Flash Fiction Responses To A Quiz On A Book I Haven’t Read

1. How do Bill and Josella meet for the first time?

“Ah shit,” Bill said to himself. This wasn’t the first time, he should know better by now. Engine oil gets everything all messy, and he shouldn’t have thought he could change before he was a mile away from work. Of course they had called him back right before his date, the first date he’d been on since the accident four months ago, and now he’s in trouble. He’s already late, and the maître d’ just had to be the first one to notice that his shirttail was greasy. “Guess I’ll just have to hope it doesn’t stain the outside of my trousers after I tuck it in,” he said, quieter this time, hoping no one actually heard him.
Suddenly, a woman stood up from her table and beckoned him over. “Ah, nice to meet you, Jo!”

2. What does Dr. Vorless say that humankind has to now start doing?

Carla — though I suspected that wasn’t her real name — had been sitting quietly for some time, listening. I hadn’t heard her speak in at least an hour, though her bright eyes and the tempo of her fingers tapping on her notepad communicated plenty. Finally, the Chancellor noticed her uncharacteristic silence.
“Ms. Vorless?” he said, a bit too sharply.
Carla stared at him, fingers gone still.
“…Dr. Vorless?” the Chancellor finally gave in.
“Well, capitalism doesn’t seem to be working.”

3. How do we know that Bill is okay and gets through all of this?

I walked behind the guide, following his bright, mustard-yellow and sea-blue tunic out of the corner of my eye, trying to remember my history classes. This was a building that had been a Barn, before The Thawing, and a church before that. You could tell by the Aspe, and the Mansterd. But it was a prison after that, and now that all have been redeemed, peluva, it was a hospital. I was nervous for what I would find out. Not that I had ever doubted, but… to see is another thing.

“And here you see him,” the guide proclaimed, gesturing proudly at a three foot tall, 3 inch wide rectangle of flesh. “He can still talk, on Wednesdays.”

4. What does Michael Beadley think is the one good outcome of the disaster?

Re-reading the notes, Beadley got to his least favourite part. Right before everything went to hell. Toying the “hanc” left on his charred nametag, he muttered, “At least I don’t have to hear anything from that bitch Carly anymore.”

5. Why does Josella come out dressed in a fancy evening dress?

Josella adjusted the fit of her finest* dress around her hips. The half-bull, half-wolf** monsters had finally gotten loose. She had always worried this would happened, and had taken certain precautions. They could see in the dark***, but if you wore the right shade of blue and didn’t stand still too long, you could get away.

Or get close.

Josella unholstered her pistol.

* Only
** Really, the wolves were already one-sixteenth aardvark and one-sixteenth seagull
*** Where a man can see only darkness, a cat can see figures. Where a cat can see only darkness, a high quality infrared set can pick up shapes or more. Where the best infrared sensors can see only darkness, the Mortai can see detail.

6. What is Coker doing the time he is introduced in the book?

I looked up from my homework. Well, honestly, I hadn’t been getting it done. The clock said 21:42, which was odd, because it felt like it said 20:00 five minutes ago and yet 21:40 five hours ago. I might have taken too much adderall.

“Jesus Christ, Welch!” I shouted at my roommate. “At least keep it on the table! At this rate, if they bring the drug dogs in here, they’ll kill us all!”

7. What is the original cause of Bill’s interest in triffids?

“Fifty grand,” the strange man said. “For y’all’s labor. An extra twenty for your pocket if you promise me ain’t no one hear about this.”

Bill inhaled sharply, then took a deep breath to get his head straight. Sure, he was the best mechanic in town. In the county, even, easy. Maybe in the province. But there ain’t nothing left worth spending fifty grand on repairs for.

“Sir… I would love to help you, but I can’t accept that kind of money. Just wouldn’t be right.”

“Come outside with me before you decide,” the man intoned quietly. Bill followed.

“Now, I can’t say where this come from – frankly I prolly don’t got the whole truth, even knowing what I do. But ain’t nothing else like it, I swear on my name,” the man continued, pointing at a device like nothing Bill had ever seen, not in person, not in magazines, not on TV, not even in those damn sci-fi movies his stepson always made him watch. Edges coming out of places where things should be flat, dim lime green lighting provided without so much as an LCD. “I ain’t looking to get it working again – pretty sure it’ll kill me if I do. I’m looking to find out how to make sure it ain’t never gonna work again.”

Bill swallowed dryly, turned aside so he could pretend to cough while he tried to calm his nerves, then focused his attention back at the strange object. He eyed it for a moment, making some appraising “hms” and “ahs,” and eventually turned back to the stranger.

“Two questions, sir: What do you call it, and why ain’t you offer me the two hundred grand you know it’s worth first thing?”

8. Who was the first to wonder about the triffids’ superiority to blind people?

The foreigners arrived two years ago today; this festival is in their honour. They went on and on for weeks beforehand about the preparations, even though it’s us throwing it for them (under not a little duress). The chairs are apparently ugly, even though their shoulders are rounded and the seats are plumped and soft. The tables have no scratches, but now it turns out they want a certain kind of scratches? That nonsense they call balloons, not only did we have to figure out what the hell those were, but now they’re the wrong colour?! They can kiss my ass. Fucking Color-Seers.

9. What marriage relationship does Josella ask Bill to enter into with her?

You unleashed them!” she screamed.

You wouldn’t give me the time of day for less than a thousand dollar dinner, and I didn’t know what the fuck they was anyway!”

“Oh don’t you goddamn pin this on me you piece of shit,” she retorted, turning around and reaching in the closet for her favourite dress. “This is your fault and you damn well know it.”

This was an old argument, but her abrupt coldness halfway through the assault was new. Bill felt shivers down his spine.

“Jo, I…”

She cut him off.

“Bill. Look at me.” He did. “Look me in the eye, and believe me. I’ve never lied to you, but I’ve never been more serious than I am right now. Listen. The world is going to end in three days, if we’re lucky. Two if we’re not. Very plausibly sooner.” Bill moved his hands impatiently, and she rolled her eyes and continued. “There are two things I want to do before I die. One: place a bullet between one of those motherfuckers’ eyes. Preferably more than one.” Bill nodded and started to reach for his pistol in solidarity until he saw her eyes flash with rage. “Can you guess number two?”

Bill shook his head.

“Two: I want a divorce.”

10. Why were triffids cultivated/farmed?

“You youngsters,” he spat through his missing teeth, “don’t remember what it was like. A death every day, your own wife wasting away right in front of you, babies going with her when she ran out of milk. You don’t understand the alternatives. You think we grew these things because we had a choice?!”


Credit to my mother on the quiz, which is about The Day of the Triffids, a book which I have spent at least fifteen years seriously thinking about reading “someday soon.”

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Negotiation

“Even here in the north, the Children of Yisrael pass tales from mouth to ear. Pilgrims come bearing them. Some years ago, one came to my ears. I have heard the tale of how the angel known as Pride was defeated when a D’Angeline woman spoke the Name of God, and the Master of the Straits was freed. I spent my youth in the Flatlands. I know his power. And I see knowledge that does not belong there in your eyes.”

Phèdre said nothing.

“You did not tell me,” the Rebbe said to me.

“Would it have mattered?” I asked, echoing Tadeuz Vral.

The Rebbe smiled. “I suppose not.”

“Did you expect me to invoke the aid of the Master of the Straits and threaten to bring heaven’s wrath down on Vralia if Prince Tadeuz had sought retribution against Imriel?” Phèdre asked mildly.

“I thought it was possible.” His voice was grave. “You have named the young man your son. I do not discount the ferocity of a mother’s love.”

“Ah, well.” She favored him with another sweet, disarming smile. “I would have negotiated first.”

From Kushiel’s Justice, p. 788 (in my copy).

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Sexism Against Men And Other Word Overloading

There’s a great tumblr post that does the rounds occasionally. It’s a powerful and pithy explanation of how authority figures exploit words with multiple but related meanings to sound reasonable while saying unreasonable things.

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

(archived source, as the blog appears to be gone? I don’t tumblr very good so it might be fine and I just can’t find it)

I don’t know if there’s a word for this. It’s doublespeak-adjacent, but it hinges on using one word to mean two things in different contexts, while doublespeak can just be using euphemistic language to imply things you don’t want to say outright.

It’s interesting that this example, of how “respect” can be used to trick people into feeling guilty by subverting their expectation that the speaker is acting in good-faith, came out of tumblr, which is sort of notorious for being a hotbed of young lefty people and SJ rhetoric and so forth. It certainly fits that example well, but I think a lot of people in that category do the exact same thing without realizing they’re exploiting language in the exact same way.


There’s a conversation that happens all the time, that goes approximately like this:

Alice: I never want to talk to men because men are scary.

Bob: Saying all men are scary is sexist!

Alice: lol sexism against men doesn’t exist

at which point Bob thinks that Alice is braindead, because that is obviously a statement that is, in fact, sexist towards men, and Alice thinks Bob is braindead because women have been oppressed for millennia by men.

They are, of course, both right, and they are simply using the word “sexist” to mean two very different things. Bob thinks Alice is sexist because Alice is openly stating a preference that discriminates against men. Alice thinks this is not sexism because sexism is a large-scale pattern of abuse towards women.

Neither of these things is good, but the society-wide marginalization of women over thousands of years is, well, worse. And so we have people who say sexism against men doesn’t exist, because in their mind, sexism refers to patterns, not to individual attitudes. It’s unfortunate that we use the same word for both of these things, because it becomes impossible for Alice to even engage Bob honestly and try to explain this; they’re just talking past each other, each assuming the other a dullard.

Alice is exploiting the same tactic from above. Bob writes “sexism-as-individual-attitude,” and Alice reads it as “sexism-as-societal-problem” and writes Bob off based on that. This is basically just a silencing tactic; it refuses to engage by dismissing Bob on a misreading. I will not speculate as to how many people on either side of this short exchange are doing it maliciously; I suspect in a large fraction of cases, Bob is employing whataboutism to detract from Alice’s point, and I think in a lot of cases Alice is deliberately missing the point in an attempt to discredit Bob as profoundly uneducated. I also think that a lot of people hear about some isolated incidence of sexism towards men, point it out, are told such a thing does not exist, and then wonder why feminists are so stupid as to pretend they don’t see what’s right in front of their eyes.

My point here is not that you must engage with every asshole who tries to distract you with language ambiguities. My point is that abusing ambiguous language is bad when you do it, too. I suppose my point is also that if you’ve never noticed there are two separate things that “sexism” can mean, then you should be aware of that. And if you do want to engage someone, knowing that this ambiguity is commonplace is helpful in taking it apart.

I hope this does not require pointing out, but this whole thing applies to racism as well.


I wish I had a good name for this, but “doublespeak” is already taken. It’s sort of like antanaclasis, but instead of being clever it’s either deceptive or not even noticed. It’s also sort of like if-by-whiskey, except hidden instead of called out. Maybe “halfspeak” — you’ve found a word with two different meanings, and you’re pretending that they’re the same, thus using only half the meanings? I’m not entirely sold.

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Corwin’s Tenth Law

Any sufficiently complicated distributed system program contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of Raft.

With apologies to Philip Greenspun.

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Against Flowers

One of my deepest, oldest, most cherished and firmly-held feminist beliefs is that flowers are fucking bullshit.

Flowers are a tool of the patriarchy, to render men bumbling, useless fools and women placid receivers of meaningless tokens. Consider the transaction in its standard societal narrative: a man has need of giving a gift to his female romantic partner; usually either because he behaved badly or because some trite Hallmark holiday has arrived, though sometimes “just because.” What does this man get his partner? Flowers. This is a function that takes two people (a man and a woman) and ignores both of them! There is no thought. There is no generosity of spirit. There is no investment of time, or consideration, or even finding a fucking “this season’s hottest anodyne gifts” blog post. Flowers. He buys flowers.

Next what happens: The woman receives the flowers. She is very pleased that, after forgetting to pick the kids up from soccer for 6 hours, or whatever, her partner has decided to apologize via a boring script that requires her to, firstly, accept the apology, and, secondly, take these dead plants, put them in a vase, fill it with water, and find a nice decorative place to put them. Now, after giving this “gift” that cost the man $15 and the woman a bunch of labour she didn’t ask for, she gets to stare at the limp token of apology with no true remorse or culpability until it dies a few days or weeks later. Who got the better end of this deal? The man who is allowed to follow a socially-ordained script to get out of anything, or the woman who has to keep these things in her home, because throwing out these unasked-for tokens of a previous row before they rot in her living room would surely lead to yet another?

I admit, sometimes a man buys a woman flowers merely because it is Mother’s Day, or Valentine’s Day, or whatever. In those cases, you can elide the various narratives about remembered pain of the previous paragraph: and yet, the woman here has not received any affirmation of who she is, or what she wants, beyond “women like pretty things, and flowers are female-coded, so here’s some dead plants, make our house prettier for me, won’t you?” This idea that women — all women — should adopt the standard of “flowers are an acceptable gift for nearly all occasions” is an affront to the infinite varieties of women, and of womanhood, and of fucking people in general.

It is, in fact, also an affront to men! The idea that men are so stupid, so bumbling, as to be incapable of actual thoughtful gift-giving, is offensive! Men can be perfectly good at giving gifts and apologizing (and picking up the kids when they were supposed to!) as anyone else. Or, perhaps I should say, they could be, if we didn’t have this fanciful, delusional narrative permeating our culture, and our rom-coms, and — well, to say it’s “permeating” Hallmark would be generous. Presumably you know something more about your partner than “she is female.” Buy her a book! Buy her movie tickets! Buy her some sweet new shoes! Buy her some flowers if and only if she, herself, personally, specifically and actively likes flowers, goddammit!

And if you must stoop to giving flowers for all occasions, at least put them in the vase yourself. It’s the least you can do.

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You Are Extremely Bad At Thinking About Tragedy

Today, some asshole killed a shitton of people in Las Vegas. Fifty eight deaths, at time of writing. This sucks. Like, 58 deaths is a lot, and this is a horrifying tragedy worthy of news coverage.

Let’s talk about some reaction-clusters to this that I’ve been seeing on Twitter. First off, we have the gun control cluster. This is where conservatives say “don’t talk to us about gun control today, give us time to grieve,” and liberals point out that we have a mass shooting literally every day in America and so no, we won’t, we need better gun control laws. You can rest assured that tomorrow’s mass shooting will have fewer casualties and thus receive less media attention. Something else bad, or funny, or weird will happen and everyone will yell about that and not talk or think about gun laws until there’s a media-worthy massacre a couple months from now, we’ll recite the same positions and come away with nothing but a reinforced loathing for the “other side.”

Next, we have the terrorism cluster. This is where liberals say “if this dude weren’t white, he’d be called a terrorist!” and draw comparisons to headlines about white shooters vs black victims. Conservatives seem to mostly say “this is a gauche reaction to a tragedy,” or point out that non-ideologically-motivated murder doesn’t quite count as terrorism, or whatever. In any case, tomorrow everyone will stop worrying so much about who is and isn’t a terrorist, because something else bad or funny will happen, and we all come away with nothing but a reinforced loathing for the “other side.”

We also have the thoughts-and-prayers cluster. This one is conservatives retweeting politicians who say “our thoughts and prayers go out to <latest victim>” or send out their warmest condolences. Liberals fire back about how thoughts and prayers don’t help anything, and politicians should be increasing gun control laws if they actually think and pray about the tragedy. I hope you know how this paragraph ends.

 

My point here, insofar as I have one, is that none of this is principled, meaningful discussion, nor is any of it meant to fix things. This is just a hysterical reaction to a flashy event. Yesterday everyone was having these same reactions to Puerto Rico, but now something bad happened and we have to shout about Las Vegas instead. Yesterday it was, “if you care about the tragedy in Puerto Rico, maybe work on climate change?” Tomorrow it will be “if you really care about the tragedy in <new area>, maybe work on <arguable source problem>?” And I’m sure everyone genuinely feels like they’re right about this, but today we care an awful lot more about gun control than we do about climate change, and that just doesn’t make sense if what’s happening is a genuine, principled desire to reduce death and suffering.


 

In 2015, there were 96 vehicle deaths per day. The CDC reports 121 suicide deaths per day in 2016, and that’s far from the worst killer on the list. About 1500 people die from malaria in Africa, each day. If you care about improving the world, about reducing suffering and unnecessary deaths, you have to think about the actual numbers, the actual causes of death. We should be willing to accept a Las Vegas shooting-level incident every single day if we can cut the national suicide rate in half. We should be just about willing to trade off one Pulse shooting a day in return for halving the vehicle deaths statistic. And if we can halve the impact of malaria in Africa, most victims of which are children, we should be willing to accept quite a large number of Sandy Hooks.

It’s important to have advocates for even smaller causes. Radically restricting gun access in America is probably low hanging fruit that could save a lot of lives with relatively light investment. Investments in self-driving car technology are likely to reduce vehicle deaths; this is kind of a long shot, but it’s good that someone’s working on it. Terrorism has a pretty low body count, at least in America, but it has other negative effects and deserves people working to curb it (I’m not going to speculate on methods here). Heroin overdoses kill around 40 people a day, which is plenty to be worthy of attention.

But unless you’re laser-focused on one of these smallish causes, or have extra leverage towards it, or can only motivate yourself to speak up/donate/work towards improving things you care about personally, they’re not what’s important. You should be advocating for more cancer research, for more malaria prevention, for less cigarette smoking, for the big causes. Stopping to worry about a few people murdered by an asshole with a gun is time not spent worrying about the things that cause extraordinary, large-scale death and suffering. Donate your time and money and advocacy for the important causes, or else accept that you’re experiencing an emotional reaction wrought in you by the media, and don’t act like your response to tragedy is principled.


 

Please don’t search for a way to read this as me being callous or heartless. I am furiously angered by people being unable to deal with the world’s actual, horrifying tragedy and instead myopically focusing on flashy tragedy with emotional pull to it. In absolute terms, malaria is more fucking important than gun control, because more people die because of it. I wish very much that there were not mass shootings, and I am very sorry for the people affected by the Las Vegas shooting. But I am very sorry for the many, many more people who will die of other causes today, as well, and ultimately we have to allocate our resources where they can do the most good.

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Creating a Sentient Mind Can’t Be That Hard

It just can’t. A conscious mind might be harder, but sentience is just a very low bar. It seems to me that there has to be some insight we’re missing, because, empirically, the problem cannot be particularly hard.

What’s the least-complicated (or least-intelligent, or least-conscious, or whatever) animal that is sentient? Certainly my cat is sentient. Rats and mice and so on seem obviously sentient as well. I’m not an animal expert, so let’s go with rats, and if you know more than I do, substitute a simpler animal if you can.

So rats are sentient. Think about that. Every single rat is sentient. Every single rat going back tens of thousands of years has been sentient. That’s a shitton of different sentient brains, none of them particularly complex! That’s billions of slightly different arrangements of neurons, some for the better and some for the worse. That’s thousands of rats that we poke in the brain for Science™ that remain sentient. Smart rats, stupid rats, diseased rats, rats with birth defects, rats suffering neurotoxicity, malnourished rats, overfed rats, and on and on. All those brains, assembled sloppily from wetware, every last one sentient.

I assume you accept that this at the very least establishes that sentience is a goddamn robust property. If you take a sentient brain and make any random smallish perturbation to it or to its design (in the case of genetic blips), it remains a sentient brain (or design therefor). Which implies that once we’ve got our hands on a brain design, designing new, different brains will be extremely easy (although directing that design towards useful ends may prove to be difficult).

I aver that this also establishes that sentience is a low bar. Sentience doesn’t require anything particularly complicated, and it is extraordinarily robust to errors. If we imagine “things [like neurons] interacting with each other using signals [like neurotransmitters, or like electrons]”-space, the sub-section of that space that results in a conscious mind-thing is large. Mice have something like 71,000,000 neurons and some elephants have like 257,000,000,000 for some goddamn reason, and it seems extraordinarily unlikely that adding neurons would eliminate consciousness (most added neurons will simply be no-ops, they won’t break anything), so we have a lower bound of roughly 70 million neurons for a brain. And way less than that if you accept that a frog (16,000,000), or a shrew (36,000,000), is sentient. And lower still if you accept that damaged individuals with fewer neurons are sentient. And lower than that if you think that many neurons are not critical to sentience (which also seems obvious; how hard do you have to poke a brain before it becomes non-sentient? Pretty fucking hard, it turns out.*)

So, okay, let’s say… 20 million neurons is enough to create a brain. Sure, that’s gotta be deeply inconvenient to simulate in software, but it’s not that much! We should have figured something out about this now, because there’s billions of mice and rats and so on out there, and they each have their 20-70million neurons in substantially different configurations and they’re all goddamn sentient. So there’s gotta be some kind of core property that’s extremely easy to reproduce and extremely hard to remove that is a subset of all these different animals. It has to be a fairly small core just because the number of neurons is not that big, in absolute terms, and you can fuck it up so much before sentience disappears.

 

WHAT ARE WE MISSING?!

 

* I’m aware that this is a deeply misleading comparison. If you want an actual justification, I would argue that you can probably start chopping out bits of brains responsible for things like ‘automatic breathing’ and ‘muscular control’ and retain sentience. If you can’t, then… what the fuck is even going on in brains?!

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Why The Forum Was Better In The Old Days

You may have noticed, if you’ve participated in online communities or forums*, that the old guard always thinks the forum used to be better, and simultaneously the newer members often think that it’s pretty great as it is now. I propose that this is a necessary consequence of having a community.

The Beginning

You want to start a forum or blog or whatever to talk about something that’s interesting to you and doesn’t have a lot of interesting discussion elsewhere that you can find. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the topic you’re really interested in is Shakespeare’s poetry (and, again for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there aren’t a thousand other places that people like to discuss this). So you start up a blog and you post really interesting thoughts about the Sonnets, and you engage with the academic criticism, and so on. People start noticing that you’re insightful and knowledgeable, and you start getting regular readers commenting on your posts, saying things like, “hey, that was really interesting – it reminded me of this paper I read recently, what do you think?” and in general a conversation is started and a community begins to form.

Then one day, one of your community members links to a blog post they found interesting about Edmund Spenser. Spenser is also an important part of the canon of 16th century English poetry, so you let it slide, and people start talking about Spenser. They bring up interesting points and are friendly with each other, so all is well.

The Spiral

Unfortunately, these people were too interesting, and now you have a regular “Spenser thread” commented on each of your new posts where people congregate to discuss The Faerie Queene or whatever. This isn’t the end of the world — most of the people in your community are still mostly discussing Shakespeare, after all, and if they’re getting to know each others’ tastes a bit and finding more common interests to discuss, isn’t that a good thing?

Before you know it, people who are only interested in Spenser are popping by your comment threads, and they’ve only ever read Hamlet and none of the sonnets! You’re a little miffed by this, but your Shakespeare-focused fans who also like Spenser think they’re adding a lot to the conversations, so you let it slide yet again.

And so on. You get someone talking about John Donne, and you get threads derailed by conversations on T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Hamlet, and then someone starts talking about how great Eliot’s poetry was, and suddenly your community isn’t about Shakespeare anymore! It’s a bunch of relatively like-minded people just talking about poetry in general.

And There We Have It

Now the people who joined at the beginning, who are truly fanatical about Shakespeare, start bemoaning that there’s hardly any good discussion of Henry IV anymore, and who gives a shit about Rembrandt or whatever has come up the last two weeks, and why is this community such a shithole these days?

And the answer is: it’s become a community, and communities are tied together by friendship and conversation and humour and so on, not just shared devotion to a particular topic. The small number of people who really just want to discuss Shakespeare constantly are massively outnumbered by the large number of people who do genuinely love Shakespeare but want to talk about lots of other stuff, too, with other people who “get” them.

So? What’s wrong with communities?

Nothing! But I think this pattern is approximately inevitable unless you take a very strict stance from day one in terms of what people can discuss in your forum, and then you end up with a very small group of people who don’t feel especially connected to one another. I think your choices are basically either to have a small, focused group that is extremely insular and not socially connected, or to have a sprawling, loosely-connected group of people that just starts to feel like any regular community over time.

 

* I imagine this occurs in meatspace communities, too, but I’m going to stick to online ones for this post.

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Rap Quines

A Quine is a form of poetry in which a poem, through formalism or sometimes more literally, states that it is going to state part of itself, and then does so. This is related to the modern programming art form of a quine, which is a computer program that outputs itself when run.

Rap in particular offers some notable quines and quine-forms, some of which I would like to present today. The simplest and perhaps most illuminating example is the following, a construction taken from a not-entirely-respectful caricature of rap to its obvious conclusion; that is:

My name is Alexander, and I’m here to say:

“My name is Alexander, and I’m here to say!”

In this short rap verse, line 1 is a promise to the audience that the narrator has something to say; in line 2 the tension is momentarily broken by revealing what it is Alexander set out to say. However, then we wonder: has Alexander indeed said, “My name is Alexander and I’m here to say,” or is this a promise of future effusion? But we think back to the first line, and realize the narrator has indeed said what he promised to, in addition to promising to say it. Thus the quine is complete, and the effect is one of whiplash between future promises and their already-past satisfaction.

We will scrutinize one more example, this one from popular culture: Taio Cruz’s spectacular self-referential and obviously heavily quine-influenced song, “Dynamite.” In it, Cruz masterfully intertwines promises to act or explain with both previous and past references to performing that act or giving the promised explanation. To start with, the song opens with the following:

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,

Saying AYO! Gotta let go!

This is already a complex lyrical dance. We have what begins as a simple opening clause: “I throw my hands up in the air,” a relatively standard gesture of celebration. This immediately comes down with the addition of the word “sometimes” — is Cruz throwing his hands up now, and shouting the declaration “gotta let go,” or merely letting us know that he sometimes does? Is this describing an action, or foreshadowing later revelations?

To skip ahead somewhat (Cruz did need to get this masterful formalist poetry on the airwaves after all; some of it is straightforward), we find the following in the chorus:

‘Cause we gon’ rock this club, we gon’ go all night,
We gon’ light it up like it’s dynamite!
‘Cause I told you once, now I told you twice,
We gon’ light it up like it’s dynamite!

The chorus on its own is very nearly a quine! The first line is somewhat out of place without the context of the rest of the song serving as setting, but otherwise this holds its own amongst historical quines. It inverts the normal poetical structure of a quine somewhat: normally, as in the first example we saw, a quine explains what it’s going to say before saying it (or simultaneously). In this case, however, we have a symmetry around line 3, reminiscent of classic presentation advice: first Cruz says what he’s going to say, then he explains very clearly what’s up next: he’s going to repeat himself. And he faithfully does.

Interestingly, this refrain is repeated word for word later in the song. Cruz is trying to get us to carefully evaluate the number of times he’s told us we’re going to “light it up like it’s dynamite,” by saying it for the third time, then claiming he “told [us] once, now [he’ll tell us] twice”, but actually following up by telling us for the fourth time! In one sense, this is inaccurate, but since when is poesy supposed to be factual? He is both telling us another two times, and at the same time in a sense resetting us to the earlier appearance of the lines, reminding us of the cyclical, symmetric nature of his proclamations.

I don’t want to ruin the fun of analyzing all the depth in this poem for you, but let me leave you with a final observation. Harken back to that ambiguity from the introduction: is Cruz declaring that he is raising his hands, or suggesting his intention to, at a later point? While I cannot claim a final answer to this enigma, I will say that whatever his earlier status was, he surely raises his hands during the triumphant bridge:

I’m gonna put my hands in the air!
Hands, hands in the air!
Put your hands in the air!

This is, while not the end of the song, the moment where the potential energy set up at the beginning (and repeated before each chorus) is definitively resolved, allowing the listener to release her breath. Cruz insists repeatedly that he “sometimes” puts his hands in the air. Here, though, it is realized: in another masterful use of three-line symmetry, Cruz is first reaching tentatively, as if unsure of himself, to raise his own hands. In the middle line, his hands are clearly in the air, and in the final line he turns it around on us: now you, too, must put your hands on the air and join in the aura of celebration.

It is worth noting that, enhancing the reflection about the middle line here, the middle line itself can be read as a part with either of the others: “I’m gonna put my hands in the air/ [my] hands, [my] hands [are] in the air!” reads just as naturally as “Hands, hands in the air!” being in the imperative voice, the way a police officer might say it, which aligns with the unambiguous exultation of “put your hands in the air!”

The allusion to police language in a rap song by a black man could not possibly be accidental, but I will leave it to the interested reader to look further into it.

 

 

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On Trolley Problems

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

There’s a philosophical question that people seem to struggle with, commonly called the trolley problem, that I never really got the difficulty of until fairly recently. The original form, the one I was first introduced to, is formulated like so:

You are on a train, and coming up on a junction. The tracks are currently set such that the course the train will follow will run over 5 people tied to the tracks. However, you are able to switch the tracks to a side channel. This alternative course will run over 1 person tied to the tracks. Do you pull the lever to change to the alternate route?

This is excruciatingly clear to me: of course you change routes. The problem reduces to “is it better to kill one person or five?” which has a pretty obvious answer. And so I never understood why there’s any struggle over it. (Incidentally, I am deeply suspicious of philosophers finding ways to argue about nonsense, which perhaps biased me to miss important aspects of the question).

There are extensions of the trolley problem that all retain the basic form: should you kill one person, or kill five? One of these I really struggled with, which is a formation like the following:

A train is barreling, undivertably, toward five people tied on the tracks. You are on an overpass that looks over the tracks. You are standing next to an impossibly fat person who, if you pushed them off the ledge in front of the train, will slow it down sufficiently to save the five trapped people, but at the cost of the fat person’s life.

The question — and, thus, the answer — are the same: five people are worth more than one person, all else being equal (and despite the weird contrivances to make this situation seem vaguely plausible, we assume all else is equal). But this one made me recoil and struggle with my own understanding of the problem: imagining pushing someone over the tracks to save five lives makes me viscerally uncomfortable.

This brewed at the back of my mind for some time: the well-understood belief that killing the one to save the five is the correct course of action, alongside the deeply held feeling that it was wrong. Feeling so strongly repulsed by an action you thoroughly believe is morally correct is an uncomfortable thing, and so I tried to understand the disconnect here: surely there is something I am missing (I notice I am confused).

I had a few ideas about this — perhaps the net decrease in happiness caused by the pushing outweighs the net increase of +4 lives, perhaps I am using as a crutch some pre-cached idea that pushing people off of bridges is never the right answer, etc — but they all felt somewhat hollow.

Recently I’ve come to what I think is a more insightful explanation for the discomfort. I think that, as a matter of human nature, a bug in our programming (be it social or neural; irrelevant here), humans categorize “do something” and “do nothing” separately, which is completely factually incorrect.

The idea of “no action” as being a thing a person can take is actually incoherent. You are at all times doing something; what is meant by “do nothing” has to be in reference to a particular situation. I can choose to do nothing about a scenario (not pushing a person off a bridge) but in that case I am merely doing something else (standing around feeling unhappy) instead.

Inaction towards a particular scenario is not a different category from action. It is merely a human perception of inertia, or of some “default.” If I am in the “fat person” trolley scenario, I have two choices: push a person off a bridge, or stand idly by. These choices have to be considered as fully equal in terms of agency. And it is only by incorrectly considering one choice as “nothing” and the other choice as “intervening,” or similar, that I can even start to absolve myself of the moral guilt of the murder of four people.

 

When choosing your actions, do not forget that inaction is a choice on the exact same level as any other choice. When you start to treat inaction as a separate category, you wind up in scenarios that lead to such famous quotes as “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” and “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew.”

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