Quote of the Day

Courtesy of papertygre‘s quotefile:

“The brain is not an organ of thinking but an organ of survival, like claws and fangs. It is made in such a way as to make us accept as truth that which is only advantage. It is an exceptional, almost pathological constitution one has, if one follows thoughts logically through, regardless of consequences. Such people make martyrs, apostles, or scientists, and mostly end on the stake, or in a chair, electric or academic.”

—Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Oh. My. God.
That. Is. The. Most. Brilliant. Observation. Ever.

Some thoughts on hysteria and Chinese fortune cookies

Last night, we ordered Chinese take-out. Generally, when I eat Chinese take-out, my fortune cookies don’t have anything interesting to say; I think I get the short-bus fortune cookies, the ones that had to stay after school taking extra classes in Remedial Philosophy and Pre-College Wisdom.

Last night’s fortune cookie, though, was different. It said:

The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next.

There’s some truth in that–but sadly, not enough, especially in a time where culture, philosophy, social values, and particularly technology can change more in five years than they used to change in five decades.

I’m not even talking about formal institutions, such as the Catholoc Church (which generally runs about three centures behind; in 1979, Pope John Paul II instructed the Church to re-investigate the case of Galileo Galilei, and in 1992, after thirteen years of investigation and 378 years after Galileo was first accused of heresy, the Pope formally acknowledged that the Church had been wrong to condemn Galileo’s notion that the earth moved ’round the sun).

It’s easy to point to institutions of rigid orthodoxy and say “Sure, these institutions have trouble adapting–of course they’re always going to be behind the curve.” But it’s not just the Catholic Church; it’s all of us. Every decade or so, some social or technological innovation undermines some sacred notion that we’ve always believed is immutable and inviolable. The idea that marriage is a union bewtween one man and one woman has been an axiom of American social belief for centuries, assumed to be true so universally that it was never questioned or even considered; now, the idea that it might mean something more has a lot of people upset.

And those people ain’t seen nothing yet.

In 1954, the first successful organ transplant on a human being took place. The patient had suffered kidney failure, and received a donated kidney from his twin brother, which gave him another eight years of life.

For the most part, the public was appalled.

The news of the first human transplant triggered an enormous backlash against doctors who were “playing god” by “cutting apart dead corpses and sewing the parts into living human beings like Frankenstein.” Nowadays, of course, human transplantation is as natural and as accepted as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun; in the US, about 100 such transplantations operations occur daily.

But we’re no smarter, nor more adaptable, than the Catholic church was three or four centuries ago, nor than the Great Unwashed were in the 1950s. We have our own hysterias today, two of the bigger ones being the public hysteria over cloning and over genetically modified food.

Every new technology brings fear along with it, and that is particularly true of biomedical technology. When it comes right down to it, we as human beings have two things working against us–first, we’re lazy, and don’t have the time or the energy or the inclination to get informed about anything, much less about complex and technically challenging issues. We prefer to make decisions based on lurid sound bites–“The doctors in that hospital are cutting up corpses and sewing the parts of dead people into live people!” Second, our sense of who we are is incredibly fragile, and our sense of our place in the world is even more fragile; the history of religion has been one of religious authorities drawing lines in the sand–“Okay, there’s a rational explanation for everything up to this point, but everything on the other side of this line is the province of God!”–and then moving the line when the state of understanding improves. At the end of the day, we are desperately afraid that we’re simply the result of a long series of accidents and natural processes, that everything about is is the sum total of a very big set of very complex natural phenomena, and that really, we’re all just making up our sense of meaning and purpose as we go along.

We’re scared. As we learn that the physical processes occurring in our brains create those things that we used to call a “soul,” we get more scared. As we learn to predict and to manipulate the most fundamental processes of life–as we learn that “life” is not some magical force created by some unknowable divine being for our exclusive benefit, but rather the consequence of some very specific forms of basic chemistry–we get more scared. And that fear leads us in some peculiar directions.

Like, for example, the fear that caused famine-plagued Zambia’s president Levy Mwanawasa to condemn many of his citizens to death by slow starvation when he barred the import of food from the United States on the grounds that the United States uses genetically modified grain, and genetically modified food is “poison.” “Experts” from the European Union, which has an economic interest in the equation, argued that genetically modified food might poze some kind of “hazard” and there was no absolute proof that it is safe; what seens to have been missed is that there is absolute proof that starvation is not safe. Indeed, it turned out to be deadly for nearly seven million people in all–people who, one suspects, would have been happy to eat any food at all rather than starve.

And if you think that’s bad, you still ain’t seen nothing yet.

Right now, as I type this, a group of researchers at MIT are inventing a brand-new field, one that they call “synthetic biology.” Synthetic biology is to genetic engineering what bridges are to fallen trees. With genetic engineering, you look around until you find a gene that does something you want, then stick it in some other cell. With synthetic biology, you decide what it is you want to do, then design and build an organism from the ground up that does it. Rather than getting across a river by looking for a tree that’s long enough and then dragging it to the right place, you design the perfect bridge, then build it entirely from scratch, without searching for dead trees anywhere. Genetic engineering can only create organisms that do what existing organisms already do; synthetic biology can create organisms that do anything at all. These guys are actually closing in on programmable nanotech assemblers, and they don’t even realize it.

They naively think that what they’re doing is working on ways to grow computer parts instead of etching them from silicon, the poor suckers. What they’re actually doing is custom-building living organisms for the purpose of creating whatever it is we want to create. As it stands now, people go all kinds of freaky-deaky if we do nothing more than move this bit of DNA over there–just wait ’til the public gets ahold of that!

The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next–or, more precisely, the philosophy of one century is the common sense of the century three hundred years later. But technology doesn’t advance by the century; it advances by the decade, and sometimes by the month. Given the number of people who still feel profoundly threatned by Darwin, the notion of re-assembling matter on the most basic level is going to cause more than a few problems, especially when that matter we’re re-assembling is the stuff of living systems and most especially when the matter we’re re-assembling is us. After seeing the way people respond to Darwin, organ transplants, and genetically engineered corn, I’m thinking that perhaps Alcor is going to need to invest in some stone walls and antipersonnel mines before this is all done.

So there’s this “book meme” floating around…

Apparently, you’re supposed to

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don’t you dare dig for that “cool” or “intellectual” book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

What’s amusing about that is the only book within reach of my computer right now doesn’t even belong to me; it’s a copy of The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels, a history of Gnosticism.

The fifth sentence on page 123 reads, “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly–a religious quest.”

In the view of one particular sect of Gnostics, the “Valentinians,” human beings are on the top of the divine pecking order, because human beings create the language of theology, and religious expression, without which the will of God can’t be known. Which is kind of an interesting way to look at religion, when it comes right down to it, though I somehow suspect exactly the same moral lesson could probably be drawn had the book closest to hand been one of the Calvin & Hobbes anthologies we have kicking around the place.

Spam subject of the day

“SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT:  aliphatic   coercion   amtrak”

Now, if you’re going to comply with the law and put the “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT” in your subject, why bother to use a hash-busting random word generator in the rest of the subject line? People who’re filtering spam are going to filter on the “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT” part of the subject line!

Unless it’s not random, and the spamvertised Web site really is about sexually explicit rape scenes involving organic compounds with an open-chain structure on trains…

…and if it is, man, there’s a kink I never knew about!

Okay, looking for some information…

…from those of you versed in non-disclosure agreements, the law, or both (with a particular nod at polyamarie)…

Suppose a person has signed a blanket, far-reacing non-disclosure agreement with a company. Does that NDA protect the company from disclosure of criminal activities on the part of that company? Does it matter if said criminal activities are a matter of civil tort (eg, copyright theft; exposing the credit card numbers, names, and addresses of thousands of customers), criminal activity (identity theft, fraud), or both? In short, if a person reveals ongoing criminal activity on the part of a company, can that person be sued for violation of the NDA?

Does the situation change if that person has, for example, screen shots of an exposed database of credit card numbers, or, say, a tape recording of company management talking about the identity theft and copyright violation?

(Note that this post is friends-only, for obvious reasons. And no, I’m not the one under the NDA; I’m enquiring on behalf of someone else.)

Link o’ the Week…

….and dear sweet reanimated undead Jesus, it’s a stinker.

America: a music video to commemorate 9/11.

It’s not a parody. Really. This guy, voice wavering with heartfelt emotion as he caterwauls wildly off-key to the accompaniment of waving flags and shining angels, is actually serious. What’s more, someone, somewhere, considers this video to be the high point of his entire life. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to keep me sleepless at night.

Work-safe, but likely not safe for your stomach.

Random acts of geekery

So. I have a G3 iBook laptop that’s been dropped. The computer still works, kind of, except that:

– The hinge for the screen, and the bezel around the screen, are broken. The screen itself still works, though.

– The power supply can’t be disconnected; the jack for the power supply cord is damaged and the cord can’t be removed.

– The CD-ROM drive is cracked and appears to be damaged.

The computer itself, however, still works and the hard drive is fine. The computer has built-in wireless networking, and the wired Ethernet jack still works as well. As the result of a complicated story involving a client who has many Xserve systems which I have had to administer from the laptop, the laptop is running OS X Server, not regular OS X. There is an external monitor jack, which appears to work as well.

So, the million-dollar question is, what should I do with it? I hate the idea of throwing away a perfectly good (well, still-working) computer, but the repair estimate is greater than the machine is worth. Things I’ve thought about include:

– Taking off the screen, sticking it in a corner, and running it as a network file server/Web server/MOO server/whatever, administering it remotely by SSH.

– Taking off the screen, sticking it in the corner, and using it as a router.

– Disassembling the computer, putting the parts into a picture frame, and hanging it on the wall as a digital picture frame.

– Disassembling the computer, putting the parts into a picture frame, ripping Blade Runner or some cheesy 70s porn onto the hard drive, hanging it on the wall, and letting it play the movie silently on a continuous loop all the time.

– Disassembling the computer, building a cabinet for it (HA! Like I have time to do that!), running MacMAME on it, loading the hard drive with MAME ROM emulators, and using it as a vintage arcade game. With a 12-inch screen.

– Something else? What are your thoughts, O liveJournal community?

It happened last Thursday…

So there I am, in my office, when suddenly I hear this godawful loud “BANG!” and the entire building shakes. It feels like the building’s been hit by a lightning bolt or a bomb’s gone off or something. I stick my head out the door, look around, don’t see anything, and go back to work.

Ten minutes later, i hear noise outside, I stick my head out the door again, and see this:

Continue reading

Some thoughts on rules, responsibility, ethics, polyamory, and relationships

So. A few months ago, i was talking to datan0de about his family, and he said something that in one moment really solidified some ideas Shelly and I have been exploring for quite some time, and which illustrated what has always been a fundamental flaw in my relationship with my ex-wife. I’ve been poking at what he said, and its implications, ever since, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that it represents what is arguably one of the most important axioms of an ethical non-monogamous relationship.

We were talking about relationship rules,and specifically about veto power–a relationship rule which gives one partner the right to “veto” another partner’s relationship. datan0de‘s relationships are based on rules, which explicitly include veto power; superficially, some of the rules between he and his partner resemble many of the rules that existed between me and my ex-wife. My relationship with Shelly is not rules-based; neither of us has any explicit veto power, nor any rules which explicityly govern who we may become romantically involved with or under what circumstances. Instead, our relationship understandings center around the idea that each of us has a responsibility to do what’s right for the other, and if either of us fails to take care of our relationship with the other properly, then it will result in consequences that hurt the relationship.

These seem like two different approaches; and as a result of my experiences with my ex-wife, during which she on many occasions would veto relationships that I and my partner had invested a great deal of emotional energy in, sometimes many years after the relationship started, and often for little or no reason she could articulate, I became inherently suspicious of rules-based relationship structures and most especially of veto power.

datan0de‘s relationship with his partner explicitly permits him to veto her relationship, but something he said during the cours eof our conversation really made it clear just how different in conception, if not in superficial form, his relationship structures are from the ones between my ex-wife and I. He said, “I could veto femetal‘s relationship with zensidhe, but if I did, there would be serious consequences for the relationship between femetal and I.”

That, in a nutshell, is the most crucial dfference between his relationship with his partners and my relationship with my ex-wife, and i think it’s an attitude that is crucial and fundamental for any ethical relationship at all. Just in that one sentence, i believe datan0de hit upon a key for any reasonable system of ethical relationships.

In my relationship with my ex-wife, there was never that sense of consequence–never an idea that “I am ethically responsible for the consequences of my decisions even if the rules we agreed to permit me to make those decisions.” In hindsight, it should have been obvious; when you make a decision that hurts your partner or that breaks your partner’s heart, you can reasonably expect that to have consequences regardless of whether or not your partner agreed to those rules or agreed to give you that power. All the things you do have consequences.

To some outside observers, it seems like the breaking point in my relationship with my ex-wife came about when i started dating Shelly. Some of the people who’ve known me well for a long time recognize that the seeds for the end of my our relationship were planted much earlier, when she arbitrarily vetoed a relationship between me and another partner, Lori, I’d been seeing for abou two or three years. Not only did she end that relationship, she also explicitly forbade me ever to speak to Lori again–not something that was originally a part of our negotiated framework, but something that it’s actually quite easy for one partner to enforce on another. Lori and I were both devastated by the loss of that relationship; the fact that I had agreed to give my ex-wife the authority to make that decision does not change the reality that if you break your lover’s heart, particularly if you break your lover’s heart on multiple occasions over an extended period of time, you’re going to damage your relationship with your lover, no matter what reason you have for doing it or what your relationship agreements say.

datan0de understands this on an intuitive level. My ex-wife does not; she maintains to this day that she did nothing wrong and bears no responsibility of any kind whatsoever for any part of our breakup, as everything she did was within the rules. Because of this, the relationship structures that exist in datan0de‘s family are, in operation, much closer to the structures within my relationship with Shelly than with my relationship with my ex-wife, even though they look similar to the rules between my ex-wife and I, because the behavior of the people in datan0de‘s family is governed by a sense of personal responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

The difference between a rules-based relationship and a relationship not based on rules is, I think, far less significant than the difference between a relationship based on responsibility for the consequences of indifvidual decisions and a relationship based on a sense that anything permitted by the rules is okay. It is possible to buld a rules-based relationship in which the people involved take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and I think datan0de and his family have done that. In fact, there are a lot of things about their relationship that both Shelly and I admire, and as we develop our relationship with phyrra and nihilus, thee are aspects of datan0de‘s relationship structures we are deliberately and consciously emulating. My own skepticism about veto power aside, datan0de and his family have built something quite remarkable, and a person could do far worse than hope to construct a relationship as well as they have built theirs.

This stuff has been rattling around in my head for months, but it took this post in the Polyamory community to really demonstrate to me how universally applicable the idea of responsibility is. The post concerns the question about whether or not it is socially acceptable to invite one or two members of a poly family to a function without inviting all the members of the family.

Many of the answers focus on manners and etiquette, and quite honestly, i think that misses the point. It doesn’t really matter what the rules of etiquette say. What matters is that a person who invites part of a poly family but not the entire family to a function is asking the people he’s invited to choose between him and their partners. By extending the invitation, he’s saying “I want you to make a choice: you may spend this time with me, or you may spend this time with your sweeties, but not both.”

Does he have the right to do that? Sure. A host may choose to invite or not invite anyone to a function as he pleases. But the law of unintended consequence is as universal and insecapable as the law of gravity; and in this case, the unintended consequence of inviting only some members of a family to an event is that if you make a person choose between you and someone he cares about enough times, eventually he’s going to stop choosing you.

Etiquette permits you to invite who you please, just as our negotiated rules permitted my ex-wife to veto who she pleased. In both cases, though, the decisions carry a price tag, and the person making those decisions is responsible for those consequences regardless of what the rules say. Invite only part of a family often enough, and you will eventually hurt your friendship with those people–people don’t like being put in a position where they have to choose between friends and partners. Veto enough people and sooner or later you’re going to break your lover’s heart, and you will eventually hurt your relationship–people don’t like having their hearts broken. In each case, it’s not the rules that are the most relevant; it’s whether or not you accept reponsibility for the consequences of the decisions you make.

Consequence is what shapes relationships. Responsibility for those consequences, not adherance to the rules, is what defines an ethical person.