Emotional Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

You need to eat. Only slightly less literally, you also have to socialize. These things can be impacted in similar ways by disordered thinking.

The main parallel is the cycle formed by the waxing and waning of two competing pressures. There’s the need: you have to eat/talk to people. And then there’s the disorder: eating is bad/you’re wasting people’s time. The longer you go without doing the forbidden thing, the more the need mounts; simultaneously, the guilt wanes as it’s been longer since you sinned.

And so eventually you crack. Depending on the terms your disorder sets you, maybe you only crack a little – you eat, like, one pop-tart, or you send one anodyne text, and you feel only a little bad for giving in. Or perhaps too much has built up, or your resolve is weak, and you binge – you eat too much, you open up a lot. This probably actually feels good, at least in the doing, but then you’re left with a proportional hangover. So you stew in guilt and shame, swear to do better – next time you can’t abstain any longer, surely you’ll eat less, you’ll impose less. Your shame is inversely proportional to your satisfaction.

The goal is similar in both cases: take up less space. Be smaller, physically or mentally. Take up less space in the world, in the minds of the people who know you. You should be not seen as well as not heard. Your appearance is a burden, and so is having to talk to you.

You have to handle other-initiated circumstances similarly, too. When someone offers you a snack, you always conveniently just ate. When someone invites you to a party, you’re always conveniently busy. If you must show up, you’re conveniently only interested in hearing about others, not talking about yourself. You can sit around and smile and sip your drink and not impose on any of the conversations around you. If someone directly involves you, you’re polite until you can make someone else the focus again. If someone insists you eat, you have a bite or two before the offerer is satisfied and the situation passes.

This parallel breaks down a bit at one important part: you can “socialize” virtually, but there’s no fake way to eat. Broadcasting yourself on the internet doesn’t feel quite the same as texting someone, or, god forbid, asking them to spend time with you. You’re just shouting; nobody has to listen. It still counts a little bit, though; maybe it can tide you over and prevent you from forcing any innocents to directly pay attention to you.

After all, I’m just shouting. Nobody has to listen.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Thoughts and Quotes


Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion. They are split up into three parts; essays about California, memoir-ish personal essays, and essays about other places. The Californian section has both the best essays (the title essay, in particular, is excellent) and several short newspaper pieces. Didion’s writing on the paragraph- and sentence-level is spectacular, but many of the shorter pieces are somewhat unsatisfying.

Perhaps my favourite thing about her writing is her faculty with making her feelings about a topic leap off the page without ever directly copping to them. She will arrange short, factual sentences and remarks in such a way that you feel her contempt radiating towards its target, but without being able to point at any one particular source. It’s very fun to read and also technically impressive – I sure as hell can’t write like that.

Some selections follow.


a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed


What was most startling about the case that the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.


As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.

Fun fact: after reading this essay, I went to look up its subject because I didn’t know anything about him; the second paragraph of his Wikipedia page reads “Laski is perhaps most famous for being the subject of an essay by Joan Didion”

Jane says maybe I should talk to Chester Anderson. She will not give me his number.


Whenever I hear about the woman’s trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin’-says-lovin’-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara.


Of course the activists — not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic — had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who  grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts: Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words — words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips — their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to  think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.


I would like to believe that my dread then was for the human condition, but of course it was for me, because I wanted a baby and did not have one and because I wanted to own the house that cost $1,000 a month to rent and because I had a hangover.


(You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.)


Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.


If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us.


I have never heard a Hawaiian word, including and perhaps most particularly aloha, which accurately expressed anything I had to say.


In fact they contrive to leave an indistinct impression that it was in 1945, or perhaps ’46, that they last got down to Waikiki. “I suppose the Royal hasn’t changed,” one Honolulan who lives within eight minutes of the Royal remarked to me.


“Don’t read me wrong, I think Santa Barbara’s one of the most — Christ, the most beautiful places in the world, but it’s a beautiful place that contains a … putrescence. They just live on their putrescent millions.”

“So give me putrescent.”

“No, no,” the writer says. “I just happen to think millionaires have some sort of lacking in their … in their elasticity.”

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Middlemarch: Thoughts and Quotes

Middlemarch, by George Eliot, is a sprawling portrait of a number of persons of varying degrees of wealthiness, set in a fictional 1830s British town not very far outside of London. It’s a wonderful book of rich characters, broadly concerned with what it is to do good, and how to do it, and the ways people accidentally tie their own fates in knots in miscalculated attempts to follow their bliss. It’s written with a devastatingly precise eye for character, and a gentle but uncompromising view of human foibles. It’s also very funny, primarily in the first and last hundred pages or so. Which amounts to about a quarter of the book – sprawling, indeed.

My main complaint about it is that it has, in some ways, aged poorly. There are various casually antisemitic remarks sprinkled through, and some events that are portrayed as tragic or actions that everyone in the book immediately assumes are evil are hard to take seriously – the impact on the reader of some of the characters’ missteps is weakened by the changing of times. Things that a contemporary reader would understand as reputation-destroying incidents parse to the modern reader as, at worst, minor mistakes that would be easily forgiven. She also uses commas weirdly – I’m not sure if that’s a change over time in grammar or a stylistic choice.

If no one has yet, someone should publish a paper about how Caleb Garth is neuroatypical.

Some choice quotes follow. They are in the order they appear in the book, may contain spoilers, and may be lightly edited to remove or normalize references to names that would be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I have taken the liberty of allowing a few characters names when they appear in multiple quotes that are better when you can connect the subjects.

Mr. Brooke was a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote.

    “You have your own opinion about everything, and it is always a good opinion.”

What answer was possible to such stupid complimenting?

“Mr. Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won’t keep shape.”

“Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in a woman,” said the man, whose study of the fair sex seemed to have been detrimental to his theology.

    “What have you been doing lately?”

“I? Oh, minding the house — pouring out syrup — pretending to be amiable and contented — learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”

Will was not at all deep himself in German writers; but very little achievement is required in order to pity another man’s shortcomings.

“I regretted it especially,” he resumed, taking the usual course from detraction to insincere eulogy.

    “I suppose I am dull about many things,” she said, simply. “I should like to make life beautiful — I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from int.”

“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will, impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy — when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight — in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.”

“How rude you look, pushing and frowning, as if you wanted to conquer with your elbows! Cincinnatus, I am sure, would have been sorry to see his daughter behave so.” (Her mother delivered this awful sentence with much majesty of enunciation, and she felt that between repressed volubility and general disesteem, that of the Romans inclusive, life was already a painful affair.)

Whether Providence had taken equal care of his wife in presenting her with him was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife’s husband!

“I can’t wear my solemnity too often, else it will go to rags.”

(Solemnity here refers, I am pretty sure, to mourning clothes, although the double meaning is clearly intended)

In the meanwhile the hours were each leaving their little deposit and gradually forming the final reason for inaction, namely, that action was too late.

There was no denying that she was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived.

What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?

“I am perhaps talking rather superfluously; but a man likes to assume superiority over himself, by holding up his bad example and sermonizing on it.”

Will would probably have been rambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy “bits” from old pictures, leaving off because they were “no good,” and observing that, after all, self-culture was the principal point; while in politics he would have been sympathizing warmly with liberty and progress in general.

But most of us are apt to settle within ourselves that the man who blocks our way is odious, and not to mind causing him a little of the disgust which his personality excites in ourselves.

When a tender affection has been storing itself in us through many of our years, the idea that we could accept any exchange for it seems to be a cheapening of our lives.

But to most mortals there is a stupidity which is unendurable and a stupidity which is altogether acceptable — else, indeed, what would become of social bonds?

“It is the way with all women,” he said inwardly. But this power of generalizing which gives men so much the superiority in mistake over the dumb animals, was immediately thwarted.

But still — it could not be fairly called wooing a woman to tell her that he would never woo her. It must be admitted to be a ghostly kind of wooing.

The real wife had not only her claims, she had still a hold on his heart, and it was his intense desire that the hold should remain strong. In marriage, the certainty, “She shall never love me much,” is easier to bear than the fear, “I shall love her no more.”

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

    “Character is not cut in marble — it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

“Then it may be rescued and healed. […] People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.”

In Middlemarch a wife could not long remain ignorant that the town held a bad opinion of her husband. No feminine intimate might carry her friendship so far as to make a plain statement to the wife of the unpleasant fact known or believed about her husband; but when a woman with her thoughts much at leisure got them suddenly employed on something grievously disadvantageous to her neighbors, various moral impulses were called into play which tended to stimulate utterance. Candor was one. To be candid, in Middlemarch phraseology, meant, to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position: and a robust candor never waited to be asked for its opinion. Then, again, there was the love of truth — a wide phrase, but meaning in this relation, a lively objection to seeing a wife look happier than her husband’s character warranted, or manifest too much satisfaction in her lot: the poor thing should have some hint given her that if she knew the truth she would have less complacency in her bonnet, and in light dishes for a supper-party.  Stronger than all, there was the regard for a friend’s moral improvement, sometimes called her soul, which was likely to be benefited by remarks tending to gloom, uttered with the accompaniment of pensive staring at the furniture and a manner implying that the speaker would not tell what was on her mind, from regard to the feelings of her hearer. On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work setting the virtuous mind to make a neighbor unhappy for her good.

It seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain.

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement. Poor Lydgate was inwardly groaning on that margin, and Will was arriving at it. It seemed to him this evening as if the cruelty of his outburst to Lydgate’s wife had made an obligation for him, and Will dreaded the obligation: he dreaded Lydgate’s unsuspecting goodwill: he dreaded his own distaste for his spoiled life, which would leave him in motiveless levity.

(Compare this quote for more on Will’s “motiveless levity.”)

“She may be acting imprudently; she is giving up a fortune for the sake of a man, and we men have so poor an opinion of each other that we can hardly call a woman wise who does that.”

“It is quite true that I might be a wiser person, and that I might have done something better, if I had been better. But this is what I am going to do. I have promised to marry him; and I am going to marry him.”

    “Ay, ay; you want to coax me into thinking him a fine match.”

“No indeed, father. I don’t love him because he is a fine match.”

“What for, then?”

“Oh, dear, because I have always loved him. I should never like scolding any one else so well; and that is a point to be thought of in a husband.”


“I wonder if any other girl thinks her father the best man in the world.”

“Nonsense, child; you’ll think your husband better.”

“Impossible,” she said, relapsing into her usual tone; “husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”

That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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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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“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.

Posted in language, pedantry, politics, social justice, things i will regret | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in dating | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in morality, politics, things i will regret | Leave a comment

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.




* 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?!

Posted in computer science | 1 Comment