I am in love with a dragonslayer

Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed.

The misery inflicted by the dragon-tyrant was incalculable. In addition to the ten thousand who were gruesomely slaughtered each day, there were the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, and friends that were left behind to grieve the loss of their departed loved ones.

When I first met Shelly, we recognized each other immediately. There are many things the two of us share–not just common ideas about relationship, or shared values (though we do have those), but something else. We both share the experience of seeing the Void–the inescapable realization that we are, each of us, mortal, and the understanding of what it means that we are going to die.

If you have seen the Void, it never leaves you. Some people seek escape in religion, which offers the promise that once we’re past the grave, nothing can go wrong. Some people seek escape in raising a family, or in the notion of reincarnation. For some of us, though, all these things have a feel of intellectual dishonesty about them; in the end, the most parsimonious idea, and the one that is almost certainly true, is that there will be a time when we cease to be, and that ultimately, that is all there is. And that is not okay.

Some people tried to fight the dragon, but whether they were brave or foolish was difficult to say. Priests and magicians called down curses, to no avail. Warriors, armed with roaring courage and the best weapons the smiths could produce, attacked it, but were incinerated by its fire before coming close enough to strike. Chemists concocted toxic brews and tricked the dragon into swallowing them, but the only apparent effect was to further stimulate its appetite. The dragon’s claws, jaws, and fire were so effective, its scaly armor so impregnable, and its whole nature so robust, as to make it invincible to any human assault.

Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impossible, humans had no choice but to obey its commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatalities selected were always elders. Although senior people were as vigorous and healthy as the young, and sometimes wiser, the thinking was that they had at least already enjoyed a few decades of life. The wealthy might gain a brief reprieve by bribing the press gangs that came to fetch them; but, by constitutional law, nobody, not even the king himself, could put off their turn indefinitely.

The relationship between Shelly and I has been at the same time both effortless and extraordinarily difficult. It’s been effortless because that shared recognition of one another makes understanding easy, and that understanding makes our shared experiences easy. It has been extraordinarily difficult because we connected at a time when our connection was not acceptable to many of the people around us, and we have had to forge the relationship we now share at great cost. In a number of important ways, neither of us is the person we were only a few years ago; indeed, neither of us would likely ever again begin a relationship so fraught with difficulty and pain.

For some people, though, recognition is worth almost any cost. For those of us who live outside the bell curve, the idea of meeting another human being who can really see us, and who can not only understand but cherish those things which make us unlike the people around us, is a thing precious beyond price.

For many centuries this desperate state of affairs continued. Nobody kept count any longer of the cumulative death toll, nor of the number of tears shed by the bereft. Expectations had gradually adjusted and the dragon-tyrant had become a fact of life. In view of the evident futility of resistance, attempts to kill the dragon had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on placating it. While the dragon would occasionally raid the cities, it was found that the punctual delivery to the mountain of its quota of life reduced the frequency of these incursions.

Knowing that their turn to become dragon-fodder was always impending, people began having children earlier and more often. It was not uncommon for a girl to be pregnant by her sixteenth birthday. Couples often spawned a dozen children. The human population was thus kept from shrinking, and the dragon was kept from going hungry.

Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while, somebody gets a good idea. Others copy the idea, adding to it their own improvements. Over time, many wondrous tools and systems are developed. Some of these devices – calculators, thermometers, microscopes, and the glass vials that the chemists use to boil and distil liquids – serve to make it easier to generate and try out new ideas, including ideas that expedite the process of idea-generation.

Thus the great wheel of invention, which had turned at an almost imperceptibly slow pace in the older ages, gradually began to accelerate.

Sages predicted that a day would come when technology would enable humans to fly and do many other astonishing things. One of the sages, who was held in high esteem by some of the other sages but whose eccentric manners had made him a social outcast and recluse, went so far as to predict that technology would eventually make it possible to build a contraption that could kill the dragon-tyrant.

The king’s scholars, however, dismissed these ideas. They said that humans were far too heavy to fly and in any case lacked feathers. And as for the impossible notion that the dragon-tyrant could be killed, history books recounted hundreds of attempts to do just that, not one of which had been successful. “We all know that this man had some irresponsible ideas,” a scholar of letters later wrote in his obituary of the reclusive sage who had by then been sent off to be devoured by the beast whose demise he had foretold, “but his writings were quite entertaining and perhaps we should be grateful to the dragon for making possible the interesting genre of dragon-bashing literature which reveals so much about the culture of angst!”

I have written many times in this journal about a philosophy called “transhumanism.” This philosophy, or if you prefer this way of viewing at the world, holds at its essential core the notion at each of us is made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, and that that stuff is bound by the same physical laws. It also holds that as human beings become increasingly clever, our ability to make the matter and energy from which the universe is made jump through hoops at our command becomes increasingly precise. The development of written language took seventy thousand years from the dawn of mankind as a species; the harnessing of the atom required less than half that time from that point. The ability to create machines which could store and manipulate information needed about the same amount of time; the ability to carve those machines into patterns mere dozens of atoms thick onto objects scarcely visible to the eye required but sixty years after that.

I was introduced to transhumanism by datan0de, a person who has also seen the Void and in whom I also see that essential spark of recognition–fitting, I think, in an arch-nemesis. Through him as well I was introduced to Dr. Ralph Merkle, a pioneer in the field of biomedical nanotechnology, a science whose goal is nothing less than the ability to rebuild and repair living systems at the level of the molecule, doing for medicine what the development of solid-state logic and the integrated circuit have done for computers.

Meanwhile, the wheel of invention kept turning. Mere decades later, humans did fly and accomplished many other astonishing things.

A few iconoclastic dragonologists began arguing for a new attack on the dragon-tyrant. Killing the dragon would not be easy, they said, but if some material could be invented that was harder than the dragon’s armor, and if this material could be fashioned into some kind of projectile, then maybe the feat would be possible. At first, the iconoclasts’ ideas were rejected by their dragonologist peers on grounds that no known material was harder than dragon scales. But after working on the problem for many years, one of the iconoclasts succeeded in demonstrating that a dragon scale could be pierced by an object made of a certain composite material. Many dragonologists who had previously been skeptical now joined the iconoclasts. Engineers calculated that a huge projectile could be made of this material and launched with sufficient force to penetrate the dragon’s armor. However, the manufacture of the needed quantity of the composite material would be expensive.

The anti-dragonists met again to decide what was to be done. The debate was animated and continued long into the night. It was almost daybreak when they finally resolved to take the matter to the people. Over the following weeks, they traveled around the country, gave public lectures, and explained their proposal to anyone who would listen. At first, people were skeptical. They had been taught in school that the dragon-tyrant was invincible and that the sacrifices it demanded had to be accepted as a fact of life. Yet when they learnt about the new composite material and about the designs for the projectile, many became intrigued. In increasing numbers, citizens flocked to the anti-dragonist lectures. Activists started organizing public rallies in support of the proposal.

When the king read about these meetings in the newspaper, he summoned his advisors and asked them what they thought about it. They informed him about the petitions that had been sent but told him that the anti-dragonists were troublemakers whose teachings were causing public unrest. It was much better for the social order, they said, that the people accepted the inevitability of the dragon-tyrant tribute.

Shelly has a determinism in her which, once is awakened, is ferocious in its intensity. Meeting Dr. Merkle energized her in a way that I have never seen before. We spoke with him for less than an hour, and by the end of that time, the rest of the course of her life had been determined.

Within weeks of our return from Atlanta, where we’d been introduced and spoken to him, she was obtaining transcripts and applying for school. There were a couple of people who said her interest was fleeting, some people who said that pursuing a degree in biomedical nanotechnology was not an endeavor suited for her, even one person who believed that it was simply a ruse on her part to win my affections by assuming an interest in things that interested me. The thing that all these people had in common, I believe, was that they did not see Shelly, and because of that, they could not recognize that fire inside her. Those people around us who do see Shelly never doubted her for an instant.

The king, who was at the time enjoying great popularity for having vanquished the rattlesnake infestation, listened to his advisors’ arguments but worried that he might lose some of his popular support if was seen to ignore the anti-dragonist petition. He therefore decided to hold an open hearing. Leading dragonologists, ministers of the state, and interested members of the public were invited to attend.

The meeting took place on the darkest day of the year, just before the Christmas holidays, in the largest hall of the royal castle. The hall was packed to the last seat and people were crowding in the aisles. The mood was charged with an earnest intensity normally reserved for pivotal wartime sessions.

After the king had welcomed everyone, he gave the floor to the leading scientist behind the anti-dragonist proposal, a woman with a serious, almost stern expression on her face. She proceeded to explain in clear language how the proposed device would work and how the requisite amount of the composite material could be manufactured. Given the requested amount of funding, it should be possible to complete the work in fifteen to twenty years. With an even greater amount of funding, it might be possible to do it in as little as twelve years. However, there could be no absolute guarantee that it would work. The crowd followed her presentation intently.

Next to speak was the king’s chief advisor for morality, a man with a booming voice that easily filled the auditorium:

“Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science and that the project is technologically possible, although I don’t think that has actually been proven. Now she desires that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s got the right not to be chewed up by the dragon. How willful and presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not. Getting rid of the dragon, which might seem like such a convenient thing to do, would undermine our human dignity. The preoccupation with killing the dragon will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive. It is debasing, yes debasing, for a person to want to continue his or her mediocre life for as long as possible without worrying about some of the higher questions about what life is to be used for. But I tell you, the nature of the dragon is to eat humans, and our own species-specified nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by getting eaten by it…”

The audience listened respectfully to this highly decorated speaker. The phrases were so eloquent that it was hard to resist the feeling that some deep thoughts must lurk behind them, although nobody could quite grasp what they were. Surely, words coming from such a distinguished appointee of the king must have profound substance.

The speaker next in line was a spiritual sage who was widely respected for his kindness and gentleness as well as for his devotion. As he strode to the podium, a small boy yelled out from the audience: “The dragon is bad!”

The boy’s parents turned bright red and began hushing and scolding the child. But the sage said, “Let the boy speak. He is probably wiser than an old fool like me.”

Throughout all of human history, we have seen that the sum total of human knowledge and ability increases exponentially. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, existence has been hard, ugly, brutal, and short. But we today live in a time unlike that of any of our ancestors, even a few generations ago. We take for granted things that would have been miracles only a century ago, let alone a thousand or ten thousand years ago. And looking ahead, we can see the sum total of our understanding increasing at a rate more rapid than many of the people alive even today can comprehend. We are at the most interesting point of the exponential curve–the part of the curve where it just begins to shoot skyward, and things become very interesting indeed.

The path Shelly has set herself upon is a very difficult and often lonely one; the first people to see a new possibility are rarely recognized or rewarded for it, and it is not until after the impossible has been done that the majority looks back and says “Oh, that was obvious.”

At first, the boy was too scared and confused to move. But when he saw the genuinely friendly smile on the sage’s face and the outreached hand, he obediently took it and followed the sage up to the podium. “Now, there’s a brave little man,” said the sage. “Are you afraid of the dragon?“

“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”

There were several other speakers that evening, but the child’s simple testimony had punctured the rhetorical balloon that the king’s ministers had tried to inflate. The people were backing the anti-dragonists, and by the end of the evening even the king had come to recognize the reason and the humanity of their cause. In his closing statement, he simply said: “Let’s do it!”

As the news spread, celebrations erupted in the streets. Those who had been campaigning for the anti-dragonists toasted each other and drank to the future of humanity.

Thus started a great technological race against time. The concept of an anti-dragon projectile was simple, but to make it a reality required solutions to a thousand smaller technical problems, each of which required dozens of time-consuming steps and missteps. Test-missiles were fired but fell dead to the ground or flew off in the wrong direction. In one tragic accident, a wayward missile landed on a hospital and killed several hundred patients and staff. But there was now a real seriousness of purpose, and the tests continued even as the corpses were being dug out from the debris.

Despite almost unlimited funding and round-the-clock work by the technicians, the king’s deadline could not be met. The decade concluded and the dragon was still alive and well. But the effort was getting closer. A prototype missile had been successfully test fired. Production of the core, made of the expensive composite material, was on schedule for its completion to coincide with the finishing of the fully tested and debugged missile shell into which it was to be loaded. The launch date was set to the following year’s New Year’s Eve, exactly twelve years after the project’s official inauguration. The best-selling Christmas gift that year was a calendar that counted down the days to time zero, the proceeds going to the projectile project.

The fire inside Shelly is nothing less than the desire to defeat the Void, to strike back against the notion that old age and death are the inevitable heritage of mankind. She has set herself on a course toward a Ph.D. in a science so new that it does not even have a universally agreed-upon name yet. This will probably consume at least the next ten years of her life, and when she has that degree, she will likely have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to go with it–and that degree is only the means to an end, not the end in itself. That degree represents only the tools to do the thing which she actually wants to do, which is pure research–in a field so few people believe in that she will probably earn about as much money as the person down the street whose job it is to ask you “do you want some fries with that?”

When she started school, one person predicted that she would quit within a year. not only has she not done so, she has not stopped even for summer break; she has not left school for more than two weeks since the first day she walked into a classroom. Shelly has declared war upon the Void; the stakes could not possibly be higher.

The cost has been high. She studies for sixty hours a week, not counting the time she is in class. I see her only a couple of hours out of the day. When we drive somewhere, she has a textbook in her lap. When we go out to eat, her organic chemistry text comes with us.

There is beauty in this; in chemistry and in biology, Shelly sees the Matrix–the underlying processes by which the universe itself works, the code that makes it all happen. Philosophers, poets, and sages have nothing on scientists when it comes to seeing the majesty and wonder of the physical world. It is a very hard road to take, though, and one few people understand or even see the value in.

The last day of the year was cold and overcast, but there was no wind, which meant good launch conditions. The sun was setting. Technicians were scuttling around making the final adjustments and giving everything one last check. The king and his closest advisors were observing from a platform close to the launch pad. Further away, behind a fence, large numbers of the public had assembled to witness the great event. A large clock was showing the countdown: fifty minutes to go.

An advisor tapped the king on the shoulder and drew his attention to the fence. There was some tumult. Somebody had apparently jumped the fence and was running towards the platform where the king sat. Security quickly caught up with him. He was handcuffed and taken away. The king turned his attention back to the launch pad, and to the mountain in the background. In front of it, he could see the dark slumped profile of the dragon. It was eating.

Some twenty minutes later, the king was surprised to see the handcuffed man reappearing a short distance from the platform. His nose was bleeding and he was accompanied by two security guards. The man appeared to be in frenzied state. When he spotted the king, he began shouting at the top of his lungs: “The last train! The last train! Stop the last train!”

“Who is this young man?” said the king. “His face seems familiar, but I cannot quite place him. What does he want? Let him come up.”

The young man was a junior clerk in the ministry of transportation, and the reason for his frenzy was that he had discovered that his father was on the last train to the mountain. The king had ordered the train traffic to continue, fearing that any disruption might cause the dragon to stir and leave the open field in front of the mountain where it now spent most of its time. The young man begged the king to issue a recall-order for the last train, which was due to arrive at the mountain terminal five minutes before time zero.

“I cannot do it,” said the king, “I cannot take the risk.”

“But the trains frequently run five minutes late. The dragon won’t notice! Please!”

The young man was kneeling before the king, imploring him to save his father’s life and the lives of the other thousand passengers onboard that last train.

The king looked down at the pleading, bloodied face of the young man. But he bit his lip, and shook his head. The young man continued to wail even as the guards carried him off the platform: “Please! Stop the last train! Please!”

The king stood silent and motionless, until, after while, the wailing suddenly ceased. The king looked up and glanced over at the countdown clock: five minutes remaining.

Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes.

The last technician left the launch pad.

30 seconds. 20 seconds. Ten, nine, eight…

As a ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile shot out, the spectators instinctively rose to the tips of their toes, and all eyes fixated at the front end of the white flame from the rocket’s afterburners heading towards the distant mountain. The masses, the king, the low and the high, the young and the old, it was as if at this moment they shared a single awareness, a single conscious experience: that white flame, shooting into the dark, embodying the human spirit, its fear and its hope… striking at the heart of evil. The silhouette on the horizon tumbled, and fell. Thousand voices of pure joy rose from the assembled masses, joined seconds later by a deafening drawn-out thud from the collapsing monster as if the Earth itself was drawing a sigh of relief. After centuries of oppression, humanity at last was free from the cruel tyranny of the dragon.

The joy cry resolved into a jubilating chant: “Long live the king! Long live us all!” The king’s advisors, like everybody that night, were as happy as children; they embraced each other and congratulated the king: “We did it! We did it!”

But the king answered in a broken voice: “Yes, we did it, we killed the dragon today. But damn, why did we start so late? This could have been done five, maybe ten years ago! Millions of people wouldn’t have had to die.”

The king stepped off the platform and walked up to the young man in handcuffs, who was sitting on the ground. There he fell down on his knees. “Forgive me! Oh my God, please forgive me!”

The rain started falling, in large, heavy drops, turning the ground into mud, drenching the king’s purple robes, and dissolving the blood on the young man’s face. “I am so very sorry about your father,” said the king.

“It’s not your fault,” replied the young man. “Do you remember twelve years ago in the castle? That crying little boy who wanted you to bring back his grandmother – that was me. I didn’t realize then that you couldn’t possibly do what I asked for. Today I wanted you to save my father. Yet it was impossible to do that now, without jeopardizing the launch. But you have saved my life, and my mother and my sister. How can we ever thank you enough for that?”

“Listen to them,” said the king, gesturing towards the crowds. “They are cheering me for what happened tonight. But the hero is you. You cried out. You rallied us against evil.” The king signaled a guard to come and unlock the handcuffs. “Now, go to your mother and sister. You and your family shall always be welcome at the court, and anything you wish for – if it be within my power – shall be granted.”

Shelly has picked up the sword and the armor of the dragonslayer. There are no higher stakes. I do not believe she will put them down until the dragon has killed her or it is slain itself.

Today, she and I ordered a pair of rings. I will be leaving for Atlanta within weeks, and we wanted to exchange rings before I leave. She will remain here, in school, studying the ways of her enemy and the tools and weapons by which to defeat it. The rings are made of titanium (atomic number: 22; atomic mass: 47.867; melting point: 1,660 C; number of neutrons: 26; number of electrons and protons: 22) and are engraved on the inside. Mine says “No Fate But What We Make.” Hers simply says “Dragonslayer.”

The young man left, and the royal entourage, huddling in the downpour, accumulated around their monarch who was still kneeling in the mud. Amongst the fancy couture, which was being increasingly ruined by the rain, a bunch of powdered faces expressed a superposition of joy, relief, and discombobulation. So much had changed in the last hour: the right to an open future had been regained, a primordial fear had been abolished, and many a long-held assumption had been overturned. Unsure now about what was required of them in this unfamiliar situation, they stood there tentatively, as if probing whether the ground would still hold, exchanging glances, and waiting for some kind of indication.

Finally, the king rose, wiping his hands on the sides of his pants.

“Your majesty, what do we do now?” ventured the most senior courtier.

“My dear friends,” said the king, “we have come a long way… yet our journey has only just begun. Our species is young on this planet. Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now – time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world, and time to get settled in it. Tonight, let all the bells in the kingdom ring until midnight, in remembrance of our dead forbears, and then after midnight let us celebrate till the sun comes up. And in the coming days… I believe we have some reorganization to do!”

Shelly has picked up the sword and the armor of the dragonslayer. There are no higher stakes. I do not believe she will put them down until the dragon has killed her or it is slain itself.

If i were the dragon, I would be very, very worried.

The full text of the dragon fable, which is © Journal of Medical Ethics, 2005, Vol. 31, No. 5, pp 273-277, is available here.

On Moving to Atlanta

Chapter 1: These Homies are Chillin’ in their Low Ride!

U-Haul’s online, computerized reservation system sucks hefty moose willie.

I just want to get that out of the way before going any farther. U-Haul’s online reservation system is truly Teh Suck. It could suck a golf ball through a garden hose. If the suck of the U-Haul reservation system could be harnessed and used for good, it could replace gravity. It’s a good thing the rest of U-Haul’s customer service system blows to the same degree, to equalize the pressure.

As anyone who’s been reading this journal for a while knows, I’m in the process of moving. Specifically, to Atlanta. Two weeks ago, I found an apartment up there; last weekend came the Big Move. (Well, of my stuff, anyway; I’ll be staying in Gainesville for the next couple of weeks or so, and I’ll be in Tampa for Necronomicon next weekend.)

Anyway, before the move, I used U-Haul’s Web site to reserve a truck and one of those things you use to drag your car behind the truck, one way, Tampa to Atlanta. On the day of the reservation, I got a text message on my cell phone telling me the truck and car-towing-thingie were ready, and giving me the address of the place to pick them up. Got an email with the same information. Being the suspicious bastard I am, I called the location. “Oh, sure, come on down! We have the truck!”

They didn’t have the truck.

It took them a little over an hour to figure it out, but they didn’t have the truck. They did, however, have a slightly bizarre toy for sale: a plastic car that lights up and bounces up and down when you push a button, all while playing hip-hop music:

These homies are chillin' in their Low Ride

It’s a weird little slice of urban Americana. The three people in the car are racially balanced–one white guy, one Latino guy, one black guy–though I couldn’t help but notice that the black guy is riding in the back. The text on the bottom of the box reads “These homies are chillin’ in their Low Ride!” Now, for fifteen points: How many stereotypes can you find in this one toy, available for the low,low price of just nine dollars and ninety-five cents? I bet it’s probably made in China, though I didn’t think to check.

But I digress.

Anyway, after an hour of waiting, the U-Haul location determined that, text messages and email and phone conversation to the contrary, they didn’t have my truck. The guy called around a few places, found a place that did, and sent me over there.

Another hour in the second place, and we were ready to g–oh, no, wait, I reserved a hand truck, and they didn’t have one available. Some searching around, and…hey, wait, we have an appliance dolly, will you take that instead? Oh, and we don’t have that doohickey that tows your car by the front wheels, we just have one of the big flatbed things that you drive your car up onto. How’s that sound?

Appliance dolly in the back of the truck, flatbed trailer in tow, and joreth and I were off to the apartment for some backbreaking physical labor.

Chapter 2: In which we learn that Franklin sucks at moving heavy objects

There is a warning on the U-Haul appliance dolly. It warns that the dolly can be recognized as U-Haul property just by its design alone, and that anyone caught in possession of it without a rental contract may be prosecuted for possession of stolen property.

Now, the U-Haul appliance dolly has a very, very short foot. So short, in fact, that it’s very awkward to use. U-Haul specifically designed, engineered, and built a custom hand cart just so they could be recognized if someone walks off with one, but from all appearances, the usefulness of the hand cart in tasks such as, say, moving heavy objects was not a primary design consideration.

I have a bookshelf. It’s a very large bookshelf, about seven feet tall, made of dense particle board. It weighs more than I do. In fact, I believe it weighs more than Joreth and I put together. If a person were to, hypothetically speaking, load it on an appliance dolly, and then, just as a “for instance,” cart it over a doorstep, and this hypothetical doorstep were, say, about four inches high, and while doing this, if my thumb were to get between the appliance dolly and the bookshelf, so that the bookshelf dropped that four inches onto my thumb…if all these things were to happen, then one might expect a certain amount of hopping about and swearing might follow very shortly thereafter.

Hypothetically speaking.

This set something of a tone for the rest of the packing process. I tripped over, walked into, barked my shins on, and otherwise injured myself with approximately three-quarters of my possessions, and I own a lot of crap. joreth did her best not to laugh, a heroic effort that can not be understated.

About three hours into this process, I got a call from U-Haul. “We’re showing that you have an equipment reservation for today. Are you planning to come in and pick up your truck, or should we cancel your reservation?”

Looking back on it now, perhaps I should’ve told them to cancel the reservation, because then, hey, they’d probably forget they even owned the truck!

Chapter 3: Heisenberg

After she’d finished studying, Shelly came down from Gainesville to help finish the packing and whatnot, arriving just in time for dinner. The rest of the packing went quickly, if a little haphazardly, and in no time the truck was buttoned up and ready to go. Night had fallen with a particularly wet thud, so we finished up in total darkness.

And then came…time to load the car trailer.

Which is very large.

Back…no, no, pull forward just a hair…um, wait, right a smidge…no, your other right…um, forward…no, wait, the other way, I mean left…now back up a little…um, too far, forward a bit…

It’s actually possible to carry on a surprisingly lengthy conversation using only the words “back,” “forward,” “left,” and “right,” provided you don’t want to talk about anything other than moving backward, forward, left, and right. We did eventually get the trailer hooked up…not by any particular skill on our parts, I think, but rather through the well-known Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Automobile Motion. As anyone who’s ever passed the second grade knows, this uncertainty principle is given by

where delta-X is the change in the distance from the hitch to the trailer, delta-f is the change in frustration of the driver, i is the importance of getting the goddamn trailer hooked up right fucking now, U is the U-Haul Constant (a universal property subject to change without notice), n is the number of tries you’ve made so far, and lambda is the wavelength of light most likely to give you a headache. As is intuitively obvious to the most casual of observers, the more frustrated you are and the more important it is that you get the trailer hooked up right fucking now, the more tries it can take, all other things being equal.

Chapter 4: These Homies are Cranky in their Tall Truck

It’s about two hours from Tampa to Gainesville, and five more to Atlanta. This assumes, of course, that one is driving at a reasonable speed…say, fifteen miles per hour or so over the posted speed limit, the posted speed limit being a most unreasonable speed, all things considered.

In a desperately underpowered Ford POS towing a car on an absurdly large trailer, it’s a little more. Especially when one has not showered and feels like the inside of a yak’s armpit.

Shelly and I stopped in Gainesville long enough to fail to sleep because the cats decided that five o’clock in the morning would be an ideal time to start playing, and the game they agreed on was “let’s knock everything off all the desks and then chase each other over the human’s bed.”

The cats were asleep when we left, the furry little bastards. The trip to Atlanta wasn’t as bad as it could have been–we could have been on fire, for example–and the unloading of the truck once we arrived went smoothly and effortlessly.

As it turns out, there are people who will–get this–actually unload a truck for you, if you give them this thing called “money.” The joy I felt on discovering this can not be overstated. We’re talking the rapture of the angels, here. We’re talking music of the spheres, winning the Lotto, George Dubya’s term in office ending, and finding free pr0n on the Internet all rolled into one. Now that I have learned this Very Important Thing, I will never unload a moving truck again. “Not unloading a truck full of crap” ranks surprisingly high on the list of Things That Make Me Happy.

Pausing only to buy some new pants, fill up with gas, and leave my toothbrush and cell phone charger in Atlanta (goddammit), we headed back down to Florida at a much more reasonable speed, detouring through Tallahassee long enough to visit Shelly’s sweetie there. And when we got home…

Chapter 5: Fire Poi!

…fire poi!

The set of fire poi I ordered arrived. I need to practice with them sans fire until I’m reasonably sure I won’t set myself on fire when I use them (because it could always be worse until you’re on fire, and at that point it’s difficult to say ‘it could be worse’ any more). With a bit of luck, I can arrange to have smoocherie be there when I light them up for the first time, because after all, she is the reason I’m into poi spinning in the first place, and I did take her virginity and all. So how ;bout it, smoocherie, you going to be available before I leave Florida for good?

In which we learn that Franklin is disrespectful

A short time ago, a lengthy and near-incoherent ramble about the dawning of a new age of divine government appeared in my inbox. This email was posted on an email list to which I belong, though not, to be fair, by choice–I was subscribed to the list by its owners without my knowledge. Anyway, I posted a rather lengthy reply poking fun at the original message, which was laced with absurdities galore.

One of the people on the email list responded quite angrily. She does not subscribe to the same…ahh, peculiar beliefs as the original poster, nor does she much seem inclined to believe in the coming of the Divine Government, but she was very angry nonetheless. She called me a long list of names, in fact, while saying that all beliefs should be treated with respect.

The list of names itself is not particularly interesting. Nor is the unconscious irony in the notion of a belief system that says all ideas should be treated with respect, and anyone who disagrees with this idea should be called names. Nor, really, is her apparent inability to distinguish between mocking an idea and mocking a person; many people have difficulty differentiating the two, and will often respond to an attack on their ideas as though they had personally been attacked.

What is interesting, though, is one of the names she called me. In with the list of other names was one that is absolutely on the mark. “Disrespectful,” she called me. And she’s right; I am.

The notion that all ideas deserve respect doesn’t hold much value to me. Even the notion that all spiritual ideas deserve respect doesn’t much agree with me; there are many spiritual ideas–for example, the notion that the world is hollow and populated by a race of aliens or superbeings (depending on the particular theory being presented) who will once again rise to reassert the primacy of the Aryan race…and no, I’m not making this up…doesn’t command much respect from me. Nor do spiritual beliefs such as the more extreme flavors of Christian Dominionism (some of which assert that whites are God’s chosen people) particularly deserve respect.

Now, does that mean spirituality as a whole is open to ridicule?

Not necessarily. The fact that human beings are spiritual animals sems written into our genes. Spiritual beliefs, properly applied, are not falsifiable; they make assertions which can not be tested, and which are impossible either to prove or to disprove. I don’t necessarily find all nontstable assertions absurd. For instance, the observation that certain constants (such as the speed of light, Planck’s constant, and so on) appear written into the fundamental laws of physics, and that if these constants were to change by even the tiniest amount the physical universe would not be possible, has led some people to assert that these constants were set by a creator divinity. This is a fundamentally untestable assertion, and I don’t spend any time ridiculing it; I’m actually neutral on whether or not it’s true, and have no opinion one way or the other on the existance of such a creator divinity.

But here’s the thing. Assertions of empirical fact are notthe same as assertions of spiritual belief, and when you make an assertion of empirical fact, now you’re playing with the big boys.

When you play with the big boys, you play by big-boy rules. When you make an assertion of empirical fact, now everything changes. Assertions of empirical fact do not get or deserve automatic respect. Assertions of empirical fact are evaluated by a ruthless meritocracy. They live or die by only one criterion–how closely they match the physical universe. All assertions of empirical fact start with zero credibility; they gain respect by matching observations of the physical universe, and lose respect by failing to match observations of the physical universe.

Some assertions of empirical fact are rooted in, or motivated by, spiritual beliefs. And sometimes, those who hold spiritual beliefs seek to have it both ways.

In the article Snake Oil and Holy Water, Richard Dawkins (a hero of mine) lays it out pretty succintly. Religion and spirituality, we’re told, inhabits one sphere of human thought, and observation of the physical world occupies another; you can not judge spiritual beliefs by scientific principles. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But what happens is that people who advocate spiritual beliefs make assertions about the physical world–assertions which, quite often, turn out to be wrong–and then when called on it, retreat into “You can’t judge me! You can’t tell me I’m wrong! You must respect my beliefs; spirituality is not the same thing as science!”

You can’t have it both ways. If you want to talk about spiritual beliefs, you can’t make assertions of empirical fact. If you do make assertions of empirical fact, you can’t then retreat into spirituality when you are called on any errors or fallacies in those assertions of empirical fact. If you want to play with the big boys, you have to play by big-boy rules.

The rambling New Age missive to which I replied looks like a statement of spirituality, but it’s not. It’s a statement of empirical facts–many of them, in fact. It asserts that on such-and-such a date and time, the world will be exposed to a beam of ultraviolet light, and that this light will originate with “the fifth dimension.” We have detection equipment capable of responding to ultraviolet light; if this assertion is true, it’s easy to test. It asserts that this beam of ultraviolet light is “highly charged,” which betrays a profound ignorance of the nature of ultraviolet light; photons have no rest mass and no charge, and thus a beam of light can not be “highly charged” by definition. It asserts that this beam of light will begin at the same time in all time zones and last for seventeen hours–an impossibility, as wolfger pointed out, because all the time zones span twenty-four hours.

And, most remarkably, it makes assertions about the way this beam of light will affect human beings, claiming that its presence will affect human behavior in very dramatic ways.

I have written before about the tendency of the human brain, when faced with a new idea, to fail open and default to accepting the idea rather than challenging the idea. This is a tendency I think it pays to be aware of, and I have developed the habit of “watchdogging” myself whenever I read an article or hear a story or see a new idea. I’ve sort of set up an informal hierarchy, which I use to determine how much credence should be accorded some new idea.

At the top of the hierarchy are ideas which agree with current theory, are supported by a large amount of empirical evidence, and are consistent with existing models of the way the universe works. Such an idea is not necessarily true, of course; but it is more likely to be true than ideas that don’t meet these criteria. It is true that existing models are incomplete and existing knowledge of the universe does not extend to everything; however, that does not invalidate these criteria. When Einstein came along and constructed new models which seemed to make Newton’s laws of motion obsolete, it’s important to understand that Einstein’s models extended our understanding into situations where Newton’s models don’t apply, but that Einstein’s models and Newton’s models make the same prediction when applied to, say, what happens when you throw a baseball. And they have to, because we already know that Newton’s models are smack-on when applied to baseballs. If someone comes along and proposes new laws of motion, they damn well better agree with Newton about what happens if I throw a baseball, too, because I’ve already seen that Newton gets it right. His model describes reality; any model that disagrees with his, doesn’t.

Next level down comes ideas that seek to extend current ideas or to propose new systems where current ideas don’t apply, but which are unsupported by empirical evidence; or ideas which are consistent with current models and current understanding, but for which evidence does not exist. The notion that there is life on other planets is a great example. It violates no laws of physics, it is consistent with our current working knowledge of the physical world, and indeed it seems quite likely given our current knowledge of the physical world–but it’s unproven.

Working farther and farther down the chain means getting closer and closer to ideas that are absurd or ridiculous on their face. Ideas which are not internally consistent, ideas which disagree radically with current knowledge about the physical world, ideas which make predictions radically at odds with observations of the physical world, and ideas which do not follow from their own premises are all ideas which do not deserve initial respect. The more an idea diverges from empirical observations of the physical world, the more an idea contradicts its own premises or its own assumptions, the harder that idea had better work if it wants to be accepted. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Eventually, an idea becomes so absurd that I feel confident in ridiculing it. And, sensibilities of the woman on the mailing list aside, ideas so absurd, so internally inconsistent, and so far out of line with the physical world as this New Age nonsense about ultraviolet light and divine governments deserve ridicule. This idea made statements of empirical fact that were manifestly untrue, as evidenced by the fact that it is now October 23rd and the world looks pretty much the way it did on October 17th, save for a few small details–the number of people dead in Iraq, the number of days left until George Bush is no longer in office, the number of times I’ve mistakenly left my cell-phone charger somewhere.

Ideas do not deserve automatic respect. There is no shame in calling “bullshit” on bullshit ideas. In fact, I submit that calling bullshit is the duty of anyone anywhere interested in truth. Truth comes only from the open and vigorous competition of ideas, and ideas which do not match reality in this meritocracy give way to ideas that do. We advance as a species by separating wheat from chaff, by testing ideas for weakness and inconsistency and discarding those that don’t measure up. An assertion of empirical fact that matches observed reality is superior to an assertion that does not; respect is earned, not automatic. Spiritual ideas exist in a sandbox, isolated from objective reality and not subject to the same rules as statements of empirical fact–but as soon as they leave that sandbox, they better be prepared to compete on their own merits, and that means being subject to inspection, and to scorn and ridicule.

Disrespectful? You bet. If you want my respect, you have to earn it. Learning about time zones is a good place to start.

More fun from my inbox

So, this morning I woke to this delightful gem in my email. Snarkiness in italics. I <3 New Agers!

From: Patricia Cota-Robles Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2006 16:05:20 -0700
To: [munged]
Subject: A Cosmic Opportunity for Divine Government

by Patricia Diane Cota-Robles

An opportunity for divine government? Uh-oh. Isn’t that what the Christian Fundamentalists want, too? Divine government is always a bad idea…we’re off to an inauspicious start here!)


We have a rare Cosmic event occurring on October 17th and 18th that will
give us a jump-start in manifesting the things we would like to cocreate
in our own lives and on this planet. There is going to be an ultraviolet
pulse beam from higher dimensions than we have previously been able to
experience crossing the path of Earth.

Uh-oh. An ultraviolet pulse beam? Better wear my sunscreen! And not just any ultraviolet pulse beam, but one from a Higher Dimension! I hope they have good sunscreen in those higher dimensions, too…I can imagine higher-dimension beings walking around all sunburned all the time. Might make them a bit crabby.

We will be held in the embrace of this highly charged ultraviolet beam of
Light for approximately 17 hours. The energy emanating from this beam
resonates with Humanity’s 5th-Dimensional Solar Heart Chakras.

Well, fuck. Remind me to stay indoors. Not only is it ultraviolet light, but it’s highly charged, too! So not only are we going to get sunburned, we’re apt to get radiation poisoning as well.

Ahh! Now I get it! It’s an act of war! The higher dimensions are declaring war on us, and when they’ve reduced all life on earth to crispy critters, they’re going to occupy the planet and impose their own divine government! Goddamnit, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about already.

The Beings of Light are revealing that during this 17-hour period the
ultraviolet pulse beam will have the effect of amplifying our thoughts and
emotions ONE MILLIONFOLD. This will be the case regardless of what our
thoughts and emotions are expressing. Needless to say, it is imperative
for all of us to be Peace Commanding Presences during this auspicious

Amplifying our thoughts a millionfold? Seriously? A MILLIONFOLD? Well, Shelly should have no problem acing her physics test, then!

The ultraviolet pulse beam will be a wave of Light that traverses the
planet, so no matter what time zone you are in the important times will be
the same. For 17 hours, from approximately 10:17 a.m. on October 17th
until 1:17 a.m. on October 18th our thoughts and emotions will be
amplified ONE MILLIONFOLD. The peak time will be 5:10 p.m. on October

It’s that SPECIAL kind of ultraviolet light…you know, the kind that doesn’t travel at the speed of light.

And it keeps on going, and going, and going!

In Atlanta this weekend!

I’m getting set to head up to Atlanta for the weekend; I’ll be staying in a hotel just off 85 by the Perimeter. On the off chance that anyone on my friends list happens to be in Atlanta and would like to meet for a late dinner this evening, or perhaps for lunch on Saturday, let me know! You can leave a comment here or send me an email at my AOL address (in my profile), though I’m not 100% sure I’ll have Internet access. Better yet would be to give me a call–813-833-6079.

The Weekend In Summation

Enveloped in a sentiment,
a sound that rushes over me.
Engage an impulse to pretend
I have a faith as pure.
Not forgetting what it means to dream,
Indulging everything,
Entertaining thoughts that I’ve the strength
of those I yearn to be.

My iPod tends to get into moods. I listen to it whenever I do a lot of driving, using a gizmo that lets me play it over the car stereo. Saturday, I drove from Gainesville to Tampa for indigofae‘s birthday.

I didn’t actually listen to the iPod for most of the trip, as I spent the bulk of the journey talking to istislah, who I met just in time for her to move to Seattle, and as it turns out I stayed on the phone with her right up to the time I arrived at the restaurant to greet indigofae, her partner nekidsteve, and her friends for her birthday dinner.

I did, however, listen to the iPod after dinner, while we all travelled to the local goth club for some dancing. I almost always listen to it on shuffle, and (as I mentioned before) it tends to get into moods. It’ll get into an industrial mood one day, a neo-folk mood the next…it’s a moody piece of technology.

Anyway, the iPod was in a VNV Nation mood on the way to the club…which, as it turned out, would be the theme of the weekend.

When we arrived at the club, the DJ was playing–you guessed it–VNV Nation. We stayed until close (indigofae has a rather astonishing number of bandwidth-crushing images here), and the DJ played–wait for it!–more VNV Nation just before closing.

Later in the weekend, I got to help take smoocherie‘s virginity, and I got pictures. More on that in a bit.

I believe that we’ll conceive
to make in Hell for us a heaven.
A brave new world
A promised land
A fortitude of hearts and minds.

We no longer have a bed in the apartment in Tampa. The king-sized, cast-iron canopy bed I love so dearly is now in Gainesville, where it utterly dominates the living room. Shelly found a tiny, one bedroom apartment in Gainesville, not realizing we’d end up sharing it for a time, and there’s simply no room for it in the bedroom. So it occupies half the living room, where it makes an admirable conversation starter if nothing else.

So I brought an inflatable air mattress with me to Tampa. Sheets, too. And a comforter. What I did not bring was a pillow. And sleeping without a pillow sucks. Particularly when one does not get home ’til almost 4 AM as it is.

I did finally sleep, and woke up later than I intended on Sunday. This means I headed across the state to visit smoocherie later than I had planned to on Sunday. I did finally get there, though, a tribute to my nice new big hippocampus1 (thank you, World of Warcraft2!), and spent some quality time with her, another of her sweeties james_the_evil1, and mladypain. James made dinner for us, we watched a Showtime series about qa serial killer police officer (in Hollywoodland, every major city has at least three or four serial killers running around at any given time–it’s one of those unwritten rules, like the one that says the villain in action/adventure flicks always wears cool sunglasses), and we got some serious poi-spinning time in. More VNV Nation–poi spinning is always better set to music–and then smoocherie and I got to spend some rare alone time together.

I won’t disturb you with what happened next, because it would…disturb you. This isn’t the part where smoocherie loses her virginity; I’m getting to that.

Eyes betray the soul, and bare its thinking.
Beyond words they say so many things to me.
A stranger here, reborn, it seems
Awaking wonders deep in me.
If nothing’s ventured, nothing’s gained,
So I must seize the day.

Monday was surprisingly productive. I’d loaded the laptop with client files, so i was actually able to get quite a bit of work done. smoocherie worked in the office, I worked in the kitchen, and I was very pleased. Changing environments from time to time really does seem to help my productivity.

Later that night came the deflowering.

smoocherie has totally hooked me on spinning poi, and she and I have been doing it whenever we spend time together lately. That night, for the first time, she actually spun fire.

And I got pictures! Lovely pictures!

More pictures here

Oh, my GOD, funniest thing EVAR

All the other things I’ve called the “funniest thing ever?” All lies. The real funniest thing ever:

The Nietzsche Family Circus

It takes a random Family Circus cartoon and pairs it with a random Nietzsche quote. merovingian, I think this is right up your alley. The Family Circus is arguably the most dreadful, insipid, flaccid, banal comic ever created by man, but Nietzsche makes it all good. A few of my favorites:

Continue reading

Some thoughts on pets and polyamory

My parents have two pets: a high-strung hunting dog (a German shorthair pointer, if you’re curious), and a psychotic cat with no claws who originally belonged to my sister. The dog is exuberantly, enthusiastically erratic, ninety pounds of jumping, barking, tearing around the house, freaking-out-without-warning teeth and claws that has actually injured my mother badly enough to require surgery on a morning walk. (“Oh look! A squirrel! I’m going to go chase it, oh boy oh boy!” led in very short order to a torn rotator cuff, when the dog hit the end of her leash.) The cat doesn’t much cotton to people, or to anything else really, and will growl, hiss, and generally make her displeasure known when one of us naked hairy apes intrudes into her presence.

This is actually a post about polyamory. I’ll get to that in a bit.

The dog doesn’t much like the cat, and the cat doesn’t much like the dog. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. It’s probably more fair to say that the dog, being carefully bred for the purpose of hunting, rather does like the cat, in much the same way she likes any prey animal, and the cat hates the dog with a fury that is scarcely comprehensible to mere humans, but it’s a fury that is as impotent as it is malevolent. There’s no contest between the two. If the dog were actually to get at the cat, the dog would kill the cat in very short order–game over, the end–exactly as the dog has been bred to do.

For this reason, my parents carefully segregate the dog and the cat. The cat lives in one side of the house; the dog lives in the other, and doors are closed between them.

It would only take one mistake, one accidental slip-up, for my parents to own not two pets, but one pet and one collection of bloody scraps. So they are religious about keeping the animals separated. Doors and windows are checked after every passage (the cat’s domain includes the screened-in porch, which the dog is not permitted in). The habit of closing the door after every passage has become so strong that every door in the house is generally kept closed.

In some ways, this mirrors their relationship. My father lives on one side of the house; my mother lives on the other. They interact seldom and actually spend time together more rarely still. Even on vacations, they tend to go in separate directions.

A very large part of the poly community seems predicated on the same model as my parents use with their pets.

For many people, polyamory in practice seems a bit like owning a dog and a cat that don’t much get along, or in some cases might even try to kill one another. Each relationship functions as a separate entity, and doors are shut between them. If Alice is dating Bob, and Alice wants to date Bill too, and Bob and Bill don’t much care for one another, the solution is scheduling. Keep Bob and Bill away from one another, and it’s all good.

After all, Bob and Bill aren’t involved with each other, right? There’s no reason that Bob and Bill have to force a friendship, or even interact with one another at all, just because they’re both dating Alice, right?

Well, right. Certainly no reasonable person would suggest that Bob and Bill should try to be something that they’re not, or should attempt to force a connection or a friendship where none exists. that way disfunction lies.

But that misses the point.

Presumably, Alice has a choice. One would, generally speaking, probably assume that Alice can choose who she becomes romantically linked to. Alice can choose to date Bob and to date Bill, if she likes…but she can also choose not to.

I may be getting cynical in my old age, but it does seem to me that many people in the poly community approach their relationships from a desperate, starvation model. Connections are so rare, and the number of people who would actually want to date me so few, the reasoning seems to go, that if Bob asks me out, I have to say yes! If I don’t, I may never get another chance to start a new relationship again. Best to take every opportunity that comes down the pike; best not to risk never having a new relationship ever again.

And sure, it can work, in much the way my parent’s lives work–you learn to cope, you develop the reflex of shutting doors, you learn to police yourself constantly and to keep the things in your lives segregated. The habit of openness can be quashed, in time; you learn not to share things with Bill about Bob, you learn not to schedule things where Bob and Bill might interact. You develop a subconscious internal policeman, whose job it is to maintain that separation, to ensure that Bob and Bill forever occupy different spaces in your life.

But what the fuck kind of life is that?

It’s not necessary to try to make Bob and Bill like each other. Nor is it even possible, really. But what Alice can do is make choices. She is not obligated to date anyone who will have her; indeed, most people would argue that dating anyone who will have you is likely a symptom of a pathology.

What she can do is choose the kind of life she wants. She can, if she doesn’t want to become a devout follower of the Church of Closed Doors, evaluate as part of the decisions she makes what impact a potential new mate will have on her existing mates. She can say “I like Bob; I enjoy Bob’s company; but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life closing doors and policing my partners, so if Bob doesn’t fit well in my life, I will make another choice. I can develop a friendship with Bob that honors and respects the connection between us, without being involved in a relationship with him. I can choose relationships with people who complement my life and each other’s…even if they’re not actually involved in romantic relationships with each other. I can build a life without doors and walls.”

There are disadvantages to this approach. One may, from time to time, have to pass up the opportunity to sleep with someone one wants to sleep with. One may not be able to pursue every opportunity that presents itself. But in a world of six billion people, we have to make choices anyway; and love is abundant. There is no need to date whoever will have you.

The benefit to a life without doors and walls seems opaque to some people I’ve spoken with. I can’t rightly comprehend that, because it seems obvious to me. It means less headache and less hassle. It means less worrying, less policing one’s thoughts and deeds. I am very fortunate to have found in Shelly, and in my other sweeties, people who understand this intuitively. And I am fortunate in that there are certain things I do not have to worry about. I never have to worry about Shelly’s other partners; I can trust implicitly that when she chooses to open herself to other partners, she will make those choices in ways that consider my needs as well.

The benefits are wonderful. She has chosen other partners who have become friends of mine as well–people who add value to my life, even though I am not romantically or sexually linked to them. Relationships like this–relationships chosen to complement one another, not be separated from one another–are not zero-sum. Everyone benefits; when she chooses another partner, my life is enriched by it as well, and vice versa.

Happy birthday, Shelly. 🙂