmetry.)

So … why?

Personally, I blame Western Imperialism. But not for the reasons you think.

See, The West(tm) has a significant tech advantage in warfare. But more importantly, they have a significant money advantage, and and industrial complex backing them.

In the Bad Old Days, this meant you went and found someone who didn’t have those things and told them you were in charge now, Or Else. (And then you shot a few, just to be clear on that Else was.) These days, this generally considered uncouth and in any case too hard, so we just roll in when someone’s doing something we don’t like for *ahem* incredibly subtle strategic reasons. Same difference. You show up with an army, to a place without much of one.

When the other side has tanks, and air support, and more troops, and is usually armed with better weapons, and they have some fancy new toys they’re dying to try out … well, it’s a tricky strategic problem, to put it lightly. The Roman Legions couldn’t have done it, for all that they toppled nations and steamrollered vast armies. Historically, quite a few civilizations have essentially (to simplify a bit) been wiped out for having much lower military disparities with their enemies. If this was an episode of Star Trek, it would be beyond Kobayashi Maru it would be somewhere between the Borg, and one of those space-god races from TOS that you tried very carefully not to offend in case they squished you.

How do you fight a war against an enemy that’s more powerful on almost every conceivable dimension?

Well, a solution was found, of course. It’s obvious to any modern tactician.

That solution was that you find one of those big, powerful military installations; or, better still, a bit of the huge civilization backing them; and you blow it the fuck up. And then you disappear, and you do it again and again, and again …

… it’s actually kind of a terrible strategy, in a way. You pretty much have to use isolated cells, because otherwise you’re too easy to find; which means it’s impossible to call off the attack or make any kind of coherent demands. It’s pretty much impossible for you to take down a civilization that way, and it’s close to impossible to take down much in the way of serious military infrastructure that way. You’re now engaging in the aforementioned asymmetric warfare, which means you’ll be treated somewhat worse than most societies have traditionally treated spies and traitors and criminals. You’re massively, massively pissing off the enemy, which means your “side” will suffer atrocities.

In fact, there’s a serious case to be made that terrorism has never worked – and I say this as a citizen of a state that was literally founded by terrorists, as a result of a lengthy terrorist campaign. The only way terrorists ever win is when both sides are so tired of fighting they both give in to each other at once; and even then, it’s a leaderless cell structure, so all the worst bits of your “organization” will cheerfully keep on going until they’re all dead or they find something better or even more illegal to do.

Even the silliest organization tends to realize that negotiating with blackmail is a bad idea, so you don’t even have that. You just … fight.

But it’s the only weapon that works against the imperial war machine. You can see yourself, your movement, is making a difference, making the enemy hurt some fraction of the hurt they’ve caused. And the effect is magnified, compounded, in the funhouse mirror that is modern media; until your little campaign becomes, reflected, a vast host marching beneath a glorious banner, rising up to overthrow the Empire …

It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course, even if the smoke is coming from the barrel of a gun. But in a world where things are just right, when the panopticon sees enough to be afraid but not enough to catch you, when you’re vastly outclassed but can still improvise large-scale devastation on a short timescale, when every attack that fails is forgotten while every attack that succeeds is written in fire in the minds of nations … it can work. For a while.

It doesn’t work for anyone, of course. But it works, just the same. For a moment, when things line up just right.

For the present.