Sep 092017
 

I.

Before I left to Burning Man, I expected most of the people there to be hippies and stoners, with some party girls/boys mixed in. And to be fair, there’s certainly a fair share of those people. But I was surprised just how many very accomplished and respectable people attend!

In hindsight, I’m a bit ashamed of this prejudice. First, there’s no reason accomplished, successful people wouldn’t enjoy Burning Man. The perpetual group-flow-state of the entire festival is enjoyable regardless of one’s background. The excitement of temporary deprivation is probably more appealing to people who usually have plenty. And there are a great many highly intelligent people who consider psychedelics to be a useful tool for self-knowledge and various mental tasks (Sam Harris comes to mind immediately as a strong proponent).

Furthermore, I probably should have expected this, because Burning Man isn’t exactly cheap. The total cost of going for someone going extremely low-end (like I did) is about $1000. It just goes up from there. Even low-income tickets only help a bit, because the ticket was a bit less than half of my cost. Plus most people in lower-income jobs can’t just take eight days off of work. So yeah, someone really dedicated could save up and go, and I met several starving-artist types who did exactly that. But most of the people were professionals of some sort. And getting to meet them was an absolute treat. Here’s a sampling:

I met a rocket scientist who’d worked for NORAD. He related the tale of how his participation in a system-wide WWIII-simulation scenario caused him to reevaluate his life.

I met a scientist that’s recently made waves with his hypothesis of land-based origins of life on Earth. He’s a member of the groups advising/pitching NASA on where to land the next Mars rover. He let me hold a rock he brought that is 3.5 billion years old, and contains fossilized traces of the proto-life on earth!

I stood within arm’s reach of a professional opera singer as she performed a brief, beautiful piece for me and eight other people in our camp. You don’t really get any more intimate of a venue than that. :)

It wasn’t all great – I met a shamanistic healing guru who traveled the world spreading woo. At one point he expressed delight at what had happened in Houston, because that city had “toxic energy” and this would help everyone who lived there to get in touch with their spiritual lives. I was playing host at the tea house, so I couldn’t be too confrontational, but I let him know that glee at human misery is wrong. Also the culture of togetherness and understanding made it very hard to be contradictory. I should have pushed back sooner. I wish I had been more forceful. A thing to remember for next time.

Overall, though, lots of positive experiences with meeting people. Between the Art and the People, this is an awesome experience for those of us going straight-edge. :)

II.

The Playa is the term for the Burning Man grounds (spanish for “beach”). At night it transforms into a completely different place. First, ALL the lights come out. There is no public lighting, so it’s your civic duty to keep yourself lit up so people on bikes or art-cars don’t crash into you. And this is a place of art and beauty, so everyone is encouraged to light up in pretty colors and patterns. The effect is DAZZLING. I took a few pictures, but I really cannot do the effect justice, so I won’t post them. Maybe an actual photographer can capture it. Imagine a sea of neon-glowing life criss-crossing the dessert and congregating in clumps.

The sea analogy actually isn’t bad. Some of the sound cars start near the city at sundown and then slowly drive out to Deep Playa where they can blast music a great volume. The weave back and forth slowly, like an angler fish luring prey. Great numbers of humans in lit-up bikes swarm along side them, pulsing in and out like a school of minnows keeping pace. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

The inner-most road of the city is Burning Man’s main strip. It is the boardwalk. The camps that get these high-profile spots always put great effort into creating amazing frontage, full of lights and music, often several stories tall. Not only do they glow and gleam, but every one of them has true heart and emotion in their creation.

All these lights and sights and sounds make one feel like you are living in a post-human cyber-paradise. The Playa at night makes Las Vegas look like a pile of shit. And I realize that’s not hard to do, what with Vegas being kinda shitty anyway. But man, I don’t know how to put into words the neon-electric awesome.

The city has a heartbeat at night. There is music pulsing from all over, and across a distance the bass all melds into a low-level thruming rush. The land itself feels alive.

Much of the music is basic-as-fuck House, unfortunately. I understand why, it’s easy as hell for anyone to dance to. I said earlier that Burning Man is what you make of it, and I’m sure if I went looking I could have found music more to my taste. There was at least one Jazz camp, and one Goth/Industrial camp. But that wasn’t really what I was there for this year, so I didn’t seek it out and I was mostly inundated with boring House. Could be worse. I could be stuck in a dust-bowl desert. :)

Sep 082017
 

In my post on luck, I stressed the importance of openness. But openness invites vulnerability, so people are generally unwilling to be very open unless they first feel safe. This is part of what makes Burning Man one of the luckiest places on earth – the entire event is one of the safest places I’ve been. This is achieved entirely through the culture.

Firstly, with a few extremely narrow exceptions, nothing can be bought or sold at Burning Man. Everything is given away as a gift without obligation. This decommodification of everything removes the status of having things. Almost all the value at Burning Man is found in interaction with other people, and you can’t really steal that. Also, everyone is living in faux-poverty anyway, there isn’t anything valuable around to take! And even if you did take it, what would you do with it? Pile it up next to your tent?

Secondly, because it is such a harsh environment, people are always looking out for one another. No one has to worry overly much about going hungry or thirsty, because there will always be someone giving away food or water, or happy to share what they have. Passing around snacks is a common activity in lines. When someone’s bike jammed near my tent, I gave them all the lube they needed to get going again. I saw one lady having a bad skin reaction in a dust storm, her hands were getting very chapped. A fellow Burner gave her moderately-fancy gloves with lights in the fingers, to protect her skin. The lady protested, but the Burner said “Take them, you need them more than I do.” This sort of thing happens regularly. In the desert everyone helps each other constantly.

This leads to a feeling of safety. You know that no matter what should happen, there are people around you that have your well-being as a priority. The sense of safety allows you to talk to new people easily, and explore things without worry. It, paradoxically, leads to the rallying cry of “Safety Third!”, which is a bit of an exhortation to try things that may scare you for not being perfectly safe – such as jumping between the slabs in the Temple of Gravity. There is an understanding that even if you get hurt, the people around you will immediately come to your aid. It’s what makes people comfortable stripping off all their clothes and having a naked dance/shower party.

I regularly saw women walking alone in the dark of night without any worry. That’s the kind of place this is.

When my bike popped a tire, it was repaired for free in a jiffy. When I was hungry, I was given food.

This openness extends to the interpersonal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have a very hard time speaking with people I don’t yet know. All my life I’ve felt basically unwanted. Yet at Burning Man, when I showed up at a random fire-spinning event alone, the people next to me struck up a conversation. They made me feel welcome, we had a good talk, and later that evening we met up to dance. As a single dorky male, I’ve never in my life felt like people wanted me to approach them. Dancing in the desert, the pretty young thing from the fire-spinning was delighted to see me, and afterwards thanked me. I still can’t entirely believe it. I was valued just for being me. It was bizarre, and wonderful.

This care-for-others thing is super-charged at your home camp. I camped with a group of 30-40 people, two of whom I’d met for less than five hours previous to this, and the rest strangers. Yet everyone treated me incredibly warmly. The standard greeting to Burning Man virgins (possibly everyone?) is “Welcome Home.” It sounds weird at first, but quickly you understand it. Your camp WILL take care of you. They will show you around and take you places. They’ll sit and chat with you when you need to rest, and they’ll give you food or water if you need it.

Of course nothing is completely without obligation. I learned my first night out that one doesn’t simply show up at a bar and ask for food or alcohol. Well, one can ask for food or water if in need, of course. But in the normal course of events, one is expected to make the provider’s day a little better in thanks, and that is done by socializing with them. When you first reach the counter, you do not just slap down a cup or a plate. You chat first. Recount what new or exciting thing you saw today, or what you’re looking forward to, or what interests you in life. Did you recently take a trip to Russia? Lets talk about that! Are you working on a new song or story? Tell me! You’re a Burning Man virgin? How does it compare to what you were expecting? etc.

At Burning Man, no one is a part of an economic transfer process, simply there to facilitate the exchange of currency. Everyone is a person, a full human being, and the only way to acknowledge that and be present in the community is to treat them as a person rather than an economic unit. And that means creating a relationship, however fleeting. It means socializing with them.

A note – while this is beautiful and very fulfilling, it’s also inefficient. Imagine going to Starbucks and having to chat with your barista for four or five minutes each time you go. If there’s a line of four people in front of you, you’ll be there for twenty minutes before you even get to order. So… not workable if you have other things to do. While you’re in Burning Man, chat and art is why you are here, so it’s fine. Delightful, even. But for modern-day efficiency, dehumanization of human labor inputs seems necessary.

This also means there’s lines for most things at Burning Man. They aren’t too long, because there’s people giving away alcohol or other stuff EVERYWHERE. But they exist. Fortunately, the people standing next to you in line are just as interesting as the servers! Everywhere you go you’ll be striking up conversations with the people beside you in line. You’ll talk about gender, or their camp theme, or dozens of other things. You may share snacks or gifts. It will be a good time. This is not like the lines in the grocery store, or Disneyland, where people are silent and can’t wait to leave, and the waiting is awful and hateful. This is just another place to discover the coolness and intricacy of the human beings around you. Take advantage of it!

Sep 072017
 

For the most part I’m going to talk about my Burning Man experience in terms of themes, rather than enumerating the days. However I will start with the Arrival.

They tell you that Burning Man begins when you leave home, that the drive in is part of the experience. At the time that seemed a bit bullshitty to me, but there’s some truth to it, as I came to realize on my drive back home. I will say that the border area between Utah and Nevada doesn’t seem real. There is a long section that simply doesn’t change for miles and miles. It is a great salt-waste stretching to the horizon on all sides, bisected by the highway you’re on.

You drive and drive, and nothing outside your window changes. After five minutes you make some jokes with your carmates that you feel like you’re in a cheap cartoon that reuses stock background on a loop. Five minutes after that you comment how long this is. At 15 minutes you joke about a conveyor belt on the road under your wheels keeping you stationary. At 20 minutes with nothing changing you begin to silently worry that you’ve wandered into a section of the world that’s like those old video game areas that would simply repeat over and over if you kept walking in one direction, and the puzzle was to discover what series of movements would allow you to pass to the next area (I’m looking at you, NES Legend of Zelda forest maze!). At 25 minutes you begin to seriously worry that this is some sort of joke. This is absurd. This can’t be real, right? Nothing goes on forever.

Fortunately reality eventually reasserts itself and you can enter into Nevada.

 

Burning Man is what you make of it. I was told by someone a few days before leaving that it’s basically a giant sex and drugs party that lasts a full week. And if you want that, sure, that’s available. But there are so many things to see and do at Burning Man that you can have an amazing time no matter what you’re into. I spent much of my time visiting the many art installation.

To start with, there is a LOT of art at Burning Man. I suppose if you spent all your time just going to see all of it, you could probably see everything over the full week. But there are many things to do, so even if you spent most of your time visiting art, you are still almost assuredly NOT going to see all of it, so it’s a fool’s errand to try.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the art changes. An art piece seen the first day, while the area is relatively empty of people, looks very different from the same art piece seen a few days later when you bring a friend or date back there, because the presence of more people changes the art itself. This piece was waaaaaaaay out at the edge of Deep Playa. When I came to it the first day, it was basically abandoned. It felt like finding a random encounter in the middle of a Fallout game. The isolation was part of the experience. When I returned several days later and a dozen+ people were also there, it changed the feel of the piece.

The weather also shapes the art. A fresh piece looks different from a piece blasted after a dust storm. Many of the works are interactive, and will change based on what people are doing, or have done. The Temple of Gravity (left) looks one way as you’re walking up to these 7-ton slabs of granite, and seeing them swaying slightly in the breeze. As Edward said, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing so much potential energy suspended before you. It’s still powerful while it supports all the little humans crawling over it. yet it changes subtly when people are leaping from stone to stone, or lying directly beneath them, looking up.

Almost every piece changes at night. Fire or light is a major component of many of them. The Tree of Tenere is a vibrant, green point of life in the day, but at night it comes alive. The leaves shine, cycling through colors. Even more variation comes from the fact that the leaves’ colors change in glorious sweeps that matches nearby music. If you come when a performer is playing The Rite of Spring it looks very different from when a nearby Sound Car is blasting The Wubs.

All of this is very much part of the temporal, fleeting philosophy of Burning Man. Don’t try to do everything and experience everything, because many of the experiences depend on serendipity. On being at the right place at the right time, and they won’t repeat. You’ll miss great things, and hear about them from others. But you’ll also get lucky sometimes, and come by at just the right time. I came across The Messenger (no pic), an iron-cast statue of a burning angel. There’s a gash through it’s chest, and when I came to it someone was working a pyrotechnics shift. The gash was filled with flame, and I was told this was an interactive piece. Slips of paper and pencils are provided, as well as tongs. One can write a message and lift it into the flame, to be consumed by The Messenger.

It was my alone night, and I had been thinking a lot about my exwife that night. The whole trip, to be honest. I realized during my trip that I wasn’t over my ex, or my divorce, at all. I’d been burying a lot, but it was still there. I realized this because at every turn I kept thinking “Melissa should be here.” She would love this. This is exactly her scene.

And she could have been there. If only she’d valued our continued friendship more then a few tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe she didn’t want my friendship anymore. Maybe that was an easy choice for her. I hope she’s OK with her choice. I still have a hard time with it.

I wrote her a message and consigned it to the flames.

Sep 062017
 

A friend discovered I had scored tickets to Burning Man the day before I left, and commented appreciatively on my good fortune by saying “Lucky!” They then quickly modified that to “not lucky, he actually probably worked hard for that shit.”

Which, ya know, is appreciated. It’s a pretty common sentiment nowadays, and I like it. But it downplays the importance of creating luck in your life, which I think is pretty important. As Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” And creating luck can take a lot of work.

My getting the ticket was very lucky. “Edward” had recently started listening to the HPMoR podcast, and happened to be binging on it while driving cross country. He was going through Denver, so he emailed me to ask if I’d like to grab dinner while he was there. I said sure, and we hit it off quite well. A couple months later he found himself with an extra ticket, and all the mutual friends him and his SO had asked to attended either couldn’t make it or weren’t interested. They said “Hey, that Eneasz guy seemed pretty cool, lets invite him.” Being between jobs, I was in a perfect position to accept, and I jumped on that.

So basically – tons of luck. Yet a lot of work went into creating those conditions. The podcast was over 1000 hours of labor across 4.5 years. I have my real name, city I live in, and email address all publicly available, and I agreed to meet a stranger. Socializing is energy-consuming for me, and the process of getting enough social skills to actually be likable has been a 10-year-long project itself.

And of the work listed, none of it was goal-oriented tasks. I didn’t decide I wanted to go to Burning Man, and then pursued a rational strategy to accomplish that. So stumbling into a ticket was luck. But each decision along the way helped to build a structure that is conducive to luck. I put out a podcast into the world because I wanted it to exist, which created many opportunities for people to find out about me. I said Yes to things that could be unpleasant, on the chance that they might be interesting. I got better at interfacing with others, which allowed me to form more productive connections.

Notice also that I couldn’t have done this alone – much of the work was on Edward’s side. He remembered where I lived as he drove across the country. He looked up my email address while on the road. He reached out, risking an unpleasant evening with a stranger, on the chance I might be interesting. He has also put effort into social skills. He took a chance that someone he barely knew wouldn’t be awful to camp with for eight days in the desert.

There is much luck that is just plain random. I’m lucky to have been born a white male in a time and location where white men are held in high esteem. I’m lucky to be reasonably tall and healthy. But lots of other luck is a direct result of effort by people to keep their lives as lucky as possible.

To maximize luck, I would strongly recommend the following:

A. Do things for others. ESPECIALLY things that interest you, or that you already like. I love HPMoR. Making the podcast wasn’t a chore. I enjoy cleaning. When a friend is recovering from surgery, I sometimes go help them clean their house. It’s ridiculous the amount of goodwill you receive for a few hours of socialization and doing a small chore that you already kinda enjoy. I actually feel guilty about it. Do you play an instrument? Do that for people for free, sometimes. Any skill you have can be shared.

B. Say Yes often. Be open to new experiences. Embrace the unusual or uncomfortable. Yes, we all have our limits, so don’t exceed them. Remember to say no sometimes, to rest, or when you don’t feel safe. But make it a habit to say Yes unless you have a compelling reason not to, as opposed to the other way around.

C. Stay sociable. You don’t have to be a charming socialite! Just be a Hufflepuff. (Hufflepuffs are great finders because they’re so damn lucky. :) ) You don’t even have to go to parties, often one-on-one dinners/events are better. But you do have to reach out to humans. The root of luck is other people. To cut away vast swaths of people is akin to cutting away all your chances for luck.

These things together create a lot of opportunities for coincidence, and every now and then one of them will snag something. And you think “Holy shit, that was really lucky!” And it was. But you created the edifice that made that luck possible. Stay open. Stay excited. Keep doing neat stuff without expectations, and you’ll be surprised what you can stumble into.

 

I had planned to write this post before I left for Burning Man, but I ran out of time, which is why it’s being posted now. However I do have an addendum, now that I’m back. Burning Man is an INCREDIBLY lucky place. It is possible that it is The Luckiest Place on Earth, and I say that without exaggeration.

This is not an accident. The entire event is designed to maximize every factor that leads to luck. The openness there is off the scale. Everything is given freely, and people are constantly doing things for others without expectation of reciprocation or reward. Everyone is incredibly open to everything, all the time. Part of the ethos is to go and try and do anything that strikes your fancy. People will not shut you down, or judge you. Generally they encourage you. Everyone is constantly happy to meet everyone else and speak with them in very friendly terms. All of this leads to a non-stop constant explosion of luck everywhere you turn. It’s fascinating.

Since this blog is kinda a personal diary anyway, over the next several days I plan to write about my Burning Man experience in a greater level of detail. Spoiler alert – I think everyone should go to at least one Burning Man event in their lifetime, it’s a very strange and unique experience. You don’t even have to have crazy sex or do any drugs! I didn’t!

Aug 182017
 

In Durham, crowds stood in line to turn themselves in for the crime of tearing down a Confederate statue.

This is fantastic. This is an entire community coming out to show they are united and willing to accept whatever punishment the law has to hand down for an act they viewed as necessary. I admire the living hell out of everyone who did this. THIS is how to protest!

This is the kind of arrest warrant you proudly hang on your wall for your entire life. Maybe even put on your resume.

 

I haven’t posted much about this week before today, because I was at a loss of things to say. Neo-nazis and white supremacists follow a vile ideology. Anyone committing acts of terror is horrific and disgusting, and every person injured and every person killed is an inexcusable atrocity. There were no words.

But I was told not too long ago that its important to sometimes publicly denounce the evil, even when it is blindingly obvious as evil. People who only know me from my online presence may not know my actual political beliefs, and so if they only see posts defending freedom of speech they may think I’m a secret alt-righter or something. So, I endorse and throw my heart behind the words of Argumate, who succinctly said:

exactly how much of a dickhead would you have to be to decide that the best way to boost white ethnic pride in the public sphere is to tie it to Nazis, the one group that every non-dickhead agrees were total fuckups.

can there be anything more antithetical to the supposed virtues of western civilization than this ignorant mishmash of the worst traditionalist buffoonery combined with the stupidest excesses of modernity into a giant shit sandwich of tedious fuckery that shoots its own dick off every time as a warning to others?

the punishment for this vile mediocrity should involve being tied to a chair in front of a simulated Samuel L. Jackson screaming “you dense motherfucker!” on loop for 19 hours until you internalise it and rethink your life.

to be a Nazi in 2k17 is to be so far up your own arse that your internal topology begins to resemble a klein bottle.

it is to be a failure in every possible way: morally, intellectually, strategically, tactically, aesthetically, historically.

if life was a video game then you fucked up on the first level, the tutorial that no one ever fucks up on, because no one else is dumb enough to be a Nazi; you’re the speedrun of failures.

the shitheads and the fucksticks of the world can look at your stupid face and say hey at least I’m not a fuckin’ Nazi, like this stupid wanker, and they’ll be right.

This goes for traitors and slavers as well. Tear down every monument to Confederate generals, rename every street, rededicated every building. No worship of inhumanity.
(no vigilantism though. Seriously, use due process, its far more powerful)

 

A Southern friend said:

The civil war isn’t my heritage. The traitor flag isn’t a banner that represents me, nor should it.

It’s a mark of shame. We shouldn’t tear the monuments down, we should move them to a museum to remind us of our collective shame as a nation.

The south has many more amazing traditions than slavery.

The south has much more to offer than monuments to war criminals.

And this friend later pointed out that most of these monuments were not erected after the US Civil War. They were put up significantly later, often funded by the KKK and other white supremacist groups, in order to protest anti-segregation laws and the civil rights movement.

Argumate later says:

despite all the punching discourse, my preferred way to deal with Nazi rallies in public spaces is still to outnumber them ten to one by peaceful locals who keep chanting “Nazis go home” until the Nazis do indeed go home.

this forms a highly visible demonstration to everyone involved that they have no base of support, and are just a bunch of whackjobs who can’t claim to represent the interests of the broader community.

good policing keeps the Nazis separated from the much larger crowd, which prevents any violent clashes between hotheads and reinforces the impression of them as a coddled bunch of morons incapable of defending themselves either physically or rhetorically.

this is actually a really withering experience to go through! once surrounded by crowd and cops they have ceded the initiative and are essentially at the mercy of the community which despises them, a community made up of people of all ages and all walks of life, secure in their safety of numbers.

it plays beautifully live and on TV, it respects the rule of law while still conveying a very clear message, and it makes it impossible for any politicians to waffle about “both sides” of the dispute.

the absolute worst approach is to have two similarly sized groups of hotheads engaged in shoving matches that allows people to “condemn the violence” and visually suggests that 90% of the community doesn’t have a stake in the fight.

 

And by god, it’s working! Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the US. Trump, after refusing to denounce the racists, has lost two of his business advisory committees, his arts & humanities committee, and a number of businesses are removing themselves from his hotels and properties. Basically every Republican lawmaker is distancing themselves from him, and even Steve Bannon has quit. It’s a backlash like I haven’t seen in decades.

Of course, someone had to die to accomplish this. I hate that. I hate that we never seem to get anything done unless there’s an altar of bodies laying the foundation. It’s a bug that really needs to be removed from our code. But it does demonstrate what I’ve been trying to say to the antifa and other violent extremists — The way to get the bulk of the US populace behind you is to act peacefully and then have your opponents violently attack you. By driving his car into a group of peaceful protesters, that evil, disgusting excuse for a human managed to set off a political firestorm that’s reducing what was seen as a pro-Trump surge after the election to ashes.

 

I’m sad someone died. I would never trade a life for statues. But I’m glad to see how the country has responded. I feel enlivened and rejuvenated by this outpouring of human decency. I’m glad the monuments to terror and atrocity are finally being torn down. Good riddance. Let the white supremacists skitter back to their hateful little holes and websites as the world moves on without them.

Jul 292017
 

(epistemic status: brain dump)

It’s weird when you see something working the way it was intended to for the first time, and things click.

In my post, Marriage is a Hostile Act, I took exception with the fact that there exists in the US a standard contract that one is encouraged to sign which literally takes away a large percentage of your personhood. This is very much against everything I know of the spirit of the liberal ideal. Contracts which remove personhood are generally considered unconscionable and illegal. You cannot sell yourself into slavery, nor into indentured servitude. There are exceptions, but they are not entered into lightly and generally come with a lot of oversight.

I’ve come to realize lately that I never really understood what marriage is supposed to be about to a large part of the populace.

For most of my childhood, my family lived as exiles. We could have no contact with anyone back in the home country, as that was both nearly impossible practically, and would endanger my parents’ family members. I had no uncles/grandparents/in-laws/cousins/etc to model normal family life. My only real-life model was my parents marriage which, with all due respect to my parents, was massively dysfunctional.

My fall-back models were Hollywood/Disney. Which is basically the porn equivalent of marriage. As far as I could tell, marriage is what you did with someone that you had developed a strong emotional bond with. And I develop emotional bonds pretty easily.

This seemed reasonable, in fact. Friends live together all the time. Sometimes they have sex. It makes sense that they get a few legal protections to help each other out. That shit’s important when you’re incapacitated, and it’s good to have someone watching your back. If, over time, you drift apart or move on to the next phase of your life, you just dissolve the marriage and keep in touch.

Recently I read that the difference between economic and social ties is that social ties are longer term. (I don’t recall where, but probably at Samzdat?) In any economic transaction, it must be fair immediately, or nearly so. AND verifiable. I give you X for Y, and we’re both better off. In social transactions, one trusts they’ll even out in the long term. I see the dishes are scattered across the counter, so I put them away and turn on the dishwasher. I don’t expect anything in return, because I believe that when you (my partner) find yourself in a similar situation you will do the same for me. It’s a beautiful sort of acausal trade among instances of ourselves that we cannot verify, because we aren’t there, but we have faith they’re being executed because we know each other’s character.

You can’t have trade like that with strangers. (It’s probably one of the reasons that working for a corporation feels so empty and meaningless.) Acausal among humans trade takes bonds of family or deep brotherhood. The trust it both requires and engenders allows for all sorts of efficiencies that can’t be created otherwise. This is why throughout most of history the basic economic unit was the family.

There’s massive personal benefit beyond the efficiencies of trade as well. There’s immense psychological safety in knowing that even if everything I’m doing falls apart, I still have a home and a place. They will help me for the months or years it takes to get going again, because they love me, and they know I’d do the same for them.

And I guess marriage-relationships are like that, taken up to eleven. Back in the day there was a semi-tongue-in-cheek way to say “I love you” that ran something along the lines of “My utility function contains a term for the fulfillment of your utility function.” I think marriage is supposed to go beyond that though. The two utility functions are supposed to be merged and mangled to a point where its hard to distinguish them any more. It’s not just a commitment. It’s partially becoming the other person. It’s thinking of them instinctively in all situations. It’s not something that can be done in the course of a few weeks or months, and certainly not something that can be shown in a stupid 100-minute film.

And of course, after such a meshing of utility functions, one could never, EVER be replaced. It would be unthinkable. It would be like ripping out a limb and several organs. It’s not something you do unless the limb’s become gangrenous and it’s the only way to save someone’s life. Even then, the person will be diminished and lesser for a long time afterwards.

(Perhaps ironically, the first (and as far as I can recall, only) time I’ve seen this sort of thing modeled, it has been with a multiple-relationship polyamorous family, not a mono couple.)

This sort of thing is hardcore. And when it’s made official, it should be a big deal. It should be a long, elaborate magical ritual that taps into a culture’s mythology and the participant’s wibbly mystical instincts. It should require sacrifice of some sort. Maybe if the religion I’d been raised in had something like this it would’ve helped me “get it.” As it was, I was in an upstart sect less than a century old, there was nothing particularly interesting about the few weddings I attended.

The government, certainly, should have never gotten involved. Perhaps this was a tactic to grab power from the church. Perhaps it was an attempt to make marriages legible to the state. As usual, it fucked things up. Reducing a social ritual to an economic contract broke the core of what the ritual was about in the first place. When marriage means going to the DMV, signing a single-page contract, and paying a $15 fee, well, you don’t expect it to come with the same sorts of entanglements.

I don’t know if I’m OK with ever getting that deeply enmeshed with anyone. The closest I’ve come is a sort of hetro-life-partnership with a deep friend. I’m starting to trust my parents to this degree, though. So I guess I’m coming closer.

The marriage thing probably isn’t that big of a deal if both participants of a marriage are expecting the same thing. But if one party is expecting “Friends who care for each other, but remain separate people” and the other is expecting “life long soul-enmeshment,” and they fail to communicate properly, and then find out their partner expected the opposite of what they thought they were getting… Well. That can be a very hurtful shock.

Jul 172017
 

The Welcome To Night Vale live show came to Denver yesterday. It was great fun, I loved it! And one of the best things about it is that everyone in the audience is the sort of person you want to know. There’s a very strong “these are my peeps!” feel there. :)

The show, as usual, involves a bit of audience participation. A friend sitting by me didn’t participate very much, for which I teased them a little right afterwards (the participation makes it so much more fun!!). They responded that they don’t participate in ritual lightly, and weren’t comfortable joining in this one. My initial reaction was “lol, audience participation isn’t ritual,” but after about ten seconds of reflection I realized “Oh yeah… it kinda is.”

Which got me to thinking.

Rationalists are aware of the power and importance of ritual, and there are ongoing attempts to harness that power. They meet with various levels of success, depending on group and area. In Denver they haven’t taken hold. A fair number of us here are rather allergic to the trappings of religion. Personally I have no problem with anyone else doing it, but to me it feels forced and hokey. Like putting on your parents’ clothes as a kid and pretending to be adults. Religious ritual works because the participants think it really does tap into a higher power. Mimicking the form without believing in the substance feels… uncomfortably silly.

A different friend has recently asked if Universities could take the place of Churches in the secular community (after reading the excellent “Man As A Rationalist Animal” post by Lou Keep). I think that if they could have, they would have by now. They’re halfway there. They have the instinctive respect of the populace, the arcane credentialing and clergy, and of course the miracles. But they’re missing the interface with the common man–the language of ritual and community.

Welcome To Night Vale has that. WtNV is the start of a church for the modern urban/suburban areligious person. It tackles the fundamental question that plagues the educated proletariat–the meaninglessness of existence in a post-community capitalist society, where everyone is interchangeable and replaceable. And it answers it not with speeches or therapy or advise… it answers it by giving us a mirror made of myths. Modern myths, spun just weeks ago.

The podcast creates the foundation of myth that informs the spiritual layer of all its listeners. On its own it doesn’t do much. It is interesting art, of varying quality, that can sometimes touch deep emotions. The true power of WtNV comes about in its live shows. Here they take the common base of myth that the audience shares and they do something wonderful with it. They transform it into ritual. They bind the audience together, guiding their emotions down the tracks of a mythical story, until it resolves in a catharsis and an instruction (“be good to each other”) that means something.

But VERY importantly – it does it tongue-in-cheek. It is funny, self-referential, and irreverent. Because that is what it means to be areligious in a world that doesn’t need you. Taking things seriously simply does not work. Life is a farce, and we all know it. So the absurdity is played up. We are here to have fun. To make jokes and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about how stupid all this is. And when the merriment is high enough we can all join hands are jokingly chant to a story book character, because in it’s fun to do so in the spirit of the story. And if, along the way, we manage to say something deeper and more important, and feel uplifted at the end, well, so much the better. We came for the lols, and we left having touched something within that united us all for a few hours.

It only worked because no one comes SEEKING a deep experience at WtNV. We came for fun, and the masterful story led to something deeper. It’s like dating–if you’re seeking a relationship, it is apparent, and it doesn’t work. It’s only when you’re just dating around for the pleasure of an evening with interesting company that you are in a state where a relationship can begin.

This is what Rationalist Rituals get wrong. They are trying for deep experience and wonder, like we had in our childhood when our parents took us to church. That is not available via the same route of reverence and worship that the religious rituals used. The mindset of one who doesn’t instinctively revere the greater power being channeled is inimical to that sort of ritual. The ritual of the educated areligious must start in a different place. Our priests are comedians as well. Our religion must laugh first, or be rejected by our immune system.

Someday a Welcome To Night Vale community theater will form at a university. A group of fans have a lot of fun reenacting favorite WtNV episodes, and form strong bonds, and the university institution will lend them support and prestige in other aspects of life. And maybe, a couple generations down the line, their children will have a fully-formed religious life tailored for the concerns of an early 21st century proletariat, which fulfills their emotional needs with myth and community, while slowly becoming less relevant as the centuries grind on. And it’ll all have started with people needing to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing happening in the first place.

Until that happens, check out the live Welcome To Night Vale show “All Hail,” even if you aren’t a listener of the podcast. It’s good, and it’s instructive. Likely even if you don’t listen to the podcast.

Jul 112017
 

Guys, guess what?? I have made a thing (again)! A small collection of my published stories is available for purchase!

You can get Red Legacy and Other Stories as a printed book at Amazon, or as an ebook at all the major ebook sellers (including Amazon and B&N, of course). You can read most of the stories in it free here, so you can decide up front if my fiction is the kind that you enjoy. If you do, and you think the enjoyment was worth a few dollars, buying a copy would help me. And buying it comes with a bonus — the collection includes “Host,” my latest story which is otherwise only available in the March/April issue of Analog magazine.

If you can’t buy a copy, but you’ve read or listened to most/all of the stories before, leaving a review also helps a ton. :)

Jun 282017
 

Should include sub-checkbox “Have You Been Harmed By This? Yes/No”

A friend recently came across a tick-box in a scholarship application asking if he was gender nonconforming.

An interesting question for him. Because in many ways he is gender-conforming, and in many ways he isn’t. I won’t get into the details, but it was definitely up in the air, which is why he asked for help as to whether he should tick the box or not. It was pointed out that he is literally gender nonconforming, in the sense that he does what he likes and doesn’t conform to gender expectations. It was also pointed out that the doesn’t actively identify as “A Gender Nonconforming Person”, which is what the question really wanted to know.

Except the question wasn’t really even asking that. The hidden question, what the scholarship reviewers really want to know, is “Do you suffer the societal penalties that nonbinary people do, and should we help offset that with this money?”

The question “Do you suffer the societal penalties that nonbinary people do” is subjective. I wish these sorts of surveys would just ASK THAT QUESTION. Because whether you suffer social penalties depends hugely on your society. There are places where being extremely non-conforming doesn’t get you any penalties at all, and there’s other places where simply not being manly enough will get you massive penalties. Yeah, you gotta trust the person to answer honestly, but at least then we’re all clear on what the purpose of the question is. This way we’re just asking people to be honest, as opposed to asking them to guess at the hidden intentions of the question.

I hate the way these questions are currently phrased, as they discriminate against people who only use words as descriptors. A friend said: “I think the correct thing would have been to check the box so as not to participate in the disprivileging of people like yourself who want to use words to refer to underlying features of reality.”

I mean, we literally had to form a committee to figure out what the question was asking and how to answer it. I don’t feel like this is one of those situations where plausible deniability of misunderstanding needs to be preserved for face-saving. The True Question should be made explicit.

I am white, well-assimilated, and raised in the US. I was born in Poland, and my parents escaped when I was an infant, with a suitcase of clothing and aprox 2 months wages in currency. When I am asked on these sorts of forms if I am an immigrant, I check yes. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at me. Now I have to wonder “Do they literally mean Are You An Immigrant? Or do they mean Have You Been Harmed By Not Being A Native Citizen?”

And how do I even answer? I don’t think it’s harmed me in my adult life. I had a funny accent as a kid, and got picked on for that. I had no extended family as a support network. My parents struggled with English as their second language — did these things deprive me of opportunities I would have otherwise had? Why am I second-guessing a question with a factual, easily-verifiable Yes/No answer?

Likewise, I am part of one of the most hated religious minorities in America. Up until 2016 I was the most-hated religious minority in my country. It’s only in the last year that Muslims have surpassed Atheists in unpopularity.  And the advantages of belonging to a religion are well known, and I’m deprived of those. Yet I live in a liberal metropolitan area where people normally don’t talk about their religion, and try very hard not to discriminate. I don’t think that’s ever been used against me when renting or seeking a job. I suspect there are people out there who would object to my identifying as a religious minority.

From now on I’ll try to get clarification when answering these sorts of questions. But when that’s not possible, I will generally default to “answer the question factually.” I hate being forced to answer a question with a falsehood because someone can’t be bothered to actually ask what they want to know.

(In the end, the friend did not tick the “gender nonconforming” box)

Jun 162017
 

I.

As a teenager in the 90s, I spent a lot of time arguing with religious folk. Mainly about atheism and gay rights, as both were very near to my heart. I noticed an astounding trend. Many Christians considered themselves deeply persecuted.

Christians make up a large majority of the population (of the USA). They control every branch of government. At the time there were no openly atheist elected federal officials. To this day all candidates for president still have to swear fealty to some form of christian god. Christians have added “under god” to the loyalty pledge all children are forced to recite in school, and added it to our currency. There are myriad special exceptions written into laws, giving special protection and privileges to christian sensibilities and christian organizations. The claim that they were a persecuted minority was (and is) laughable. The persecuted mindset and psychology that I saw on so many occasions was crazy-making! How is this level of blindness to the real world even possible? They would use “we’re being oppressed” as reasons to defend oppression of other religions!

My own church was one of these. Regularly (on a weekly basis) sermons in church would highlight how oppressed we were. Nazi persecution–from 50 years ago, in a country on the other side of the word–was regularly mentioned. The fact that courts would often force minors to accept life-saving blood transfusions against the wishes of their parents was also frequently brought up. And, of course, there was the constant micro-aggression of being subjected to a state that requested loyalty pledges and military service of a sect that believed both are immoral. If a Jehovah’s Witness missionary was every harmed in a foreign country, every Witness across the world would know about it in a matter of weeks, as further evidence of Satan working against us.

And it turns out, this is a very important part of many Christian sects. The 1st/2nd century christians did endure a fair bit of political persecution (depending on time and area). They developed strong survival memes that directly tied persecution to righteousness. The more persecuted you are, the more it means you are doing good, and God loves you. Satan rules this world, and the more the world is against you, the more Satan must feel threatened by you. Persecution was a direct indicator of moral goodness, and that helped the religion survive under adversity.

Of course that creates a problem when your religion becomes the official religion of the empire and establishes regional hegemony. The Catholics dealt with that pretty handily over time. But the American Protestants rejected all Catholic adaptations and reverted to a mythologized “Original Christianity.” Many of those included persecution myths. So feeling persecuted was very important. If the only way you can tell that you are on the Side of Good is to be persecuted, it becomes very important to see persecution everywhere, and exaggerate it.

(note: I believe that this persecution complex has a number of very important benefits. Primarily – it causes much of American society to strongly identify with and work to defend persecuted and oppressed groups. As far as I know, all non-violent civil rights struggles have taken advantage of this aspect of American culture. Apparently, the most effective thing a social movement can do is hold nonviolent protests that then are violently attacked by their opponents (video). So being persecuted, in addition to being morally satisfying, is also politically useful.)

II.

As we know, Identity Is What It Means To Be Human. So once someone has adopted an identity that includes “Is Persecuted,” it’s important to keep that feeling. In the case of Christians, this can be accomplished by going to church and/or watching Fox News. More marginalized groups have a problem – they have not yet developed a system that assures them they are persecuted. This generally isn’t much of a problem, because there are plenty of places in our society where belonging to one of these marginalized groups still results in negative consequences and hardship.

But the wonderful thing about or society is, we have actually made progress over the last century! All the work and tears of the past decades have not been in vain. :) There are some places in our country where groups that were oppressed, sometimes violently, even fifteen years ago, are now welcoming, safe areas. Places were one would have to intentionally go forth and seek out oppression if one wanted to feel it. This is further exacerbated by how easy it is nowadays to create social bubbles, excluding all the toxic awful people from you life, and surrounding yourself only with those who are supportive and caring. This is, generally, a fantastic thing! We have advanced, and many lives are less miserable because of it. :)

But the need for persecution doesn’t go away. Being Persecuted gives one a direction in life, a goal. It gives one adversity to overcome, and an intense form of bonding with others who are similarly persecuted. It gives you a family, and mortal certitude. Reaching your goal is nice, but it is no replacement for those extremely psychologically-important things. What does one do when one finds oneself without an oppressor, while having a deeply instilled “Is Persecuted” aspect to one’s very identity?

I suppose one could shift one’s goals to now help those in areas that are less advanced. To reach out into the dens of violence and iniquity, and give aid to one’s brothers and sisters still undergoing pain and hatred. But this is hard. I don’t mean that as an insult – the freedom to spend a lot of time and money on going to a foreign place (even if it’s just into the rural areas of one’s own country) is something only a privileged few have. It requires a career that is flexible and doesn’t require you to be on-site 40 hours a week. It requires energy reserves after the daily work of job and children and family commitments is complete. It’s often out of reach for those who aren’t independently wealthy.

(plus it risks being called-out for acting like a “white savior” or “colonizer” or something. Trying to help oppressed people in another culture is explicitly judging that culture as needing improvement in ways you deem important, which is “problematic”)

There is another “solution.” Deliberate assholery.

Text reads: The A in LGBTQA does not stand for allies; and the IA in LGBTQIA does not stand for including allies; not everything gets to be about you, cishet people. 

Instructions from meme poster say: Fun exercise: Be an enormous asshole to every self-proclaimed “ally” you meet to find out who’s actually an ally and who’s just here so you’ll go shopping with them.

I share this meme in particular, because it was shared by a friend who I otherwise greatly respect. This is literally a troll meme. The instructions give it away. Because, seeing as there’s no official body that decides what the letters “officially” stand for, the part about the letters doesn’t matter all that much. The real point is to spark reactions. When I see a meme instructing people to “be an enormous asshole”, it tells me a lot about the person who made the meme and the state of their peer-group. Far more than any sort of spat over what a letter stands for.

They want to be persecuted. They are not sufficiently persecuted. So they are intentionally alienating those around them in an effort to regain that original sense of persecution.

This, to me, explains a lot of why the far left is eating it’s own. Why college campuses, the most left-leaning, pro-diversity, and safe places in our society, are also the scenes of fringe-left meltdowns that scream about persecution and the intolerance of the faculty. Why white-male and cis-het are now slurs, despite the prevalence of both both within the wider liberal community, and as supporters of the community. Too much acceptance is intolerable. If too many people find us acceptable, by golly, we’ll drive them away.

III.

It’s claimed that someone who is only an ally when people are nice to them was never an ally at all. In a very real sense, this is true. Just yesterday I bemoaned the people who are only for freedom of speech when it’s their own speech, and are happy to censor those they don’t like. They obviously never cared for the principle of free speech.

On the other hand, I think it’s just plain disgusting to deliberately attack and insult people to test their ideological purity. No one has to prove their “geek cred” to self-appointed guardians of geek culture, or their “trans cred” to someone claiming they aren’t trans enough. And often the same people who say “I don’t care about principles, I care about consequences” when it comes to violently suppressing hate speech, are those who say “Allies should support us on principle, regardless of how they’re treated.” I detest people who hide behind principle when it suits them, and abandon it when it doesn’t. I get the feeling I’m not the only one. While I’ll never withdraw support for LGBT+ rights, I think spreading this sort of troll meme is a stupid idea.

There are couples in Texas being denied adoptions right now. There a children being subject to “gay-converston” therapy. – HB 3859 was just signed into law.

“HB 3859, which will allow child welfare organizations — including adoption and foster care agencies — to turn away qualified Texans seeking to care for a child in need, including LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection.
It also can be used to harm children in care; HB 3859 will forbid the state from canceling a state contract with an agency that subjected children in their care to dangerous practices such as so-called “conversion therapy.””

Gay couples and gay kids in Texas could use aid. They don’t particularly care that some edgelord isn’t feeling persecuted enough.