Identity, philosophy, and personal happiness

Note: This post is taken from a message I left in a UseNet newsgroup recently. It was triggered in part by a conversation about identities such as “gay” and “straight,” and is the continuation of things I have thought about and discussed with Shelly over the past year or so.

A person on the newsgroup made the comment that one is not necessarily “gay” or “straight” on the basis of the sex of one’s sexual partners. My reply:

If a person engages in a long-term sexual relationship over an extended peoriod of time with a member of the same sex, and this long-term sexual relationship is accompanied by a predisposition to feel sexual attraction to members of the same sex, then if words are to have any meaning whatsoever, it is reasonable to say that person is gay, even if it’s not an identity that that person chooses.

People often choose to think of themselves or describe themselves in terms that are fundamentally in contradiction with their own behavior and activity. I submit that when a person assumes an identity which is in contradiction to the reality of that person’s experience, behavior, or activity, then that identity is flawed, and furthermore, continuing to assume that identity will likely at some point interfere with that person’s happiness, understanging, self-knowledge, or any combination thereof.

There may be many reasons why people feel compelled to accept an identity in contradiction with the reality of their lives. It may be because that person has prejudices or preconceived ideas about what that identity means–“Gays are dirty perverts who screw each other at bathhouses!”–which are untrue. It may be that the person associates a set of moral, ethical, or religious ideas with that identity. It may be that the person has an emotional investment in preserving some sense of a different identity.

It’s fascinating to watch. I know a woman who has concurrent, simultaneous, ongoing romantic and sexual relationships with a man and a woman, but who maintains that she absolutely, positively is not bisexual. She will say “Yes, I am sexually attracted to both men and women.” She will say “Yes, I am currently involved sexually with a man and a woman.” But she will then say “I am not bisexual”–in spite of the fact that the word “bisexual” has a functional definition which precisely matches her current behavior.

I know another woman who was for three years involved romantically with two people, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Indeed, she is still romantically and sexually involved with both of those people; I am one of them. For the first three years of that time, she maintained that she was not polyamorous and her relationships were not polyamorous. Yes, she was engaged in ongoing, loving, sexual and romantic relationships with two people simultaneously; yes, each of those two people knew of, and approved of, her other relationship; yes, she made a conscious choice to engage in multiple simultaneous relationships; yes, she made this choice with full knowledge of and consideration of the ethics of the situation; no, she was not poly.

If words have any meanings whatsoever, then these meanings must have descriptive value. If you can maintain, for example, that a person who engages in sexual relationships with members of the same sex and is attracted sexually to members of the same sex but is not “gay,” then you can also maintain that a person who cuts wood for a living is not a “woodcutter.”

Words have meanings. We think in language; fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thought.

But more importantly: When a person seeks to maintain an identity which is in contradiction with the reality of that person’s life, that person undermines not only his own self-knowledge, but also his own *happiness*.

This goes beyond merely what labels a person uses to describe himself; it’ss the essence of my objection to polyamorous “don’t ask, don’t tell” [a relationship between a polyamorous person and a monogamous person, where the monogamous person does not want to know about or hear about the poly person’s activities] relationships as well.

People will sometimes seek to preserve a myth or an illusion about themselves or their lives, erroneously thinking that this illusion will help them be happy. And in the short run, it may. A person who does not self-identify as gay, in spite of having ongoing sexual relationship with a person of the same sex, and a person who is in a relationship with a polyamorous parttner but does not want to be reminded that his partner has other lovers, are both in a similar situation; their happiness is constructed on a foundation of sand.

When your happiness depends on preserving an idea that is in this sort of contradiction with reality, that happiness is always under threat. It takes no more than an accidental disclosure, a chance discovery, to bring that illusion crashing down around your ears.

A person whose happiness is contingent on such a contradiction is always at risk of some truth crashing through that happiness like a wrecking ball.

If you must believe that your partner is monogamous in order to be happy, even when your partner is not, then sooner or later, you’re going to come face-to-face with the realization that your belief is flawed. If you must believe that you are straight in order to be happy, even though you are engaging in a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex, then your happiness will always be subject to being shattered by the reality that your behavior is not, in fact, the behavior of someone who is straight.

Real, lasting, solid, stable happiness ultimately relies on an honest, realistic assessment of who you are, and a solid, well-founded understanding of your relationship with the people and the world around you. The greater the contradiction between the reality of youur situation and the ideas you attempt to preserve about your situation, the greater the risk that your happiness will be short-lived and illusory. The more you seek to deny some fundamental truth about yourself, the more difficult it will be for you to find happiness that lasts.

An enlightened response lies in assessing, realistically and without fear, how the actions you take and the decisions you make affect who you are and how you relate to the world around you. This kind of response is a very powerful tool for happiness. Happiness that is broad and deep requires knowledge not only of what your own limits are and what you need in your life in order to be happy, but *also* knowledge of *who* you are as a person. Only with this knowledge can you make choices and build identities which are not constantly in jeopardy.

I know that idea is extremely threatening to many people; I have encountered many people in my life who will go to great lengths to build and preserve illusions about themselves and their relationships even when those illusions contradict reality in deeply fundamental ways. I have enver met anyone who does this who really seems like a happy person.


This is a post I left recently in a technical forum I read. It’s a response to someone who called those into body piercing “freaks,” and it sums up my own feelings about body modification.

Okay, so what’s the deal, anyway? Why would someone get fifteen piercings in his face?

One approach to answering that question begins with discussing an aesthetic that’s somewhat more abstract: music.

Bear with me here. This may seem like it’s off the topic, but it’s really not, I promise.

I listen to industrial music. Industrial as a genre is far from the most popular style of music; most people, upon first hearing industrial music, are apt to complain that it doesn’t sound like music at all.

Music is completely a learned appreciation; learning a style of music is somewhat akin to learning a language. Any style of music is apt to sound like noise until you become familiar with it. When you learn the structure and form of a particular style of music, you learn to hear the melody and the harmony, you learn to separate the components of the music, and you learn to appreciate it. Even the conventional eight-octave scale is learned, not a fundamental part of nature; music exists which does not use the traditional scale at all.

Some forms of music are easier to learn than others. Industrial music in particular is quite challening. Good industrial music is arguably some of the most complex music being recorded today. It’s often densely layered; it may use sounds that are unfamiliar in the context of music; it often does not bear a structure which in any way resembles any variation on the “verse/chorus, verse/chorus, verse/bridge/chorus” construction of most popular music; it may change key, rythm, or time frequently within a single piece; it may contain dissonance, or contain more than one melodic line (and those lines may differ in key or even in time signature themselves!); it may establish a pattern, then break that pattern in unexpected ways; it may contain vocals which are distorted, pitch-shifted, or otherwise manipulated in untraditional ways.

In short, not only is it unfamiliar, but it’s also so complex that learning the aesthetic of industrial music is much more difficult than learning the aesthetic of many other forms of music.

For me, this complexity and dense structure is the biggest appeal. I can listen to a good piece of industrial music six times in a row and hear something new and different in it every time.

But that complexity also serves to make it inaccessible. Learning to appreciate industrial music requires work. Listening to industrial music requires active attention. If you’ve never heard it before, then it sounds, yes, freaky and scary.

In many ways, body modification–and by that I mean not just body piercing and tattooing, but also scarification, branding, bifrucation, and other forms of body art–is very similar to industrial music. Like any aesthetic, the aesthetic of body modification is learned; but like industrial music, the aesthetic of body modification is not easy to grasp. It requires work, and at first exposure, it can seem quite inaccessible.

There is a qualitative difference between, say, a heavily tattooed sailer of 1942, and a heavily tattooed college student today. Often, that sailor’s body may be a patchwork of unrelated tattoos, each by a different artist and with a different subject, each acquired in a different port. A person today may have just as much ink on his body, but the odds are better that the entire tattoo was designed and conceived as a whole, and executed by a single artist. At first glance, you may see nothing more than a freak with a shocking amount of ink covering his entire body; it requires closer examination to realize that all that ink is part of a meticulous, carefully-crafted design that expresses a single vision. Seen up close, these tattoos are masterworks of complex and intricate detail, and they can be breathtakingly beautiful.

The person wearing such a tattoo is not seeing to shock anyone and is not out for attention; more likely, that tattoo is a highly personal work of art, executed for highly personal reasons.

The same is also true of piercing and other forms of body modification. At first glance, they seem weird-looking; and indeed, by the conventions of twentieth-century middle America, they are. But the only real difference between someone who wears a lot of jewelry and someone who wears a lot of body jewelry is the manner in which the jewelry is attached. Jewelry is both ornamentation and personal expression; nobody finds it unusual if someone has a ring or a necklace that has personal, sentimental value, and for body jewelry, it’s really no different.

Any aesthetic is learned. Personally, I think the ugly, oversized, faux-American-Indian turquoise bracelets and rings that were so popular among women over a certain age a few years back is far sillier, and far less appealing, than body piercing is. At least those who practice body piercing have the courage of thier convictions… 🙂

I’m sure there are those who understand industrial music and don’t like it, just as there are those who understand the aesthetic of body modification and don’t like it. But there’s a vast difference between those people and those who call someone a “freak” because of his chosen style of ornamentation. When you call someone a “freak,” you are not reacting to an aesthetic; you are simply reacting to the unfamiliar.

Random thoughts on a hump day

What dreams may come

Last night, I had a dream that I was visiting the United Kingdom for some kind of event (I’m not really quite sure what), and while I was there, I met latexiron and kjersti. Why them? I have no idea. I don’t know either one of them.

I sometimes dream about people on LiveJournal I’ve never met, in contexts like maurading dragons or purple gumballs. I wonder if it’s because a forum such as LiveJournal can create the illusion that you know someone, or that you share something with someone, when the reality is nothing of the sort.

Clearly, those parts of our brains which are responsible for our social drives, the parts that create a sense of familiarity and connection with other people has not evolved rapidly enough to keep up with changes in communication.



Eye candy. No doubt about it.

This movie owes its stylistic sense to The Matrix and Dark City. Every frame is gorgeous, and no doubt about it, vampires have the best wardrobes. It’s hard to complain about a hot chick in a rubber bodysuit and a corset.

Still, it’s nothing but fluff. The plot is muddled, the dialog rarely rises above so-so, the characters are all about style but are hardly believable. It’s the Goth answer to action-adventure flicks–good, mindless fun, and it certainly is pretty.

The Secretary

Can someone please explain to me just why the hell everyone thought this movie was so awesome?

Watching this movie is like watching the most boring parts of “9 1/2 Weeks,” only with more neurotic characters. It has all the charm of a Victoria’s Secret TV ad with none of the sexiness. I’ve seen more believable plots in Spider-Man comic books. There’s a couple hours of my life I’ll never get back…

The Last unicorn

This is an old animated movie that’s one of Shelly’s all-time favorites. She watched it with us last week.

The animation is terrible. No getting around it, the animation is just plain bad.

But once you get past that, it’s a very, very, very good movie. It’s the perfect antidote to Disney and harry potter; it shows that a movie written for children does not have to be childish.

We’ve come to expect certain things from children’s stories: simple morals, a cartoonish sense of good and evil, clearly-defined heros and villains.

The adversarial characters in The Last unicorn are deeply wounded, but they are not evil. The philosophical ideas in the movie are surprisingly sophisticated. The animation may be poor, but the movie has things that most modern children’s movies lack: complexity, nuance, and substance. Hey, Disney, you paying attention? Movies made for children do not have to be drivel!

American Pie

I am, I think, one of the few people left in the world who’s never seen American Pie, at least until last week. Now, I am no longer a cultural pariah; I have seen American Pie.


How this movie got to be such a cultural touchstone is quite beyond me. It’s a “frustrated teenagers trying to get laid” flick. We’ve all seen a hundred of these, and they’re all the same. There’s always the Big Prom, at which at least one character is utterly humiliated by an Embarrassing Revelation, and hilarity ensues. There’s always the Horny Teenager who is caught at an Awkward Moment, and hilarity ensues. *Yawn*

It may have revitalized the “teen flick” formula, but make no mistake: it’s still formula.


lamedotcom. I’ve seen scarier things in my breakfast cereal.

Updates & Such

The Weekend

So Friday evening, we all head out for a movie, the vampire-chic “Underworld,” and some clubbing. Since we planned to go to the club directly after the movie, we all headed to the theater in clubwear. (Yes, I wore a collar.)

And since nothing goes with a movie quite as well as dinner, we stopped at Bennigan’s first. All thirteen of us.

Many of the patrons there looked at us rather like one might look at someone who had just stepped out of an elevator wearing nothing but a gigantic Boa constrictor.

You just can’t get enough of that for my entertainment dollar. Indeed the only thing better is…

Cute lesbian chicks!

First time at the club, Underground in downtown Tampa. Kinda goth, kinda industrial, dollar drinks all night long. I’m told I had rather a lot of them.

Ran into an old friend from my Sarasota BBS days there…haven’t seen him in something like twelve years, but he still recognized me. Weird.

And cute lesbian chicks. Doing very dirty things. At the bar. 🙂



Yep, that’s it. That was Saturday.


PolyTampa. Old friends, some new friends, M’s tale of discovering her bisexuality while at Girl Scout camp (excuse me while I go there for a moment…), and then over to the home of lightgatherer, moonshadowdance, and their partner for a few games of Zendo. Which, if you haven’t ever played it, you should.

Yes, you. Yes, I do mean you. You’ll like it…trust me.

Also tried unsucccessfully to ressurect Shelly’s laptop, which seems to have gone off to the great Hewlett-Packard happy place in the sky–which sucks like a great big sucky thing.

Other stuff

Shelly and I will be in San Fransisco from January 3 through January 10 for MacWorld. We’ll almost certainly spend some time with altenra, which is always one of the hilights of the trip, and at least one evening at Power Exchange is in the plan as well. Anything else interesting to do in SF?

I’ve lost the battery charger for my digital camera, which also sucks like a big sucky thing. No more pics for a while…*sigh*

Now I’m off to bed.

Monday, Monday, Monday

First, the good news…

Shelly returned yesterday from her weeklong trip to New York City, where she evidently had quite a blast even in spite of the fact that she did not encounter latexiron during his trip. I picked her up from the airport Monday morning.

Next, the Bad news…

I picked Shelly up at the airport. I did not pick Shelly’s luggage up at the airport. Someone named Ruth picked up Shelly’s luggage instead.

I think Shelly should’ve taken Ruth’s luggage, just to hold hostage or something, but oh well.

I nailed the curb at the airport parking garage in kellyv‘s car, which I had taken so that I’d be able to…er, fit all of Shelly’s luggage. Destroyed two tires. Goddamn.

The Cinnabon at the mall by my house is gone. After getting the car fixed and making a trip back tot he airport to fetch Shelly’s luggage, I really wanted needed a cinnamon roll. I had to drive all the way across town to get one. (And yes, it was really, really good.)

Cinnamon rolls, like bacon, help make life worth living.

The amusing news

Courtesy of my friend Chris, in honor of my newly-minted arch-nemesis (without which no evil genius can be complete), and in recognition of the fact that the whole Friendster thing is overdone (as is, indeed, the whole online-dating thing), I give you:


It’s been a long, frantic, busy week. As with most things, thee’s a simple explanation, and a complex explanation.

The simple explanation:

A client’s server computer went down, and I had to replace the motherboard in it.

The complex explanation:

This is a sordid tale of corporate espionage, incompetence, greed, and Asian notions of “honor” and “face.”

Before I get into the whole cloak-and-dagger story, a bit of background: Computers and other electronic devices use components called “capacitors,” which are small metal cylinders, vaguely can-shaped, that are soldered to circuit boards. Capacitors contain a viscous, oily material called a “dielectric,” which improves their efficiency.

Last year, a scientist working for an electronics firm in Japan stole his company’s formula for a high-quality dielectric, and fled to Taiwan, where he sold the formula to a Chinese firm that manufacturers capacitors. The Chinese firm began making capacitors with the stolen formula in mainland China and Taiwan, where they were sold to Taiwanese motherboard manufacturers Abit and Micro-Star. Many thousands of the capacitors were also sold to IBM.

These are cheap components, costing less than a penny apiece in quantity. Manufacturers could shave a few cents off the cost of a motherboard by using the Chinese capacitors in place of name-brand capacitors from Taiwan and Japan, which cost a few percent more.

Problem is, the thieving scientist bungled the formula. The dielectric formula as sold to the Chinese firm was incomplete.

As a result, the capacitors using the faulty formula are unstable, and tend to fail dramatically. In some cases, they will physically explode after a few thousand hours’ use. When they do, the result looks like this:

As you can see, the tops have split open on the capacitors. The brown crud all over the place is the faulty dielectric, which leaks out and turns to a hard, crusty mess.

This causes the computer to fail.

So I spent a good part of the week replacing the motherboard, and rebuilding the Windows install on the affected server.

The Moral

My client’s server has been down for several days as the result of the unethical and incompetent corporate espionage of a Japanese scientist and the greed and petty cost-cutting of a couple of electronics firms (in this case, Micro-Star and IBM) who used untrusted components from an unknown manufacturer to save a few pennies on the cost of a computer.

The moral lessons here are not necessarily obvious. Yes, greed is bad; but beyond that, there’s another factor at work here as well.

The world we live in is a complex, interdependent entity, where actions by single individuals half a planet away can reach out and touch people far removed from them. I’m sure the thieving scientist and the greedy accountants at IBM and Micro-Star didn’t intend to make my week miserable, but their actions conspired to do so anyway.

The scientist involved was never arrested. Why? Because he’s in Taiwan; someone in Taiwan would have to lodge a criminal complaint against him. However, the manufacturers in Taiwan are reluctant to do so, because admitting they were hoodwinked by a vendor would be a grave loss of face. (For the same reason, the Taiwanese author of the Cherynobl virus was released after he was captured because no Taiwanese firms would risk losing face by admitting they’d been affected by the virus.)

Thge law of unintended consequences is as immutable as the law of gravity. So, too, is the fact that if you do not stand up against peope who do wrong, those people can continue to do wrong; pride can make anyone into a victim.