Random things ‘n’ stuff

Shelly’s got her Internet radio station playing, and a very strange mix of a VNV Nation song just came on, which reminded me I wanted to show this to datan0de:

I’ve been head-down in a major rewrite of my sex game Onyx for the past several weeks, and have had time for nothing–I mean nothing–else. I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing my laptop with me on my lunch break every day and coding while I’m eating.

The downside is that I’ve been having conversations like this lately:

Shelly: I’m horny!
Me: Can’t sleep…can’t eat…can’t fuck…must….code!

The upside is that the game is turning out major kick-ass, and is so much better than the current version that I’m almost embarrassed by the current version. (By the way, datan0de, I’ve implemented all of your suggestions from your last round of alpha testing, and found the crashing bug you reported… I have a new build ready for testing if you guys are up for it!)

It’s been almost five years since the last time I worked on Onyx, and I have piles and piles of small pocket-sized spiral notebooks (some of which date back to 1993) filled with notes, ideas, game actions, kinky sex ideas, and so on all pertaining to the game. I dug them out and have been flipping through them as I work, and I’ve found all kinds of things scribbled in the margins that don’t have any bearing on Onyx at all but must’ve caught my attention:

Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard. Be evil.

The secret to a great friendship is to have lots of fears in common.

Feminists fuck better.

People who make their own beds seldom want to sleep in them.

Every man is the creature of the age in which he lives; very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.

Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.

Today, we’re taking some time off to go to Busch Gardens. When we get back, time to code some more.

With the fire from the fireworks up above
With a gun for a lover and a shot for the pain
You run for cover in the Temple of Love
shine like thunder, cry like rain
And the Temple of Love grows old and strong
But the wind blows stronger, cold and long
And the Temple of Love will fall before this
black wind calls my name to you no more

Tuesday, the Florida part of the Squiggle and I spent the evening at Disney watching the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. The Squiggle is the name given to this extended romantic network I’m a part of; Shelly, smoocherie and her other sweeties Fritz and james_the_evil1, S (who now has a LiveJournal! Welcome joreth!) and her other sweetie sterlingsilver9, and his other sweetie M were all in attendance.

Watching fireworks at Disney has become something of a tradition, if anything that one has done twice in a row can be said to be a “tradition”–though in all fairness that’s usually as close to tradition as I care to get.

I have a picture from last year, same time, same place. The people in that picture are not the same as the people who were there this year; looking at that picture, the social dynamic it represents has changed so much that it seems weird and slightly incomprehensible to me now. It’s interesting how much can change in such a short span of time.

But I didn’t come here to talk about fireworks, or my social life. I came here to talk about feelings.

j5nn5r made a post in polyrelations recently that has some words of wisdom I think bear repeating:

1. Just because I feel bad doesn’t mean somebody else did something wrong.
2. Just because I feel good doesn’t mean I’m doing the right thing.

These two things, taken together, would do much to alleviate about seventy-five percent of the angst, pain, and suffering afflicting the human species today, were they more universally understood and appreciated. Hell, these things should be tattooed on every human being alive today–as long as, y’know, it’s in a nice font or something. In fact, I’m going to say them again, because I like them so much:

1. Just because I feel bad doesn’t mean somebody else did something wrong.
2. Just because I feel good doesn’t mean I’m doing the right thing.

Universal application of these ideas would probably do more good for the sum of all mankind than universal application even of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule prevents people from behaving evilly to one another; these two principles, properly applied, prevent people from behaving evilly to one another even when they feel justified in doing so.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about feelings lately. Over the course of the past several days, on various forums scattered all over the Internet, I’ve been participating in conversations with a person who was upset because her partner has passed a relationship rule forbidding her to masturbate; with a person who says that certain forms of roleplay in a D/s or BDSM context are always unacceptable under all circumstances, and that she would “beat up” anyone who engaged in, for example, Nazi roleplay; and with a person who’s been personally attacking and viciously slandering one of the lead software engineers of the company that makes one of the compilers I use, because the latest version of that compiler’s IDE has a radically different user interface than earlier versions did.

Now, on the surface, these seem like completely separate, unrelated things. But each one actually has the same roots. In each of these three cases, exactly the same thing is happening: someone is feeling a negative or unpleasant emotion, and that person believes that the way to deal with this negative or unpleasant emotion is by controlling the people around him. That is, each case describes a situation where a person is seeking an external solution to an internal emotional state.

Western philosophy and thought makes a great deal of the distinction between the rational self and the emotional self. We talk about these two things as thought they were entirely different; “Should I go with my head or my heart?” “What do you do when your thoughts tell you one thing and your feelings tell you another?”

This idea is pure poppycock.

Thoughts and feelings come from the same source; they’re not different things at all. Feelings are how the parts of our brain that do not have language talk to us; thoughts are how the parts of our brain that do have language talk to us. If there’s a contradiction between someone’s thoughts and his feelings, it likely means that person simply hasn’t taken the time to understand his feelings, that’s all.

Of course, we all know what it feels like to believe something is true, and then later to find out we were wrong; or to believe we understand something, and then later find out we don’t. Happens all the time; if someone believes that New York City is the capital of New York State, then finds out that, no, it’s actually Albany, it’s no big deal.

Feelings can be wrong as well. In fact, it may be that feelings will be wrong more often than rational thoughts; the parts of the brain responsible for our feelings are much simpler, much more primitive, less able to understand abstract ideas or complex situations.

So why is it people rarely seem to understand that their feelings might not always be right?

Emotions are one of the ways we make sense of the world. Unfortunately, an emotion always feels right, by definition. People tend by default to feel justified in their emotions, and accept without question that those emotions are true. The person who feels wronged believes he has been wronged; the person who feels betrayed believes without ever even stopping to consider, or even thinking about whether he should stop to consider, that he has been betrayed.

On one of the UseNet newsgroups I read, there is this guy who has written–loudly, noisily, and repeatedly–about how a change in the user interface of a particular compiler represents a personal “betrayal.” He feels, quite strongly, that the software vendor has betrayed and abandoned him, and to retaliate for this perceived injury, he has taken to (among other things) posting the most amazing rants while masquerading as one of the engineers from that software vendor. He has also attacked the engineers from that vendor in a most amazing way, even posting excerpts from their personal Weblogs with what can only be described as “colorful commentary” on the newsgroup.

Now, this guy is probably quite sincere in his feelings. He genuinely feels slighted and personally affronted; I have no doubt whatsoever that his feelings are very real. What he can’t do is step away from those feelings enough to see how completely outrageous and over-the-top his behavior is; if he does have a legitimate complaint about the redesigned user interface of his compiler, it’s totally buried beneath the landslide of extremely inappropriate behavior, and nobody’s going to listen to anything he says because of it.

When someone behaves in such a clearly outrageous way, it’s pretty easy to point and laugh and say “man, that guy’s a real nutjob!” But people do this same kind of thing, especially in romantic relationships, every day. A feeling of injury or slight always seems real from the inside; it takes a good deal of discipline and good skills at self-understanding to be able to step far enough away from them to say “Just because I feel hurt does not mean that someone attacked me.”

And the real bitch of it is that someone who feels hurt or slighted will behave in ways that under any other circumstances he knows are wrong, because when a person feels hurt, lashing out at the author of the perceived injury feels like the right thing to do. It seems perfectly justified and reasonable.

Feelings are deceptive, and should not be taken at face value, The fact that a thing feels justified and right does not necessarily mean that it is justified and right–but realizing that, and doing what is right, is very, very difficult to do.

It gets worse when the feeling genuinely is justified. There are many people who have a strong emotional reaction to Nazi symbolism, and rightly so. The Nazi party was an abomination, and perpetrated acts of atrocity on an almost inconceivable scale. The symbols associated with the Nazis still have an incredible emotional power; the Holocaust is still within the memories of people who are alive today. It’s reasonable to expect that this kind of symbol will trigger an absolutely overwhelming emotional response in a great many people.

The trap that goes hand in hand with that emotional response is the belief that the emotion justifies an action. The person on the forum I read who says she would commit acts of violence against people who use Nazi symbolism in a BDSM context is so overwhelmed by her emotional response that she lacks the cognitive ability to distinguish between a symbol and the thing that symbol represents, and feels so justified in her emotional response that she lacks the ability to differentiate between a feeling and an action. She, like the Usenet kook who believes that stalking, impersonating, and attacking a software engineer over a change in the user interface of a computer program, sincerely believes that her emotional response justifies her actions; she believes that it is acceptable for her to commit an act of violence because of the way she feels when she sees certain symbols.

The willingness to commit, justify, advocate, defend, or rationalize acts of violence on the basis of an emotion is arguably among the most evil of all human impulses. The irony, invisible to her, is that in her attitude, in her willingness to believe that her internal emotional state justifies violence, she is actually not so different from the very thing she hates. The only difference between her belief that her emotional reaction justifies her violence and the belief on the part of a Ku Klux Klansman that his emotional reaction to the thought of a black person having a romantic relationship with a white partner justifies his violence is in the minor details. In essential philosophical and moral attitudes, these two people are birds of a feather.

As human beings, we react emotionally to symbols; it’s written in our brains. When people confuse the symbol with the thing it represents, evil happens. Emotions are not sophisticated; the emotional part of the brain does not understand subtlety. To the emotional part of the brain, the symbol and the thing it stands for are the same; it takes the application of intellect to understand why they are not. In its petty forms, you get people who become so emotional over someone burning a flag that they imagine the nation that flag stands for has somehow been attacked; in its more virulent forms, you see people reacting so strongly to a symbol that they believe their reaction justifies acts of physical violence.

The thing that’s important, though, is that the emotion does not, of and by itself, justify an action, even in cases where the emotion itself is justified. I would be very uncomfortable if someone showed up at a play party I was attending dressed in full SS regalia; the difference between me and the person on the forum I’m reading is that I recognize that my discomfort is an emotion that belongs to me, and my emotions do not justify violence.

This same philosophy applies on a smaller scale as well. The person who feels uncomfortable or inadequate at the thought of his mate masturbating, and acts on that feeling by ordering his partner not to touch herself, is making the same mistake as the person who beats up someone for engaging in role-play that makes her uncomfortable, just on a smaller scale. In each case, the mental malfunction is exactly the same: the belief that the appropriate way to deal with an uncomfortable emotion is to force others to change their behavior.

Emotions tend to justify the actions they prompt, and emotions tend to try to make people believe that they are justified and right, so if there is a contradiction between the world and a person’s emotional state, it’s the world that has to change. The desire to try to force the world to change to suit our emotional state, rather than changing our emotional state to suit the world, is a very natural one; our emotions are one of the the mechanisms by which we determine whether something is wrong or right, especially in social contexts, so of course our emotions will always feel right. You cannot use your emotions to determine whether or not your emotions are justified; emotions, almost by definition, always feel justified. If we feel slighted, then our emotions are telling us we have been slighted; even if those emotions are wrong, they will still feel right. Believing that you are justified because you feel justified is not good enough.

The way out of the self-referential morass is actually quite easy: evaluate your actions with your head, not your heart. If you feel slighted, don’t assume that the feeling is valid; check your facts first. It’s tough, though, because “checking your facts” does not mean “look for things that validate and support the feeling,” but if you’re not careful, that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing…because, you see, it feels like the right thing to do. Doing what actually is right means fact-checking your feelings, which means that you cannot trust your feelings to give you the right answer.

Just because you feel bad does not mean someone did something wrong. Just because you feel good does not mean what you are doing is right. Feel with your heart, but check your facts.

Geek humor

Bumper sticker I saw on my way home Friday:

Yes, there are people in the world geekier than I am. I bet the half-dozen or so people who get that bumper sticker really appreciate it. 🙂

Some thoughts on entropy

It seems like I spend most of my life in a constant, never-ending battle against entropy, the tendency of all natural systems to progress toward a state of increasing disorder.

Yesterday, Shelly and I spent a good deal of time cleaning up the living room. I’ve moved a great deal of the stuff that used to be in my office into the apartment–eight years’ worth of business records, files, several computers (including a G4 Cube, arguably the most beautiful computer ever designed), and all the other stuff that accumulates when one spends time in one place for an extended period of time.

I hate entropy. The second law of thermodynamics says that energy will, whenever possible, seek to become disbursed. The net total sum of entropy in any closed system–such as, for example, the universe–always increases; stars burn out, iron rusts, people age and die.

And frankly, it all pisses me off.

It seems to me a damn poor way to run a universe–build into it an immutable natural law which guarantees, in the end, the heat death of that universe and everything in it.

Put most simply, entropy is energy, but it’s energy that can’t be used for anything. The total amount of entropy in a system is generally represented by the letter S; the relationship between entropy and energy is given by the equation

where delta-S is the change in entropy in the system, q is the amount of heat absorbed by the system, and T is the absolute temperature of the system at the time the heat was absorbed. As a system absorbs heat, the entropy of that system increases.

Certain processes in the universe are said to be “thermodynamically irreversible.” What that means, in its most basic form, is that certain changes in a system which result in increased entropy will not spontaneously reverse themselves. (It’s a bit more complex than that, of course; thermodynamically irreversible processes will reverse themselves, and that reversal itself is thermodynamically irreversible, if the environment changes in such a way that the reversal of the process increases entropy. But I digress.)

The notion of thermodynamic irreversibility is an important one. It means that, barring a change in the surrounding environment, certain processes once run will not revert back to their initial state. The universe tends toward a state of increasing entropy; a process that increases entropy isn’t going to go back on itself.

Consider a baseball lying on the ground. If you were to make a movie of how that baseball came to be lying on the ground–starting from a pitcher’s hand, flying toward a batter, striking the bat, zooming up into the air, falling back toward the ground–and then you were to play that movie backwards, you would not see anything that violates the laws of physics. The ball could start on the ground; then, all the air molecules around the ball could suddenly conspire to strike the ball in just exactly the right way to increase its kinetic energy, flinging it up from the ground and accelerating it toward the batter. The ball could strike the bat, where most of its energy would be absorbed by the bat and from there by the batter, the muscles in his arms taking that energy and dumping it into molecules of water and carbon dioxide, turning them into glucose molecules. Slowed and with its trajectory altered, the ball could go flying toward the pitcher, where his muscles absorbed the remaining kinetinc energy, turning it into chemical energy by combining water and carbon dioxide and storing the energy in the molecular bonds of the glucose his muscles created.

It could happen that way, but it doesn’t. This sequence of events would require a rather startling decrease in entropy–the random disorganized molecules of air suddenly conspiring together to move in just the right way to propel the ball, the ball-s trajectory taking it precisely back to the bat, the muscles in the player’s arms absorbing kinetic energy and storing it in glucose molecules…

It doesn’t happen that way because all these processes are thermodynamically irreversible. A ball flying through air will collide with the molecules in its way, which will absorb some of its energy and go rocketing off in random directions, generating heat and friction that slow the ball down; this increases entropy. The air molecules aren’t going to spontaneously move to a more highly ordered state, and push against the baseball in just the right way to speed it up; this process reduces entropy, and a reduction of entropy in one place can not happen unless it’s offset by a greater increase in entropy somewhere else.

My first exposure to entropy was in a college physics class, where we discussed the relationship between the ideal gas law, PV=nRT, and entropy. If you take a container of gas at high pressure, and you open the top of that container, the gas escapes until the pressure inside the container is equal to the pressure outside the container. If you open a container and leave it sitting in a room, the air in the room will not spontaneously start pouring into the bottle until the pressure inside the bottle is greater than the pressure outside the bottle. When the pressure inside and outside the bottle is equalized, the entropy in the system is at its maximum.

Each individual molecule of air is bouncing around totally at random, but the probability of all the molecules ending up in the bottle at the same time is very low indeed. As each molecule bounces around at random, the total net probability that any one molecule will be in any one place is pretty low, but the total net probability that the number of molecules in one place will be the same as the number of molecules in another is very high.

This is important, because there is a relationship between entropy and probability. In a gaseous system, if the system has two different states that it can be in, and the probability of the less probable state is given by P and the probability of the more probable state is given by P’, then the entropy in the system can be determined by

where R is the universal gas constant and N is the number of molecules of gas. More generally, in any kind of system, (R/N) will be replaced by some kind of constant, whose value depends on the particulars of the system.

That is, the entropy of a system increases when its state changes from a low probability condition to a high probability condition.

Now, let’s consider a universe without entropy. Entropy provides a mechanism by which certain changes are thermodynamically irreversible; the system favors one state over the other, and changes that increase entropy won’t spontaneously revert. But what happens without this mechanism?

All the structures that exist in the universe today are the result of the gradual accumulation of small changes over time. The initial state of the universe was uniform; the processes that caused non-uniformities to exist, that caused molecules of hydrogen to form, that caused those molecules to congregate and gravitate and form stars, that caused those stars to fuse heavier elements and burn out and explode, that caused the debris from these explosion to accumulate and form new stars…all these processes are thermodynamically irreversible. Some of these processes did result in spontaneous localized increases in order and decreases in entropy, to be sure; but the net sum total of entropy in the universe increased at every step. (Creationists always try to argue that thermodynamics means the spontaneous emergence of highly ordered living things, and the spontaneous increase in the complexity of those living things, is impossible; what the Creationists don’t get is that entropy always increases in a closed system, but this planet is not a closed system. Increase in order is permissible, if you add energy to the system; but adding energy to the system increases entropy somewhere else. The sun is an enormous maw of entropy; the decrease of entropy in living things here is more than offset by the increase in entropy there.)

So without entropy, there’s no mechanism for these small changes to accumulate. Without entropy, the changes that result inexorably in the formation of stars and planets and iPods and you and I aren’t irreversible; the system tends toward a steady state, with each change equally likely to be reversed.

So in other words, without entropy we wouldn’t be here. Without that ratchet that lets changes happen but then prevents them from un-happening, the universe doesn’t do anything interesting.

Which means I shouldn’t really resent entropy as much as I do. But dammit, it still seems like a poor way to run a universe to me. A universe that doesn’t run down and end in heat death, but doesn’t do anything interesting, or a universe that does marvelous and interesting things, then sputters out and dies…man, I want another choice!

Whee! Random fun in Franklin’s mailbox.

The following is from an email posted to one of the mailing lists I subscribe to (or, more precisely, a mailing list I was subscribed to by the list owners, out of the blue). I swear I’m not making any of this up; you just can’t invent comedy this good.


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Damn. Just…damn. I don’t even know where to begin. Shamantic Entertainers who distill their lives into Personal Growth Modalities…folks, you just can’t get enough of that for my entertainment dollar. And for three thousand dollars, you get two hours of “diad time” with Tess, and overnight snuggle privileges! Oh, boy!

Now, let’s see. $3,000 for two hours… If I’m doing my math right, that means you’re paying $25 a minute for your “diad time,” or about forty-one cents a second–and I thought my cell phone plan was expensive. I sure hope that’s some quality “diad time” there; at those prices, she better swallow.

Of course, the price goes down by nearly an order of magnitude if you don’t want the overnight snuggle privileges; maybe that’s a value-added service the rest of the industry should adopt.

Seriously, though, certain corners of the poly community have in the last few years been overrun by this kind of rubbish. It’s almost enough to make me look for a different word for what I am, just to keep my distance from the pay-for-play “Shamanic Entertainers” who sell private sessions and snuggle privileges in the name of universal consciousness awakening.