Kiss Hank’s ass or he’ll kick the shit out of you

From a random Internet email making the rounds, forwarded to me by zensidhe:

This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:

John: “Hi! I’m John, and this is Mary.”

Mary: “Hi! We’re here to invite you to come kiss Hank’s ass with us.”

Me: “Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who’s Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?”

John: “If you kiss Hank’s ass, He’ll give you a million dollars; and if you don’t, He’ll kick the shiat out of you.”

Me: “What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?”

John: “Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can’t until you kiss His ass.”

Me: “That doesn’t make any sense. Why…”

Mary: “Who are you to question Hank’s gift? Don’t you want a million dollars? Isn’t it worth a little kiss on the ass?”

Me: “Well maybe, if it’s legit, but…”

John: “Then come kiss Hank’s ass with us.”

Me: “Do you kiss Hank’s ass often?”

Mary: “Oh yes, all the time…”

Me: “And has He given you a million dollars?”

John: “Well no. You don’t actually get the money until you leave town.”

Me: “So why don’t you just leave town now?”

Mary: “You can’t leave until Hank tells you to, or you don’t get the money, and He kicks the shiat out of you.”

Me: “Do you know anyone who kissed Hank’s ass, left town, and got the million dollars?”

John: “My mother kissed Hank’s ass for years. She left town last year, and I’m sure she got the money.”

Me: “Haven’t you talked to her since then?”

John: “Of course not, Hank doesn’t allow it.”

Me: “So what makes you think He’ll actually give you the money if you’ve never talked to anyone who got the money?”

Mary: “Well, He gives you a little bit before you leave. Maybe you’ll get a raise, maybe you’ll win a small lotto, maybe you’ll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street.”

Me: “What’s that got to do with Hank?”

John: “Hank has certain ‘connections.'”

Me: “I’m sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game.”

John: “But it’s a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don’t kiss Hank’s ass He’ll kick the shiat out of you.”

Me: “Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him…”

Mary: “No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank.”

Me: “Then how do you kiss His ass?”

John: “Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl’s ass, and he passes it on.”

Me: “Who’s Karl?”

Mary: “A friend of ours. He’s the one who taught us all about kissing Hank’s ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times.”

Me: “And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?”

John: “Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here’s a copy; see for yourself.”

From the Desk of Karl
Kiss Hank’s ass and He’ll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
Use alcohol in moderation.
Kick the shiat out of people who aren’t like you.
Eat right.
Hank dictated this list Himself.
The moon is made of green cheese.
Everything Hank says is right.
Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
Don’t use alcohol.
Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
Kiss Hank’s ass or He’ll kick the shiat out of you.

Me: “This appears to be written on Karl’s letterhead.”

Mary: “Hank didn’t have any paper.”

Me: “I have a hunch that if we checked we’d find this is Karl’s handwriting.”

John: “Of course, Hank dictated it.”

Me: “I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?”

Mary: “Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people.”

Me: “I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the shiat out of people just because they’re different?”

Mary: “It’s what Hank wants, and Hank’s always right.”

Me: “How do you figure that?”

Mary: “Item 7 says ‘Everything Hank says is right.’ That’s good enough for me!”

Me: “Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up.”

John: “No way! Item 5 says ‘Hank dictated this list himself.’ Besides, item 2 says ‘Use alcohol in moderation,’ Item 4 says ‘Eat right,’ and item 8 says ‘Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.’ Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too.”

Me: “But 9 says ‘Don’t use alcohol.’ which doesn’t quite go with item 2, and 6 says ‘The moon is made of green cheese,’ which is just plain wrong.”

John: “There’s no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you’ve never been to the moon, so you can’t say for sure.”

Me: “Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock…”

Mary: “But they don’t know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese.”

Me: “I’m not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow ‘captured’ by the Earth has been discounted*. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn’t make it cheese.”

John: “Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!”

Me: “We do?”

Mary: “Of course we do, Item 7 says so.”

Me: “You’re saying Hank’s always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That’s circular logic, no different than saying ‘Hank’s right because He says He’s right.'”

John: “Now you’re getting it! It’s so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank’s way of thinking.”

Me: “But…oh, never mind. What’s the deal with wieners?”

Mary: She blushes.

John: “Wieners, in buns, no condiments. It’s Hank’s way. Anything else is wrong.”

Me: “What if I don’t have a bun?”

John: “No bun, no wiener. A wiener without a bun is wrong.”

Me: “No relish? No Mustard?”

Mary: She looks positively stricken.

John: He’s shouting. “There’s no need for such language! Condiments of any kind are wrong!”

Me: “So a big pile of sauerkraut with some wieners chopped up in it would be out of the question?”

Mary: Sticks her fingers in her ears.”I am not listening to this. La la la, la la, la la la.”

John: “That’s disgusting. Only some sort of evil deviant would eat that…”

Me: “It’s good! I eat it all the time.”

Mary: She faints.

John: He catches Mary. “Well, if I’d known you were one of those I wouldn’t have wasted my time. When Hank kicks the shiat out of you I’ll be there, counting my money and laughing. I’ll kiss Hank’s ass for you, you bunless cut-wienered kraut-eater.”

With this, John dragged Mary to their waiting car, and sped off.


Everything about morning is wrong.

The light in the sky is wrong–distorted in color, an evil haze from the wrong part of the sky, flooding all creation with a hideous luminescence unwholesome to the eye and corrosive to the senses. Every waking sensation is pain; the purr of a kitten, corrupted by morning, is as the assault of a thousand jackhammers, and even the very music of the spheres is a harsh cacophony of crows. The laughter of a child, impossible as it may seem, is made worse by a thousandfold in the morning.

The Greek philosopher cicero, speaking of mornings, wrote Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, which means “There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain.” The fact that there are people who embrace the morning, who leap from their beds every day happy and even eager for the corrupting,, agonizing assault upon their senses, demonstrates beyond any doubt how very, very, very wrong he was.

Morning twists and corrodes all it touches. Morning reduces the intellectually nimble to shambling zombies; it makes a lover’s caress into the touch of the scourge and sackcloth. There is nothing good that can come of it save afternoon; it is the time best reserved for snoring and firing squads. I advise everyone of decency and sense to have no truck with it.

Why we believe what we believe, and why that makes us gullible

Just how deep do you believe?
Will you bite the hand that feeds?
Will you chew until it bleeds?
Can you get up off your knees?
Are you brave enough to see?
Do you want to change it?

What is the purpose of the human brain? What function does it serve? Be careful; this is a trick question!

If you say “The brain is an organ of thought” or “The brain is an instrument of knowledge” or “The brain is the way we understand the world,” that’s the wrong answer. The correct answer is that the brain is an organ of survival. We have these big brains because they enabled our ancestors to survive; in that sense, they are no different from claws or fur or fangs.

And like all organs of survival, the brain was shaped by natural selection, sculpted by evolutionary pressures that favored the traits that helped our ancestors survive. The big brains we have now were molded and shaped to one purpose: to help small bands of hunter-gatherers survive.

Back in the day, when we rarely lived longer than 20 or 25 years and starvation battled with predation by other large carnivores for the number one spot in “things that killed human beings,” our brains gave us a competitive advantage. They did this in part by acting as engines of belief, allowing us to form models of the world and create beliefs about the world that gave us an advantage.

For example, an early human who observed that if he was upwind of his prey, the prey got away, but if he was downwind of his prey, he could more easily kill it formed a belief: “Staying downwind from the prey makes it more likely that the prey will not escape.”

Of course, other animals know these things instinctively. But the advantage of our big monkey brains is that we do not have to rely on instinct; we can form beliefs on the fly, as we go along, which means we can function in environments our instincts are not prepared to deal with. The brain as an organ of survival allows us to make observations and draw beliefs from these observations, and these beliefs give us a competitive advantage.

These beliefs can be immediate and concrete, such as “If I stick my hand in the fire, it will hurt.” They can make predictions about the future, such as “The sun will rise tomorrow” or “If the days grow longer and the weather grows colder, then winter is coming, and food is about to become less plentiful.” A belief can be negative, such as “If I leap from the top of this tree, I will not be able to fly.”

Having a brain optimized for forming beliefs is important if forming beliefs your survival schtick. If you think of the brain as a belief engine, which can either believe something or disbelieve it, and if you think of a particular belief as being true or false, it is easy to construct a game theory matrix describing all the possibilities, with two success modes and two failure modes:

Ideally, our brains lead us to believe things that are true, such as “A large leopard is a dangerous adversary,” and to disbelieve things that are not true, such as “I can eat rocks.” But there are two failure conditions as well: rejecting beliefs that are true, and accepting beliefs that are not.

The failure conditions have survival implications. Believing untrue things and not believing true things can both lead to disaster.

Of the two, though, believing untrue things will, in a small group of hunter-gatherers, usually cause fewer problems than not believing true things. Believing that dancing in circles three times and carrying a magic stone around with you will increase the chances of a successful hunt doesn’t really hurt anything; not believing that staying downwind from your prey is important has a significant survival penalty attached to it.

There’s a strong survival imperative, in other words, to prefer failure by believing something untrue over failure by not believing something that is true. Believing is less expensive than not believing. If a primitive hunter-gatherer eats an unfamiliar food, then becomes sick, it might not be the food that caused him to get sick–but if he believes the food makes him sick, and he’s wrong, the consequences are not too great, whereas if he does not believe the food made him sick,a nd he’s wrong, the consequences can be deadly. The guy who ate some food, got sick, and believed the food made him sick is the guy who survived; today, his descendants give their kids a measles vaccination, and when coincidentally their kids are diagnosed with autism, believe that the measles vaccination caused the autism.

From a survival standpoint, the consequences of not believing something true are worse than the consequences of believing something that is not true. Natural selection, therefore, tends to select in favor of people whose default state is to believe something rather than in favor of people whose default state is to disbelieve something.

And to confound matters further, humans are social animals. In our earliest days, when our social groups tended to number fifty or a hundred people and leopards were a serious and ongoing threat, to live alone was a death sentence. We depended on the support of others to survive.

But that support had a price. Groups, like individuals, form beliefs. To reject the beliefs of your group was to risk ostracism and death. People who questioned and challenged the beliefs of their tribe often did not survive to pass on their genes to future generations; the ones that were most likely to pass along their genes were the ones who learned to believe what the group believed, even if it was contradicted by clear and available evidence.

And those who were adept at manipulating the belief engines of others–shamans, tribal rulers who convinced others of their divine right to rule–tended to be disproportionately successful at mating and tended to control a disproportionate amount of resources, meaning they tended to pass on their genes most successfully.

The greatest invention of the human mind is not fire, or agriculture, or iron, or the steam engine, or even the splitting of the atom. From the perspective of understanding the physical world, the greatest invention of the human mind is the scientific method–the systematic, skeptical approach to claims about the way the world works.

When a scientist has an idea, he does not believe it, and he does not seek to prove it. Instead, he approaches it skeptically, and he seeks to disprove it. The more the idea resists increasingly sophisticated and vigorous attempts to disprove it, the more faith he begins to put in it. This is why any idea that is not falsifiable is not science.

A correlary of this idea is the notion that physical reality behaves the same way everywhere, for everyone. If a brick falls when it is dropped in Kansas, it also falls when it is dropped in Salt Lake City–and, importantly, it falls no matter who drops it, whether the person who drops it believes that it will fall or not. The physical world does not change itself to conform to human wishes and expectations. A claim that is made about some process that must be believed in order to be seen, such as ESP, is not science.

But skepticism is not innate. It is learned. The human brain has been shaped by natural selection not to be skeptical. It has been shaped by evolutionary pressure into a belief engine that believes things more easily than it disbelieves things. For our ancestors, the penalty for skepticism was very high; those early hominids for whom skepticism came naturally did not live long enough to pass on their genes to us. Our brains evolved to be gullible, not skeptical.

Today, we live in a cognitive and physical environment very different from that of our ancestors. But the machinery of natural selection is slow.

In the modern world, the same four states of our belief engines still apply. We are still predisposed to believe things rather than disbelieve them; and we can still believe things that are true, disbelieve things that are true, believe things that aren’t true, or disbelieve things that aren’t true:

Believing things that are true
  • Eating uncooked pork can make you sick
  • If you do not feed your pet dog, your dog will become unhappy, and eventually will die
  • Provoking a large predator may have serious consequences
  • Falling from a great height may have serious consequences
  • A speeding car can not stop instantly
Believing things that are not true
  • A pill can make your penis grow bigger
  • There is a sea monster living in a small landlocked lake in Scotland
  • Atlantis was a lost continent possessed of fabulous technology
  • Space aliens abduct people and perform experiments on them
  • Republicans favor small government; Democrats favor big government
  • There is an invisible man living in the sky who will spank you if you have sex in the wrong position
Not believing things that are true
  • The Holocaust never happened
  • Vaccination does not protect from disease
  • NASA never went to the moon
  • Evolutionary processes did not created the variety of life we can observe on this planet
  • Viruses and bacteria do not cause disease
  • The world is not more than six thousand years old
  • Americans are not obligated to pay income tax
Not believing things that are untrue
  • The world is not flat
  • You can not fly no matter how fast you flap your arms
  • There is no jolly fat man at the North Pole who hands out gifts
  • Money does not grow on trees
  • Forwarding an email to all your friends will not get Bill Gates to give you money
  • Solar eclipses are not caused by gigantic maurading dragons swallowing the sun

What does this mean in practical terms? Simple. It means that your brain has been hard-wired over hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection to make you credulous. Look at the brain as an instrument of survival, look at natural selection creating pressures to prefer the failure mode of believing that which isn’t true over the failure mode of not believing that which is true, and you end up with people hard-wired from the ground up to be gullible.

Your brain is a tool of survival that works by acting as an engine for creating beliefs. When you form a belief, you get a little squirt of pleasure that lights up the reward circuit of your brain. You’re emotionally rewarded every time you believe something.

At the same time, skepticism, and rational, analytical thought, do not come naturally. They’re not what your brain was optimized for; because of that, they are skills which must be learned, and are not innate. In fact, they feel unnatural and uncomfortable to you. Your brain gives you a reward for accepting beliefs, not for challenging them.

There is good news, however. When you introduce sapience into the mix, things change. Biology is not destiny. Your brain is optimized to make you gullible, but you do not need to be. You can train yourself to recognize that little squirt of pleasure you get when you believe something for what it is–a biological holdover from a time when adopting beliefs quickly and without skepticism had survival advantage. You can train yourself to be skeptical, even though it’s not natural for you.

And the rewards for doing so are great. In a modern world, where people want you to believe that they will transfer THE SUM OF $25,000,000 (TWO HUNDRED FIFTY MILLION US$) into your bank account from Nigeria if you give them your bank account information, where emails tell you that you need to update your credit card information or PayPal will shut you down, where people tell you that viruses and bacteria don’t cause disease and if you just order magic “balancing powder” ($360 for a 6-month supply) from their Web site you’ll never get sick, credulity is a survival disadvantage, and skepticism an advantage.

But it doesn’t come naturally. You have to work at it.

Okay, TIRED poly math geeks gone wild

So, in this entry about finding the formula to determine the total number of possible relationship configurations for any group of n people, blaisepascal observed that the sum we came up with did not consider the case where everyone is involved with everyone else, which is something we had intended to include. The previous equation, therefore, has an off-by-one error. The correct form is:

This is, as many people have observed, essentially the standard “pick r of n permutations” equation, which (had we been thinking along those lines) we likely should’ve recognized from the start. And, to be fair, one of the more math-geeky among us said something like that early on, but it took much scribbling on many sheets of paper to prove it.

Experiments in asymmetry at 2:30 AM

One of the many people at smoocherie‘s party, james_the_evil1 brought rope. This should come as a surprise to nobody, really. S volunteered to be tied up, so I tried an experiment with incorporating her hair into the tie.

This is a two-layer harness, which looks deceptively simple from the front:

From the back, it’s a bit more complicated, though. I think it worked well; I like the asymmetry. Continue reading

Poly Geeks Gone Wild

So, what happens when you get a bunch of polyamorous geeks together at a party? Someone starts charting relationship configurations, and someone else starts wondering how many possible relationship configurations there are in a particular group, and someone else gets out a calculator and a sheet of paper, and…

As it turns out, the equation that will tell you for any size group of people n how many possible relationship configurations (couples, triads, and so on) are possible within that group is pretty complicated. It took a lot of work and many sheets of paper, and the considerable brainpower of a couple people with degrees in mathematics, but the equation is:

This will tell you for any group of people n how many possible relationship configurations exist in that group.

And the number goes up fast. Scary fast. For n=9, there are 502 possible relationship configurations in that group. The number of people in the Squiggle I belong to is 15; I haven’t calculated the number of possible relationship configurations exist in such a group.

I think I’m going to make this formula into a T-shirt.