WLAMF 2018 #2: On Being Alone in the Universe

I have written before on a couple of occasions about the Fermi paradox. To recap, the idea is: if life is plentiful throughout the universe and there are many sapient, industrial species, where is the evidence? The sky should be filled with radio waves and other telltale evidence.

Not necessarily because they’re trying to talk to us, but because a civilization that develops tools and high technology will eventually discover radio, and radio is massively useful. We are broadcasting our existence to the universe right now–not from an attempt to be chatty with any extraterrestrial neighbors, but simply by virtue of the fact that we broadcast all kinds of noise just by virtue of being a technological species.

There are three common answers to the Fermi Paradox, which can be summed up as:

1. We’re first.
2. We’re rare.
3. We’re fucked.

The “we’re first” and “we’re rare” answers suggest we don’t see the evidence of technological civilizations filling the skies because technological civilizations are very, very thin on the ground in the cosmos…err, that’s a jumbled metaphor, but you get what I mean.

Life may be common, but technological life might not. And there could be things–Great Filters, they’re called–that aren’t necessarily obvious to us, but that conspire to keep technological life rare.

Maybe it’s the distribution of planets in a solar system. People who believe life is common like to point to the fact that we are an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy–one of quadrillions in the observable universe.

But it turns out that while our star is unremarkable, our solar system is very weird indeed, and we still don’t know why. The other solar systems we’ve discovered so far tend to have planets all of about the same size. Ours decidedly does not. Our planet is really very small indeed, it seems.

So whatever caused our solar system to be so weird might be a Great Filter. It may be that it’s hard to get sapient life that uses technology and builds cities on a huge planet or a gas giant.

So that might be a Great Filter.

The third solution, “we’re fucked,” proposes that there is a great filter, but it’s ahead of us, not behind us. This solution suggests that the things a new sapient species needs to survive when it’s young–things like aggressiveness, tribalism, xenophobia, aggression, and violence–work against that species when it reaches the point of globe-spanning civilizations. The reason we don’t see the skies filled with traces of advanced sapient species is advanced sapient species tend to destroy themselves, simply by virtue of the fact that the traits they need to survive when they’re young inevitably act against survival when they’re mature.

Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Let’s talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.


The James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch next year. When it does, one of its primary missions is to examine the atmosphere of known exoplanets, looking for traces of oxygen.

Oxygen in the air is rather a big deal. Planets don’t have free oxygen without life. This planet started out with a reducing atmosphere, not an oxygenating one. It didn’t get oxygen in the air until the advent of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis.

Oxygenic photosynthesis is a complex, fiddly process that may have evolved only once. When it did, everything changed. Oxygen is poison to anaerobic life. The coming of cyanobacteria started the Great Oxygen Catastrophe–that’s actually what it’s called–that wiped out almost every species on earth. And paved the way for us.

Oxygen might be necessary for sapience, simply because cellular metabolism in the absence of oxygen is necessarily limited and sluggish. Active metabolisms require oxygen, at least so far as we can tell.

And brains require highly active metabolisms indeed. Information processing is horrendously energy-intensive. Your brain consumes a substantial fraction of your body’s total energy capacity. No Oxygen Catastrophe probably means no animals with central nervous systems and almost certainly means no sapience.

Oxygen can’t stay put. It’s too reactive. If every photosynthetic organism died, our atmosphere would return to non-oxygenating, as the oxygen in the air reacted and combined with things.

So if you see oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that means something’s continually putting it there. Like photosynthesis or some similar process. And that probably means life.


When James Webb is online, it will either see oxygen on exoplanets or it won’t.

If it doesn’t, that points to oxygenic photosynthesis as a rare innovation. Which means we might owe our existence to cyanobacteria, and that means at least one Great Filter is behind us.

It also means complex life with energetic metabolisms–animals–is probably incredibly rare in the universe.

On the other hand, if we see oxygen everywhere, that probably means that oxygenic photosynthesis is a common innovation, which suggests a universe not only teeming with life but possibly complex life.

It also means that at least one potential Great Filter behind us isn’t a Great Filter, which raises the odds of a Great Filter ahead of us.

I’m not sure which result I’m hoping for: a lonely universe with greater odds of our survival, or a teeming universe with lower.


For 12 hours today, my partner Eve and I are writing one blog post for every contribution we get to the crowdfunding campaign for our novel, Black Iron. We call it Write Like a Motherfucker. Want to make us dance? Send people to the campaign page! You can follow along via the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter, or in the Facebook event. For the origin of the #WLAMF hashtag, see my first WLAMF first post from 2014.

At long last, preorders for the new book are open!

Eve and I have finished our first novel, Black Iron.

No, it’s not a novel about polyamory. It’s part heist caper, part political intrigue, set in an alternate 1855 London in a world where Queen Victoria doesn’t exist, the Protestant Reformation didn’t happen, and the British don’t drink tea. (But there’s still a war in Afghanistan, because there’s always war in Afghanistan.)

We’re really excited about this book. To get a sense of what it’s like, think of Terry Pratchett had read too much George RR Martin as a child and you’ll have a general idea.

We’ve launched a Web site about it. We’re also really excited about the cover concept art by the phenomenally talented Julie Dillon.

And you can get an early copy, before it’s on the shelves! Just support our crowdfunding here. There’s all sorts of cool stuff you can get besides just the book!

An update to the Map of Non-Monogamy

Way, waaaaaay back in 2010, I created a Venn diagram (well, if you can still call something a Venn diagram when it has dozens of bits that intersect in some pretty mind-bending ways) of the variations of non-monogamy I’ve observed.

The Map of Non-Monogamy ended up all over the Internet. I’ve seen it in Fetlife, presented at academic lectures, and I know of at least one Masters thesis that includes it.

Now, after seven long years, I’ve finally done an update, significantly redesigning it and adding relationship anarchy and solo polyamory. Here, in all its glory, is the newly redesigned Map of Non-Monogamy. The preview here is teensy, so you can click on it to embiggen.

I’ve redesigned the new map as a (big!) 24×36-inch poster. So what say you, O Internet? If I spend a lot of money to have them printed (printing posters that big ain’t cheap!), would you buy one?

[edited to add] You can now pre-order the poster! It will ship in late January or early February. Preorders are $15 for one poster or $100 for ten. Pre-order a poster here!

Well, it looks like we did it again…

We wrote another book! Yep, you read that right. Eve and I have just finished another book…and no, it’s not about relationships.

This book is called Black Iron, and it’s a novel. No, not a poly novel. A novel set in 1855 in a world where the Protestant Reformation never happened, the British Empire doesn’t exist, the Colonies are still Colonies, and the British don’t drink tea.

But there’s still a war in Afghanistan. It turns out that there are some things you can change, when you’re building a new history, and some things you…well, can’t.

Oh, and it’s a comedy. Think Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, if they’d grown up on a steady diet of George RR Martin. (Yes, people die. This is the new normal for fiction. Get used to it.)

Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste:

Priorities, Thaddeus thought. Gold was nice. Life was better. Time to do what he did best.

He turned and bolted, feeling a swish of air as the dagger passed through the space he had just vacated. A moment later he was through the door and in the warren of tiny, confusing alleys that together made up the dock district of Old New London.

The sun was nearly gone. Sensible people were heading home, and people of Thaddeus’ sort were not yet out. Thaddeus chose a direction at random and plunged off as fast as he could, weaving through the crowd of laborers and merchants of the petty sort. Behind him, the door to the tiny shack, really little more than a pile of planks coaxed by a trick of the carpenter’s artifice into believing it was a storeroom, banged open.

Run now. Think later.

The dock district was a tangle of lanes and alleys, some of them little more than crevices between rows of warehouses. It hadn’t been built so much as thrown up. The engine of commerce was constantly arranging and rearranging the architecture, and many of the pathways seemed more like accidents of urban geography than anything intended to conduct traffic.

Thaddeus saw an opening between two buildings on his left, completely deserted. He darted through it and flattened himself against the wall. His pursuer flashed by the opening, a blurred shape in the failing light. Thaddeus exhaled slowly. That should buy him a few moments.

He crept carefully down the alley, cursing his shoes. The hard soles, so practical for walking down broad, well-paved streets, slapped on the rough cobblestone. Even a blind rat could follow him, Thaddeus thought.

The passageway opened up into a wider space, with alleys heading off in all directions. A young girl, perhaps in her tenth year, looked up at Thaddeus with an expression of suspicion. She was dressed entirely in rags.

“D’you have a shilling, mister?”

Thaddeus paused for a moment, panting. “No. I don’t have a shilling. I should have a lot of shillings, but I don’t. Listen, there’s a bad man chasing me. Which way should I go?”

She looked Thaddeus up and down appraisingly. “That’s a rum qab y’ got.”

“What?”

“I ken your qab.” She held out her hand. “Give it t’me.”

Thaddeus looked around wildly. He could hear feet pounding down the alley toward him. He took off his top-hat and handed it to the girl. “Which way do I go?”

She examined the hat with a critical air. Thaddeus felt his hands curl into fists.

“There,” she said, pointing. “That way.”

“Thank you, little girl. Don’t tell the bad man where I am, okay?”

She nodded.

Thaddeus ran down the alley she had pointed to as though all the legions of Hell were behind him. Not that there was much difference between that and one person hell-bent on murder behind him. Past a certain point, it stopped mattering how many people were trying to kill you.

The alley extended barely twenty yards before it ended in a rough brick wall. Thaddeus stopped. The girl had sent him down a dead end. Refuse-dumps lined both sides.

Behind him, he heard a voice, glutinous and sibilant. “Little girl, have you seen a man run this way?”

“Maybe,” she said. “D’you have a shilling?”

“Oh, yes. I have a shilling for you,” came that slithery voice.

There was a pause. Then, “He’s that way. Down Ambush Alley.”

Thaddeus felt his heart freeze in his chest. “Oh, you impudent little urchin,” he thought to himself. He flattened himself against the wall, as far in the corner as he could get. The refuse-dumps were almost empty and offered little cover. He crouched in the deepest part of the shadow, holding his breath.

A shadow loomed in the far end of the alley, a man-shaped hole in the fading light. He was nearly silent. It was easy, when you have the proper footwear. The knife gleamed in his hand.

Thaddeus held himself still. The shape glided closer. He willed himself to melt into the shadow.

Another step closer. Another. The man was cautious, wary of cornered prey. Closer.

Thaddeus exploded out at him. The man reacted almost instantly, the dagger thrusting up and out.

Fortunately, there is a world of difference between “almost instantly” and “instantly.”

They crashed into each other. The dagger flashed and gleamed. Thaddeus brought his foot up. The hard metal tip collided hard with a particularly sensitive portion of the man’s body.

The man fell, eerily silent. The dagger skittered across the cobblestones. Thaddeus leapt past him, heading back the way he had come.

The child was still standing where she had been. Thaddeus’ top-hat sat on her head, nearly covering her eyes. She looked solemnly at him. “D’you have a shilling now?” she asked.

We’ve launched a Web site where you can sign up for pre-order information. Check it out!

Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Great Unicorn Hunt

Greetings, new readers! Because this review is about a movie featuring polyamory, it’s attracted a lot of attention from folks who don’t usually read my blog.

I write a number of movie reviews in this style; the snark you see here isn’t reserved for this movie. You can see other examples here and here, or just click the Movie Reviews tag.

I am polyamorous. I am kinky. I have seen at least one Wonder Woman movie. Ergo, I am precisely the target demographic for the movie Fifty Shades of Professor Marston and the Great Wonder Unicorn Hunt Women, the movie that is taking Hollywood by storm as it zooms from first-run theaters to the dollar cinema faster than Starship Troopers 3.

I blinked, and so nearly missed the film in its theatrical release, but never fear! Vancouver has one of those theaters that sells beer and cut-rate tickets, with those chairs that make you sit with your knees in your nose and the floors that are always suspiciously sticky, so I was able to plunk down a few hard-earned Canadian dollars and experience the wonder for myself.

At least I think that’s what that feeling was. It might have been my kidney infection.

The movie goes something like this:

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Why are people burning my comic books?

OUTRAGEOUSLY STRAIGHTLACED WOMAN: It’s the 1940s. That’s what we do. Now, we want to ask you a bunch of leading and excessively moralistic questions about your comic book.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Very well, let me begin with a flashback.

He BEGINS with a FLASHBACK

PROFESSOR MARSTON: My new undergrad psychology student is hot.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is this is the 1930s, which means Harvard won’t give me a Ph.D. because I’m a woman. The good news is that this is the 1930s, which means there’s no such thing as an ethics review board, so if you want to sexually groom and then experiment on your undergrad student in really creepy ways that totally objectify her and violate her consent, that’s okay. Also, I have no concept of sexual jealousy.

The polyamorous people in the audience CHEER

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I also have no concept of consent.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Awesome! This will be fun. What is your name, hot undergrad student?

UNICORN: You may call me Unicorn. My mother and aunt are the best-known feminists of this decade. I was raised in a convent, so I am sexually naive and trusting. Plus, I just starred in Fifty Shades Darker, so I have a totally fucked perception of how consent is supposed to work. Also, it kinda makes me this film’s version of the Born Sexy Yesterday trope.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Excellent! Let’s begin, shall we?


WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS, AND POSSIBLY TRIGGERS AS WELL.
PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Unicorn, I see my husband has made you his new TA. That stands for…well, we’ll say it stands for “teaching assistant.” Not that other thing, because that would be objectifying, and shame on you for thinking it. Don’t fuck my husband. Also, he likes his coffee black.

UNICORN: Wait, what?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I am going to groom Unicorn so that she becomes my sexual plaything.

The audience LAUGHS

PROFESSOR MARSTON: No, seriously, I’m going to groom her, exactly the way sexual predators do. In fact, I’m even going to talk to my wife about grooming her, and outline on a blackboard my theories of dominance and submission in a dramatic closeup, just to drive the point home.

The audience LAUGHS

HUMBERT HUMBERT: I approve.

LOLITA: Shut the fuck up, you’re an unreliable narrator.

HUMBERT HUMBERT: This is an unreliable movie!

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Hey Unicorn, you’re in a sorority, right?

UNICORN: Yes.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Sneak me and my wife into the sorority building when you do those hazing things that you do with the pledges.

UNICORN: Dude! No! That’s creepy and fucked up! What is wrong with you?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: If you are going to be dedicated to the cause of science, you need to be willing to do whatever I say.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Clever.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Thank you! I got it from a cult leader.

UNICORN: Okay.

UNICORN sneaks PROFESSOR MARSTON and ELIZABETH MARSTON into the SORORITY HOUSE. They have a creepy, fucked up scene where UNICORN is forced to HUMILIATE and SPANK a SORORITY PLEDGE without her CONSENT. PROFESSOR MARSTON gets really INTO IT because non-consent is his THING, and starts jilling off ELIZABETH MARSTON while they watch a woman being NONCONSENSUALLY DEGRADED. There is a brief INTERMISSION so the audience can take a SHOWER

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Whew! That was totally hot. For a followup, let’s non-consensually humiliate Unicorn by asking her really personal and invasive questions, and gaslighting her whenever she tries to assert any boundaries.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: You want to fuck my husband.

Unicorn: I do not want to fuck your husband.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: You want to fuck me.

UNICORN: I do not want to fuck you.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Observe, she is exhibiting physiological changes associated with lying! We should use this information to build a lie detector machine which we will use in some really creepy, fucked-up, cringe-inducing scenes later in this film.

UNICORN: This…is kinda gaslighty.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Nonsense. That term won’t even exist for decades yet.

HUMBERT HUMBERT: I like this movie already.

UNICORN: You guys do know I’m engaged, right?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: It won’t last.

UNICORN: How do you know?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Your fiancé doesn’t get top billing in the movie credits. Plus his character bio on IMDb is blank.

EXPENDABLE FIANCÉ: Wait, what? I’m the only person in this entire movie who even raises the slightest hint of concern that some fucked-up shit is happening! I—

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I’m sorry, did you say something?

UNICORN: I want to go to grad school and become a journalist.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: A journalist! It’s so cute when you have ambitions. I’ll write a letter of recommendation for you! And then subtly fuck with your head to make you more dependent on my husband and me. In fact, let’s wire my husband up to a prototype lie-detector in a creepy, fucked-up, cringe-inducing scene where he fucks with your head by revealing his feelings for you!

They wire PROFESSOR MARSTON to a prototype LIE DETECTOR in a creepy, fucked-up, cringe-inducing SCENE

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Do you love me?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Yes.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Do you love Unicorn?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: No.

LIE DETECTOR: Beep bleep scribble scribble doo.

UNICORN: I’m feeling a little uncomfortable here, with both our personal and professional boundaries. At least, that’s what I would say if I had a healthy sense of boundaries, which I don’t, because I’m 22 years old and completely naive and I’m being groomed by sexual predators.

They wire UNICORN to a prototype LIE DETECTOR in a creepy, fucked-up, cringe-inducing SCENE

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Do you love me?

UNICORN: No.

LIE DETECTOR: Beep bleep scribble scribble doo.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Do you love my wife?

UNICORN: No.

LIE DETECTOR: Beep bleep scribble scribble doopy-doopy doo.

The audience LAUGHS, because her LIPS are saying NO but her BODY is saying YES, amirite?

UNICORN: Okay, this has really gone to a twisted place, and I’m not comfortable with the casual lack of any sort of boundaries here. At least, that’s what I would say if I had a healthy sense of boundaries, which I don’t, because remember? Naive and being taken advantage of by a couple of people twice my age who also just so happen to have the keys to my entire fucking academic future in their hands, in a society that doesn’t even consider women to be fully human, much less worthy of being listened to when their boundaries or consent are violated. Instead, I’m going to rush out dramatically so that Elizabeth can chase me and then some fucked-up shit can happen.

UNICORN rushes out of the ROOM, pursued by ELIZABETH. UNICORN is feeling VULNERABLE AND EXPOSED, so naturally they KISS

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Bom-chicka-wow-wow!

They have the most CRINGE-INDUCING NOT-REALLY-CONSENSUAL SEX SCENE since that one scene in the first BLADERUNNER

RACHEL: Hey, now! I am an artificially-constructed, synthetic organism specifically designed and built to be a slave. Don’t be bringing me into this! Even I think what’s going on here is fucked up.

ELIZABETH MARSTON and PROFESSOR MARSTON and UNICORN all walk through CAMPUS making LOVEY-DOVEY EYES at each other

EXPENDABLE FIANCÉ: Everyone knows what you’re doing. I’m breaking up with you.

The audience LAUGHS

EXPENDABLE FIANCÉ: Wait, what? How is that funny? I’m, like, the only person in this goddamn movie who even raises the slightest hint that my fiancée being sexually groomed by two people in a position of authority over her might in any slight way be kinda not okay, and—

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I’m so happy. We’re so happy. We’re all so happy together.

THE MARSTON FAMILY: Wait, what? Like, none of this happened. For starters, Professor Marston threatened to leave his wife if she didn’t let Unicorn move in with them. And another thing—

ANGELA ROBINSON: Did I ask you? I don’t recall asking you. I’m the director and this is my movie. If I say it happened, it happened.

THE MARSTON FAMILY: But—

ANGELA ROBINSON: Security!

PROFESSOR MARSTON: We just got fired.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Okay, we’re done. Unicorn, get out.

UNICORN: Wait, what?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Haven’t you seen the official polyamory couple looking for a third flowchart? It’s the rule. As soon as the unicorn becomes the slightest bit inconvenient, the couple re-assert their primacy and kick her out. You knew when you signed up!

UNICORN: No, I actually didn’t know when I signed up, because the two of you have the most shit communication skills I’ve ever seen outside a Hollywood romantic comedy. I mean, seriously, poly folks keep going on about how important communication is, and you two are, like, the most shit of shit people ever to shit a shit when it comes to communication. What the fuck is wrong with you?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I’m sorry, did you say something?

UNICORN: Also, I’m pregnant.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Oh, that’s so wonderful! Do you hear that, my darling husband? We’re going to be parents! All three of us can live together!

UNICORN: Really? You mean it?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Of course! You can be our live-in nanny and housemaid and take care of your kids and our kids, and—

UNICORN: Wait, what?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Don’t interrupt, dear, I’m not finished. Take care of your kids and our kids, and also cook and clean house for us!

UNICORN:

ELIZABETH MARSTON: You’re the unicorn. It’s what unicorns do. Didn’t you read the flowchart?

They MOVE IN TOGETHER and have MORE KIDS. UNICORN takes care of the KIDS and also COOKS and CLEANS and STUFF

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Ah, look, a lingerie shop! I think I will go inside.

PROFESSOR MARSTON goes inside the LINGERIE SHOP

CREEPY DUDE: Do you like high heels?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: They’re okay, I guess.

CREEPY DUDE: Are you a police officer or a postal inspector or Sonny Crockett?

SONNY CROCKETT: Hey now, leave me out of this shit-show. I spend my time undercover busting human traffickers and child pornographers and stuff. I want nothing to do with you lot.

RACHEL: You want to go get a drink?

SONNY CROCKETT: Replicant lady, I will follow you into a wood chipper if it gets me away from these people.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Um, no?

CREEPY DUDE: Do you, like, like like high heels, like, in that way you like something when, you know, you really like it?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Umm…dude, you’re kind of creepy and you’re making me kind of uncomfortable. At least that’s what I’d say if I had any kind of boundaries at all. But given that this movie is what it is…sure! Let’s say I do. What’ve you got for me?

CREEPY DUDE: Let me open this secret door, see, and…

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Wife! Unicorn! Check it out! I’ve just discovered BDSM porn!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: BDSM porn? What’s that?

UNICORN: Don’t you guys ever look at the Internet?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Let’s go visit the creepy dude and stage the least realistic scene ever filmed in any movie, and I include Hot Tub Time Machine in that list!

THE ENTIRE CAST OF HOT TUB TIME MACHINE: No. No. Oh, hell no. Do not drag us into this. Hey Sonny, replicant lady, you got any room in that wood chipper?

PROFESSOR MARSTON and ELIZABETH MARSTON and UNICORN go back to the LINGERIE SHOP. The CREEPY DUDE ties up a RANDOM WOMAN

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I want to tie up Unicorn.

UNICORN: Okay.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I am going to make a big show of being offended at the idea of bondage and stomp out.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I will follow you out, leaving Unicorn alone with Creepy Dude.

UNICORN: I have just had my two lovers stomp out of the room arguing, leaving me alone with a creepy dude. I will now do the most unrealistic thing ever in any Hollywood movie ever filmed, and I include Hot Tub Time Machine in that list, by going through the creepy dude’s wardrobe dressing up in costumes while I’m here alone with a creepy dude in an unfamiliar place while my lovers are arguing, because that’s totally how Hollywood believes people get into BDSM.

They have the most unrealistic scene in any HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, including HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. Every person in the AUDIENCE who is even passingly familiar with kink GROANS. The ENTIRE CAST of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE walks into a WOOD CHIPPER

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Unicorn, do you want me to tie you up?

UNICORN: Oh, sure, NOW you ask for my consent. Sure, why not?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: I will now tie you up.

UNICORN: Wait, what? Just five minutes ago you were having a dramatic meltdown about how awful bondage is. Nobody, and I mean nobody, spins around that fast. Isn’t this, like, the second most unrealistic scene ever shot in any Hollywood movie?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Yeah, and?

ELIZABETH MARSTON ties up UNICORN in the SECOND MOST UNREALISTIC SCENE ever shot in any HOLLYWOOD MOVIE

THE MARSTON FAMILY: Literally nothing like this ever happened.

ANGELA ROBINSON: Security!

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I am going to make a new comic book. It will be filled with bondage.

PROFESSOR MARSTON makes a new COMIC BOOK. It is filled with BONDAGE

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Let’s have a kinky bondage threesome.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Okay!

UNICORN: Okay!

They have a KINKY BONDAGE THREESOME. The neighbor next door WALKS IN ON THEM

NEIGHBORS: We think you guys are perverts. We will shun you now. Shun the perverts! Shun!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Unicorn, this is all your fault. We must protect our family by kicking you out of the house.

UNICORN: Wait, what? How does that make any sense? The cat is already out of the bag! The horses have bolted, the barn has burned down, and the farm has been bought, paved over, and turned into a McDonald’s parking lot! How on earth does kicking me out now solve anything? And also, why is this my fault?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Read the flowchart. If the couple encounters any problem, they re-assert their primary relationship and blame the unicorn. It’s all right there. Oh, and we will make you bring our kids over here on weekends, because Professor Marston is the father, but you will not be allowed to see our kids, even though you raised them. Besides, my husband and I are, like, productive members of society, but I don’t even know who you are.

UNICORN: I’m the bright young student who was engaged to be married and was going to become a journalist until two people twice my age decided to groom me and then gaslight me into being your live-in sex toy slash maid slash nanny.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Whatever.

UNICORN: You’re a terrible human being, you know that?

ELIZABETH MARSTON: You knew the rules when you signed on.

UNICORN: No, actually, I didn’t.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Aaaaaaaand that’s the flashback. Now I will do some dramatic exposition in front of you, Outrageously Straightlaced Woman, featuring some of the most terrible dialog ever to be seen outside one of the Star Wars prequels.

ANAKIN SKYWALKER: Nooooooooooooooooooo! Do not want!

PROFESSOR MARSTON does some UNNECESSARY GRANDSTANDING featuring TERRIBLE DIALOG, and then COLLAPSES DRAMATICALLY. ANAKIN SKYWALKER follows the cast of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE into the WOOD CHIPPER. The dialog WEDGES

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Hey Unicorn, Professor Marston is in the hospital.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I’m dying of cancer. Tell her! Tell her the thing!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: You tell her.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: No, you tell her!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: You tell her!

PROFESSOR MARSTON: No, you tell her!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Will you forgive me for being, like, the worst human being ever, completely disregarding your feelings, treating you like you’re totally expendable, and generally being just about as shitty as one person can be to another person without involving the use of a meat cleaver?

UNICORN: No.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Hang on a minute! No? You’re not supposed to say no!

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Let’s use emotional manipulation on her.

The audience LAUGHS

PROFESSOR MARSTON: No, seriously, I’m going to emotionally manipulate her. In fact, I’m going to do some completely unnecessary exposition right now describing exactly how I’m emotionally manipulating her.

UNICORN: Are you for real?

PROFESSOR MARSTON: I know! Try a non-apology apology, only without saying you’re sorry!

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Okay.

ELIZABETH MARSTON gives the least convincing NON-APOLOGY APOLOGY since KEVIN SPACEY’S TWEETS. She never once says she’s SORRY

UNICORN: All is forgiven.

ELIZABETH MARSTON: Great! So you’ll move back in, cook and clean, take care of the kids, and be a live-in maid, then?

UNICORN: Sure, if you buy me a new stove.

PROFESSOR MARSTON: Deal.

PROFESSOR MARSTON DIES. The movie EN—

EXPOSITION TEXT: And they lived happily ever after.

THE MARSTON FAMILY: Wait, what? This is not even close to how it happened. In fact, you didn’t even get Elizabeth Marston’s job right. You said she was a secretary. She was actually an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. Do you even read Wikipedia?

ANGELA ROBINSON: Security!

THE MARSTON FAMILY: Oh, never mind. We’ll just follow Anakin into that wood chipper. Anything to get away from this travesty.

The movie ENDS

I wrote a new thing!

For the first time in more than a year (has it really been that long?), I’ve added a new page to the More Than Two site: Is polyamory unnatural?

This page came from a new line of attack aimed at polyamory I’ve started hearing lately: “Polyamory means doing a lot of work to overcome jealousy. Doesn’t that mean you’re basically programming yourself to normalize something that’s unnatural?”

Yeah, I made that noise the first time I read it, too. But then I started hearing it again, and again, and I thought, okay, mmmmaybe this deserves a reply.

So I wrote a thing. You can see the thing here:

Is polyamory unnatural?

Here’s the teaser:

Poly people are always talking about ways to defeat jealousy. Isn’t that just conditioning yourself to accept something unnatural?

No, seriously, don’t laugh–this is an honest question that’s being raised more and more often as an objection to polyamory. If being able to function in a relationship requires that you work hard to overcome an emotion like jealousy, doesn’t that mean you’re simply trying to desensitize yourself to a perfectly natural and reasonable feeling, and that polyamory really isn’t a natural choice?
Polyamorous people talk a lot about jealousy partly because it’s something that we get asked about a lot, and partly because, yes, it’s a perfectly normal emotion we’ve all faced at some point in time. And honestly, if all you feel is jealousy in a polyamorous relationship–if all you do is fight against your emotions all the time, and there’s no joy in polyamory for you–maybe it’s really not the right relationship choice. It’s okay to be monogamous. It’s okay not to want to be in plural relationships if that model isn’t a good fit. If you see nothing but struggle in polyamory, and there’s no upside, hey, don’t be polyamorous!
And don’t let anyone tell you polyamory is “more advanced” or “more evolved” either–that’s hornswoggle.

But here’s the thing…

Jealousy isn’t a polyamorous issue. Monogamous people can and do feel jealousy, too. Developing tools to deal with jealousy makes everyone’s life better, regardless of whether you’re monogamous or not.

You can read the rest here.

Does love mean giving someone the power to abuse you?

I am active on Quora, and every now and then, a question appears that rises above the baseline. blog post was inspired by one of those questions.

A few days ago, someone asked if being in a relationship is just handing someone else the power to abuse you.

And the trivial answer, of course, is yes. But that misses the deeper point.

Yes, being in a relationship means placing your heart in someone else’s hands and trusting them to treat it gently. Not everyone does. You make yourself vulnerable when you go about this business of emotional intimacy. You hand another person a terrible weapon that can be used to hurt you, and you trust that they won’t use it against you.

It is always possible to be hurt any time you go into a romantic relationship. There are thousands of ways this can happen: carelessness, insecurity, plain old-fashioned incompatibility. This is the risk you take when you engage with other people.

It’s important to understand, though, that not all hurt is abuse. Abuse is rooted in power and control. An abuser genuinely, sincerely believes it is okay to control someone else to get what he or she wants. The abuser feels entitled to this control; the abuser truly believes, to the bottom of his or her heart, that controlling the victim is not only necessary, it is just, reasonable, and proper.

If you engage with other people, sooner or later you will be hurt. And yes, sooner or later you will probably cross paths with an abuser. Statistically speaking, it’s bound to happen.

But this doesn’t mean if you have relationships, you are guaranteed to be abused.

Abusers don’t abuse everyone they meet immediately upon meeting; if they did, they’d be easy to spot. It is possible to learn skills that help you identify abusers and recognize abusive behavior. And should you find yourself in a relationship with an abuser despite your best efforts, you can learn to assert boundaries that will help you leave abusive relationships.

A key part of the skill to recognize abusers is to learn to spot boundary-pushing behavior. If you say no, what does the other person do? If you tell someone not to touch you or not to do something else, how do they respond? Abusers often engage in repeated boundary-pushing at the start of a relationship–ignoring small “nos,” doing things you tell them not to do-—because abusers seek out people who lack the ability to assert boundaries and won’t enforce a “no.”

Part of protecting yourself from abuse includes learning to assert boundaries firmly and unflinchingly, without backing down. “I said no.” “Don’t touch me like that.” “You may not speak to me that way.” And that skill includes choosing not to be with someone who overruns your boundaries even if you’re really, really smitten with them.

Developing good boundaries doesn’t mean you’ll never be hurt. Pain is part of life. Nobody makes it through life without a few dents and scratches. That doesn’t mean you will be abused.

Abuse can happen to anyone, and it’s never the fault of the person being abused. Think of it like driving a car: there’s nothing you can do that will guarantee you’ll never be in a traffic accident. But wearing your seatbelt and driving defensively can help, and should you be in an accident anyway, they may help limit the damage.

Fastening your seatbelt in a relationship means learning positive, healthy communication and relationship skills and investing in solid, resilient self-esteem. These don’t necessarily make you immune to abuse, but they can empower you to interrupt abusive patterns, and they can help you escape if an abuser should get his or her claws into you.

But here’s the thing: Yes, it is possible you may be abused; it can happen to anyone. But that can’t be the thing that stops you from opening your heart to other people.

We are a social species. Most of us do better in intimate relationships with other people. Opening your heart carries risk, but it’s also one of the most enriching, rewarding things you will ever do. And the alternative, walling off your heart behind barriers and barbed wire, will suffocate it.

We can’t become so afraid that we lose sight of the fact that relationships make life better. If you refuse to engage in any relationships for fear of being abused, you commit an act of violence against your own heart.

It’s time to pack up and move

I’ve been blogging on LiveJournal since August of 2001. And what a long, strange trip it’s been. In the past fifteen and a half years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way people use social media: the rise and subsequent fall of a whole host of blogging services, the gradual fading away of USENET and email lists, Facebook’s march to supremacy.

In all that time I’ve continued to use Livejournal, partly because a lot of people know about my blog and follow me there, and partly because after more than a decade it becomes exceptionally difficult to move.

Today, when I signed on to LiveJournal, I found the writing on the wall:

LiveJournal was bought many moons ago by a Russian company, but only recently moved its servers to Russia. And since doing so, it’s been required to update its Terms of Service to comply with Russian law, which is rather odious and, well, Russian.

I don’t intend to go into a full analysis of the implications of the new ToS. That’s been done already in many places on the Web, including here, here, here, and here. (Interestingly, there’s no discussion of the change on the official LJ Policy community, and in fact there hasn’t been any discussion there since 2015.)

The bits I do want to talk about are those bits directly relevant to me and this blog.

The new Terms of Service have two provisions that directly impact me: in accordance with Russian law, any blog or community read by more than 3,000 readers is considered a ‘publication’ and is subject to State controls on publications, including the provision that the blogger or moderator is legally liable under Russian law for any content posted by any user; and blogs are prohibited from “perform[ing] any other actions contradictory to the laws of the Russian Federation.”

This blog is routinely read by more than 3,000 people, making me a “publisher” under Russian law.

And, more worrying, the Russian “gay propaganda law” forbids discussion of “sexual deviancy,” which includes LGBTQ issues. “Propaganda of non-traditional relationships” is forbidden by this law.

I’m not concerned that the Kremlin is going to demand my extradition to Russia to face trial. I am concerned that there’s a very real possibility this blog may disappear at any time without warning.


For a couple of years now, I’ve kept a backup of this blog over at blog.franklinveaux.com. The blog there is a mirror of the blog here, though links over there point to blog entries here rather than there. (Fixing that will be a massive undertaking, involving changing many hundreds of links in thousands of blog posts.)

I moved my LJ to WordPress, a process that was extraordinarily painful. There is an LJ importer for WordPress, and a tutorial for moving your LJ blog to WordPress here, but, as I discovered, there are a few gotchas.

First, the LJ importer plugin was not tested on large blogs. It requires enormous amounts of memory to import a LiveJournal blog with more than a couple hundred entries; at the time I did the migration, I had north of 1,600 blog posts. Second, it chokes on blog entries that have more than 100 or so comments.

Many, perhaps most, Web hosting companies place limitations on memory and CPU usage that prevent the WordPress LJ importer from working on large blogs.

Second, it won’t move images. If you have uploaded images to LJ’s servers, you must download them and re-upload them to your new WordPress blog.

I was unable to use the LJ importer to import my entire LiveJournal blog. I finally discovered a workaround, but it’s cumbersome:

  1. Create a free WordPress blog at WordPress.com.
  2. Use the importer there (it’s in the Tools menu) to import your LiveJournal blog.

    If you’re okay hosting your new blog at WordPress.com, you’re done. If, however, you wish to host your blog on your own server with your own WordPress installation, there are a few more steps:

  3. Use the Exporter to export a WordPress XML file of the blog.
  4. Set up your own self-hosted WordPress installation on your own server.
  5. Import the file you exported from WordPress.com.

Images you have uploaded to LJ will, as I’ve mentioned, need to be uploaded to your WordPress blog. (Thank God I’ve never done this; I’ve always put my images on my own server and linked to them there.)

The problem is compounded by the fact that LiveJournal has never wanted you to move. There’s no graceful way to export your LJ blog. There is an exporter of sorts, but it only exports a month at a time. The Wayback Machine at archive.org doesn’t archive LiveJournal posts, at least not consistently (it has crawled my blog only 37 times despite the fact that I have some 1,700 blog entries).


This is a huge problem. LiveJournal was one of the first blogging platforms, and a tremendous amount of very valuable information about the rise of social media is in danger of being lost.

This is, of course, the curse of the modern age. A diary written with pen and paper can be lost in an attic for centuries and then, once discovered, provide insight into the lives of people in a long-gone time. But we don’t record our lives that way any more. Today, our journals are kept on computer servers–servers owned by other people. And there’s no leaving these journals in an attic for a century for future people to find. They require constant, and sometimes very difficult, work to maintain. Anything you host on someone else’s servers for free is subject to someone else’s whims.

I am dedicated to doing the work to preserve my journal. From now on, I will not be posting new journal entries here. This blog will remain for as long as it can, and I will post links here to blog updates over on blog.franklinveaux.com. I encourage others to do the same. Anything here is subject to the vargarities of Russian law and should be assumed to be unstable, subject to deletion without warning.

From this point forward, please link to new blog posts on blog.franklinveaux.com, not LiveJournal. Over the next few months, I plan to work on linking my most popular LiveJournal entries back to their mirrors on franklinveaux, and updating links there to point ot blog posts there rather than here.

Oh, and the last person to leave LJ, please remember to turn off the lights.

Everything I needed to know about game theory, I learned from Italian publishers

There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.

In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.

Okay, so that’s shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we’ve talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, “Well, yes. That’s Italy.”

Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I’ve heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.

Which is really weird, when you think about it.

But I didn’t come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.


Say you’re a businessperson who deals with a certain…unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn’t. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don’t know who your clients are, they don’t know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.

This is a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, which I’ve touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you’re supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you’re supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double–he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.

In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don’t lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.

The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.

Ah, but what if you don’t have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you’ll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you’d never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?

So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there’s strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there’s incentive to cooperate).


These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won’t be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.

Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it’s rare the other side is totally anonymous. It’s also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that’s what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.

We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can’t survive apart. (There’s a book about this, in fact; it’s called The Evolution of Cooperation.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn’t. And there’s a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them’s the facts.

In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.

The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn’t pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they’d stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they’d said they’d stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, “Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it’ll never go to trial–and even if it does, we don’t have any money anyway.”

So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher’s perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s Italy for you.”

Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher’s idea. “See,” they might say, “this is why we behave the way we do–because, look, people are always screwing us!” When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they’re going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?


But here’s the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around–if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function…why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?

One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that’s true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.

Which, if that’s true, bodes ill.

There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that’s why he ended up in bed with Russian banks–American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.

I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I’m not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.

And people will sigh, and nod, and say, “You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that’s the Americans for you.”

A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I’m looking at you here.)