Another day, another massive Dreamhost hack attack

A few months back, I wrote about a WordPress attack that affected a friend of mine. The hack was aimed at WordPress installs, and planted very subtle modifications to core WordPress files that redirected users to spam pharmacy sites.

At first, I thought the attack was aimed at unpatched WordPress sites, though my friend’s site was fully patched and updated. As I pursued the patch, I started noticing that a highly disproportionate number of the hacked sites were hosted on the same Web hosting provider my friend’s site lived on: namely, Dreamhost.

Dreamhost, as I observed later, seemed to be hosting quite a number of these hacked sites. And more worrying, the sites were generally fully patched, suggesting somesort of zero-day exploit against Dreamhost’s Web hosting servers.

I made note of it, fired off some emails to Dreamhost’s abuse team, and forgot about it.

Fast forward to today.

Today, I received a number of spam emails that used redirectors planted on hacked sites to redirect to a spam pharmacy page selling fake Viagra. More concerning, the site appeared to be attempting an exploit to download malware. It’s an exploit I’ve seen before, often used to distribute the W32/ZeuS banking Trojan.

In the spam messages I received, the redirect file had the same name: “jbggle.html”, So, curious, I did a Google search for sites with this filename in the URL and discovered quite a large number of hacked sites that redirect to the same spam pharmacy page:


All these URLs are live as of the time of this writing. All of them will redirect you to a spam pharmacy Web site which may also attempt to download malware on your server.

And interestingly, ALL of these Web sites is hosted by Dreamhost. Every. Single. One.

I strongly recommend that people steer well clear of Dreamhost. I have not seen this level of compromised Web sites on a single server since the zero-day exploit against iPower Web several years ago.

Dreamhost’s security team seems unwilling or unable to deal with this problem, which is quite disappointing for a large, mainstream Web hosting company.

Edited to add: Within minutes of this blog post going live, I received an email from Dreamhost’s security team that they had started examining the sites on their servers to remove these redirectors. It is not clear from the email whether or not they have identified the exploit being used to plant them, or indeed intend to do so.

So what IS wrong with rules, anyway?

I’m currently in the small coastal town of Brighton in the UK, a couple hours from London, staying with friends of emanix‘s. I’ve been severly jetlagged since I arrived in the UK; as near as I can tell, my internal clock, not sure whether to remain on Portland time or change to London time, has compromised by splitting the difference, and I am now on what would be a reasonable schedule if I lived in an empty spot of the Atlantic Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of New York.

As a result, I awoke at about 6 AM local time (or 10 PM Portland time) and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I turned to Twitter for solace.

One of the first tweets I saw asked a question about polyamorous relationships: If the people involved in the relationship are happy, what’s wrong with having a rules-based relationship?

Now, anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written about relationships at all knows that I’m not a fan of relationship rules. To get a sense of why that is, one need only read here or here or..well, almost anything else I’ve ever written about polyamory.

But I still think it’s a fair question. As long as the people involved in the relationship are happy, what’s wrong with having a rules-based relationship? Is there really anything so bad about the idea of rules?

I thought about it for a bit, while struggling unsuccessfully to get back to sleep. And I think the answer is that yes, there is a fundamental flaw in the notion of rules-based relationships.

But before I get started on that, some background.

There are folks in the world who simply don’t like rules, and reflexively reject any form of rule as an unwarranted imposition on their freedom.

I am not one of those people.

My objection to rules in poly relationships does not come from an inherent dislike of rules in general. Far from it; when I first started this whole business of relationships, about twenty-six years ago, rules seemed like a natural and comfortable fit, a simple and obvious way to keep the relationships I was in stable and to keep the wheels from flying off unexpectedly.

And in fact there are quite a lot of rules in many parts of my life. I like games that have lots of rules. My relationship with zaiah is a strange switchy quasi-D/s thing that is evolving rather a complicated set of rules, which we have taken to writing down in a special book. So I’m not simply opposed to rules per se.

Also, I’m not much in to the notion of dictating to others how to live their lives, though I speak with certainty and as a result folks often believe I’m being prescriptive in the things I say. My ideas about polyamory tend to be predicated on what I have observed working and what I have observed not working; I’m enough of a pragmatist that what succeeds and what fails is much more interesting to me than what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” when it comes to relationships. (The definitions of “success” and “failure” are, of course, subject to interpretation, and that’s something I’ll touch on in a minute.)

All of my relationships have always been polyamorous. I have never once in my entire life had a monogamous relationship. Still, I did grow up in a culture where monogamy is the norm, and it seemed quite natural to me that such an unconventional relationship style must have some sort of system of rules in place in order for everyone to feel safe.

For many, many years, my “primary” partner (and yes, I did have a hierarchal primary partner) and I had a complex set of rules about who, when, where, why, and under what circumstances each of us could have another partner.

And it worked just fine for us, so there’s nothing wrong with that, right?

Except that, looking back, no, it really didn’t. And that brings me to reason #1 why I’m deeply suspicious of rules-based relationships:

#1. “It works for everybody” rarely, if ever, means it works for everybody.

It has been my experience that people who talk about agreements and rules which work for them usually–indeed, almost always–use a definition of “for them” that includes only “for the original people (often the original couple) in the relationship.” The impact of those rules on anyone who might come into the relationship later is seldom if ever considered. A person who enters the relationship is fenced in with a ring of rules, to contain and minimize the perceived threat that person represents; and if that person should find the rules unacceptable, or run afoul of the rules and then be ejected from the relationship, this isn’t seen as a failure of the rules. It’s seen as a failure of the person. “He isn’t REALLY poly.” “She was too threatening.” “He didn’t respect me.” Almost invariably, fault for the failure of the relationship is shifted onto that third person…but as long as the original couple remains together, the rules are working, right? And if the rules are working, what’s the problem, right?

Now, if I were to go back in time about ten or fifteen years and ask my earlier self “Are your rules working for everyone involved?” there is no doubt that that younger self would answer “yes” without the slightest hesitation.

At the time when i first started with rules, I believed they were necessary because, somewhere deep down inside, I believed that without them my relationship could not survive. Without rules, what would keep my partner with me? Without rules, how could I be sure my needs would get met? Without rules, how could I hope to hold on to what I had?

And I would have said that they worked for everyone, including my other non-primary partners, not out of malice but out of sincere belief, because…

…and this is a lesson it took me a very long time to learn…

it is almost impossible to be compassionate, generous, or empathic when you are filled with a fear of loss. So certain was I that the rules were necessary in order to protect myself from losing what I had, so afraid was I that without them I would lose everything, that not only did I not see the way those rules fenced in and hurt my other partners, I could not see it. It was as invisible to me as the concept of “wet” is to a fish.

Relationship rules and fear of loss often seem to go hand in hand in poly relationships. People who make rules don’t do it at random; they do it because, as was the case with me, it feels necessary.

We live, after all, in a society that holds very tightly to the notion of “the one” and “true love” and teaches us, from the moment we draw our first breath to the moment we take our last, that anything which interferes with the idea of couplehood represents a grave threat. Without sexual fidelity, there can be no commitment. Without commitment, there can be no safety, no security, no expectation of continuity.

Polyamory throws all that into question, yet we are still products of the ideas with which we’re raised; even someone who truly believes in loving more than one can fall prey to the idea that inviting someone else in is a threatening thing to do, fraught with peril.

Which brings me to reason #2:

#2. A rule can not, and never will be able to, fix insecurity.

Insecurity sucks. Believe me, I know. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. When your partner does something that triggers a feeling of insecurity, the only thing you want to do is make that feeling go away.

It is natural, easy, and obvious to think that if your partner does something that brings on these awful feelings, if you pass a rule forbidding your partner from doing that thing, you need not worry about that feeling ever again.

So naturally, the rules that I had with my former primary partner largely revolved around things which triggered insecurities. Anything that felt like it threatened or diminished feelings of specialness, anything that seemed to take away from the things we most valued in each other, anything that got too close to home, anything that seemed to distract us from focusing on one another…all these things became fair game for rules-making.

These rules, of curse, were almost always applied to other partners rather than being made with other partners. We were the architects; other people were the subjects of the rules. Even when we negotiated them in the presence of “secondary” partners, it was very clear that they existed to protect us from them, not them from us. No matter how the negotiations were done, the power flowed in one direction only; they “worked for” a secondary partner in the sense that such a person could accept it or leave, no more. In that sense, they existed–deliberately, by design, though I would not have put it this way back then–to work against other people.

The idea that a system of rules can protect against insecurity, as seductive as it is, is ultimately bankrupt. The thing about insecurity is that it creates its own world. When you feel afraid of loss, or feel that your partner doesn’t value you, or feel that you’re not good enough, confirmation bias works its evil magic and you find evidence to support that belief everywhere.

Seen though the peculiar lens of expectation, everything becomes proof of your deepest fears. And no matter how many rules you pass, that never, ever goes away. The little fears whisper in your brain, all the time, like Gríma Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings, planting its poisonous seeds in your brain. No matter how quickly you make rules to stamp out its triggers, the insecurity remains.

It is possible to overcome insecurity. I don’t think anyone ever really starts out secure and well-centered; it takes deliberate effort. I was not able to do it myself until the day come when I was able to take a leap of faith, cast aside the rules, and blindly trust that my partners loved me and cherished me and wanted to be with me despite all the fears that screamed in my face.

It took a tremendous amount of courage to do that. Which leads into the third reason I am skeptical of rules:

#3. Rules often inhibit growth.

There was a time in my life when I was dreadfully, powerfully insecure. I was never quite 100% sure why a partner would be with me, nor that if a partner were with someone else what she’d need me for.

Today, those feelings seem alien to me, like something that happened to some other person whose memories I have inherited but can’t quite connect with. Today, I build relationships that are powerfully secure, and I trust implicitly in my ability to construct a stable foundation of safety and security. More than that, though, I am secure inside myself. I am confident in my value, but also confident in my ability to grow and to be happy even if one (or more) of my relationships should happen to fail.

And indeed, that’s the only kind of security that is, or ever can be, real. No matter what promises I extract or what rules I make, there is nothing that can guarantee my lover won’t be struck by a bus, or develop a terminal disease, or even simply decide she’s had enough and leave. Nothing can ever keep me safe from loss; any such safety can only be an illusion. But I don’t need it; I know that should I feel loss, I may hurt, but I will survive, and ultimately I will be happy.

Many years ago, I had a friend who had an enormous pet iguana. Whenever she reached into its cage, it would lash at her with its tail. She would jump, then reach in again, and it would docilely allow her to pick it up.

On one occasion, after this ritual had played out, she said to me “I wish it would hit me, just once, so I would know what it felt like and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of it any more.” The older I get, the wiser that idea becomes.

There is a powerful lesson here. Just as you can never be compassionate when you’re filled with fear of loss, you can never be secure if you believe that you absolutely can not survive without your partner.

And you can never know that, or know that your partner truly cherishes you and wants to be with you, until you can gather the courage to face the fear of loss head-on, directly, no matter how much it scares you.

Until the day came that I was able to say “This scares the crap out of me, but I want to see if my insecurities are true, I want to see if what they’re warning me of will really happen,” there wasn’t anything I could hope to do to stop myself from being insecure.

And now that I have done that–now that I have slipped off the leash of rules and said to the people I love “Here are the ways you can cherish me; you are free to do whatever you want, to make whatever choices you think are necessary, and I will trust that you will make choices that show you cherish me”–I do not think I will ever feel insecure again.

It takes, unquestionably, a great deal of courage to step away from the safety and comfort of rules. However, once that is done, the fourth problem with rules-based relationships becomes obvious:

#4. The safety that is offered by a framework of rules is an illusion.

When I was in a hierarchal, primary/secondary relationship, the rules that my primary partner and I used to fence in secondary partners felt, to those people, like gigantic walls of stone and razor wire.

For the people upon whom such rules are enacted, that is quite common, I suspect. Such people rarely have a voice in those rules, and yet often end up hanging their entire relationship on the wording and interpretation of the rules, always knowing that a misstep or a changing condition can be the end of the relationship. Many folks who claim primacy in a primary/secondary relationship often say they need rules because otherwise they don’t feel “respected” by secondary partners, yet it’s difficult to be respectful when one feels hemmed in, encircled by walls, and knowing that one’s relationship is always under review.

But from the position of the primary partner in a hierarchical, rules-based relationship, I always knew that to me, they were nothing but tissue paper. The rules which were so immutable to a secondary partner applied to me only for so long as I chose to allow them to apply to me.

And when the day came, as it finally did, that I looked past my own screaming insecurities and my own well of fears for long enough to see–really see–what this structure of relationships was doing to my secondary partners, how it was constantly placing them in a minefield where what seemed to them like even a trivial miscalculation could bring down the wrath of the furies upon them, I decided that I could no longer in good conscience bear to subject people to this sort of environment, and I ended my primary relationship.

Just like that.

All the rules, all the covenants, all the agreements, all those things were no more effective at keeping me in the relationship, in the end, than a rice-paper wall is effective at stopping a charging bull.

Rules can not make someone stay. Once the decision is made to go, no rule will prevent it. That fortress that seems so impregnable, that seems able to give safety and security in a frightening world, is made of mud and straw.

Now, for folks who believe in rules-based relationships: Maybe your experiences are different from mine. Maybe you have rules that are considerate, compassionate, equitable, and kind. But are you sure?

If you were to talk to that version of me fifteen or twenty years ago, and ask him how he felt, he would absolutely tell you that all his rules were both necessary and fair. It’s a near-universal truth of the human condition that when you’re mired in your own emotional responses, it’s damn near impossible to see someone else’s. Even when partners told me that they felt unsure of their place in my life, or that the structures of my primary relationship put them in a tenuous position, it was easy for me to believe that the fault must lie with them and not with me…if I was even able to hear that much at all. It is very, very hard to understand your own strength when you feels weak, and to understand how you hold all the cards in an established relationship when you feel threatened by the newcomer.

The question “What’s wrong with having a rules-based relationship?” is absolutely a legitimate question to ask.

I’d like to flip it on its head and approach it from the other direction, though. Why have a rules-based relationship? What is the purpose of structuring relationships around rules? How, for those of you who feel the need for rules, would you complete the sentence “I have rules to structure my relationships because without those rules, the bad thing that would happen is ____?” What is it about rules that feels necessary, and how exactly do they serve to fill the function they are intended to fill?

Some Thoughts On Dating Black Belts

Many years ago, some folks on a mailing list I read posted a challenge: Write a biography of yourself in exactly six words.

I came up with “Much love, only a few mistakes.” Shelly suggested it should really be “I am not a beginner’s relationship.” As it turns out, both of those things are more closely related than they might seem; the missing bit that connects them was provided by an Aikido dojo I belonged to for about a year.

It’s not so much that I am not a beginner’s relationship, but that relationships generally, I think, go best when one makes a point of only dating people who have black belts at life. This is an idea that’s both simpler and more complex than it seems.

A lot of folks–including, to be fair, me, back before I started doing Aikido–have a mistaken idea about what it means to be a black belt in a martial art. The general notion is that once a person becomes a black belt, she has gained a mastery of the art, and is now an unstoppable ass-kicking machine. The reality is almost the opposite. Earning a black belt means that one has mastered the basics of the art–completed, essentially, the beginner’s level course–and is now ready to move on to the difficult (and more interesting) bits.

As my Aikido sensei used to say, “When someone earns a brown belt, they tell everyone. When someone earns a black belt, they usually don’t tell anyone.” Becoming a black belt means understanding how much there always is still left to learn; one of the things that goes along with being a black belt means knowing that there are still a whole lot of folks who are better at just about everything than you are. Mastery is a process rather than a state of being. And despite all that, people who’ve earned a black belt are expected to teach others, to lead boldly, even while being aware that having a black belt doesn’t actually signify mastery. (He was actually quite wise; he also used to say “Americans have bad knees,” which is undisputable in its essential truth.)

We have this image that someone with a black belt is a virtuoso, unshakeable in her grasp of the art, express and admirable in form and moving, faultless in every movement, infallible in the execution of every technique. In reality, black belts can fall on their asses just as well as beginners can; they’re just more likely to do it in complex and innovative ways, that’s all.

Which is not to say that there is no difference between a novice and a black belt. The black belt does have some mastery, but it’s a mastery of the basics, not a mastery of all that there is to learn. A black belt understands the general ideas, has a grasp of how to move through space, has an understanding of her body and the essential fundamentals of leverage and kinesthetics, and understands what it feels like to be moving in the correct way. Even if she’s falling on her ass while she’s doing it. (There are some wonderful outtakes from various Bruce Lee movies on YouTube, showing him, among other things, whacking himself with a pair of nunchucks and snagging his foot in his opponent’s shirt during a missed kick; Jackie Chan has injured himself so many times during missed grabs, falls, and in one case being hit in the head with a helicopter(!) that he’s broken nearly every bone in his body multiple times and is deaf in one ear.)

The point is that having a black belt doesn’t make someone infallible, nor mean that that person has entirely mastered everything there is to know about the art in question. It simply means that there’s a certain base level of competence that’s been established, though even the best black belts can still trip over the occasional invisible imaginary turtle shell and fall flat on their faces while walking across a perfectly smooth floor.

Which brings us to life, and why I’m not a beginner’s relationship.

I’ve actually had several partners tell me that I’m not a beginner’s relationship, in several different contexts. And I think it’s true. As a form of shorthand, I’ve long said that I make it a policy only to date grownups…but it’s occurred to me that I’ve only rarely thought about what exactly that means, and so it’s become a shorthand even to myself.

There’s been a bit more turbulence than I’m normally used to in my romantic life over the last couple of years, so I’ve been mentally chewing on what it means to be a grownup, and to choose partners who are grownups. The word “grownup” comes with a lot of attached baggage–we tend to think of grownups as being not a whole lot of fun, as being responsible rather than spontaneous, as choosing what’s most convenient over what’s most daring, as being more concerned about the mortgage than about making life worth living–and that definitely isn’t who I want in my romantic life. So these days I’m more inclined to say that I prefer to date people who have a black belt at life.

But what does that mean?

It certainly doesn’t mean someone who’s mastered everything that life can throw at them. That’s an unrealistic standard in the extreme, and anyone who thinks he’s reached that particular bar probably lacks imagination.

Rather, it means someone who has a handle on the basics. And I don’t necessarily mean the basics of filling out an application for title insurance or fixing a stopped-up drain, though those things are certainly good.

The basics I want in a partner are the basics of conducting a life with respect, compassion, and decency toward other human beings, which has a lot less to do with the mechanics of life and a lot more to do with the passion for life.

In a way, that’s a bit like porn. It’s hard to define precisely what that looks like, though I do tend to know it when I see it. Were I to make a list of the things that a black belt at life understands, it might include things like:

Feelings are not (necessarily) fact.

Just because I feel bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else has done something wrong. Just because I feel good, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I’m doing is right.

There is more to life than avoiding awkwardness or discomfort. Sometimes, awkwardness and discomfort are an inevitable part of learning and growth. Sometimes, they point to places where I can improve.

There are better ways to deal with the things that I feel than to direct other people around or through my feelings.

Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.

The world is filled with beauty and chaos and joy and sorrow and pain and uncertainty and fear and ecstasy and heartache and passion. All these things are part of life’s song; to fear any of them is to fear life itself.

Life rewards those who move in the direction of greatest courage.

You can not expect to have what you want if you do not ask for what you want. Open, honest, fearless communication is not only the best way to build a healthy relationship; it is the only way.

Fear of intimacy is one of the greatest enemies of happiness.

Conflict is inevitable. We are all on different journeys, and sometimes there is turbulence between us. Dealing with conflict can be done without creating drama.

None of us is perfect. All of us makes mistakes. As grownups, we accept responsibility for our mistakes, without externalizing blame, and pardon reciprocally the mistakes of others.

The times when compassion is the most difficult are the times when it is most necessary.

Being slighted, offended, or hurt by someone else does not justify treating that person poorly. It is easy to vilify those who have hurt us, but they are still people too; even if we can not be close with them, even if we must be guarded, there is no rationalization for evil toward them.

Understanding one’s own boundaries is an important part of understanding one’s self.

Being uncomfortable is not, of and by itself, a reason not to do something, nor to forbid someone else from doing something.

Integrity isn’t in what you do when things are easy; it’s in what you do when things are hard.

Security comes from within, not from outside.

It is impossible to be generous if all you can feel is fear of loss. Things change; nothing is forever. Fear of loss robs us of joy and compassion.

Love is not scarce; it’s abundant. The greater you fear its scarcity, the harder it is to find.

Expectations, especially when unspoken or unexamined, can become a poison. Revel in what things are rather than what you want them to be.

A life of optimism leads to greater joy than a life of pessimism. Look for the best and you’ll often find it; look for the worst and you’ll often find it, too.

There is more to life than going from cradle to grave by the path of least resistance. Conformity is not a virtue, and open expression is not a vice.

To censor one’s self for the sake of propriety, expectation, or social norm kills the soul and drains the color out of life.

The world is the way it is, not the way we want it to be. Wanting something to be true does not necessarily make it true.

There are probably more, I’m sure.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that being a grownup necessarily means mastery of every single thing on this list. Not every black belt can do a spinning back kick.

Nor do I mean to imply that perfection in all of these things is the minimum acceptable standard of performance. Many of the things on this list require constant practice; if there is a person in the world who has reached perfection in any of them, I have not yet met him. Or her.

Some of them are even things that I struggle with. Lately, for example, I’ve been feeling a bit of a tug-of-war between vulnerability and safety; in the past couple of years, I have made a conscious effort to allow myself greater vulnerability, and have been hurt because of it. I have not quite developed a solid set of skills for quickly evaluating who it is safe to be vulnerable to, as I have spent most of my life getting to know people slowly, over a long period of time. As a result, I have on a few occasions recently allowed myself to be vulnerable to people who have not treated me compassionately, and that’s something I don’t yet know how to handle with grace.

There is, I think, always one more thing to learn. Whether we’re talking about martial arts or life, there’s always a new lesson, waiting in the next fall or the next heartache. I don’t expect, or even want, partners who are perfect. In fact, I’d bet that anyone I meet who strikes my interest is probably better than I am at doing at least one of the things on this list, even if there are things on it that she hasn’t learned yet.

One part of the Dunning–Kruger effect is that people who are highly skilled often rate themselves poorly. It is okay for a black belt to have self-doubt; this is, like entropy, an inescapable part of existence. Understanding that, too, is part of being a black belt at life. I know that there are skills I still need to learn, but I am also confident that I have the ability to learn them. If there’s a foundation upon which all these other things are built, that is probably it.

Sex for Science! Epilogue

Sex for Science! Chapter 0
Sex for Science! Chapter 1
Sex for Science! Interlude
Sex for Science! Chapter 2
Sex for Science! Chapter 3
Sex for Science! Chapter 4

Last weekend was edwardmartiniii‘s birthday. Entirely on his own, with no input from me, he chose a theme for the party: a Mad Science Fair. Kind of like the science fairs that grade schools and high schools have, you see, only with significantly more insanity.

Regular readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the ongoing saga of my quest to make a cheap, homebrew, thought-controlled sex toy.

I’m actually working on two projects in tandem: the Tormentor, a sex toy designed not to allow the wearer to reach orgasm, and a sex toy that is controlled by the wearer’s thoughts. I’ve been making significant progress on both fronts in the past few weeks, with prototypes for both a thought-controlled vibrator and the third-generation Tormenter now complete.

And, thought I, what better Mad Science Fair project than the thought-controlled toy?

I put together a display detailing the experiments to date, most of which took place in an especially seedy motel room in Seattle; you are, I’m sure, all no doubt familiar with that tale by now. I also loaded up new beta-test software into the modified EEG, this time intended not just to record a person’s brainwaves, but also to switch a vibrator on and off in response to them. This suitably equipped, we (zaiah and I) set out to the party, with the lovely shadow-5tails in tow.

The party proved fertile ground for test subjects, with a number of party-goers volunteering to have their brainwaves analyzed as they tried to switch a small egg vibrator on and off. (I have, it must be said, totally awesome friends; they give the best data!)

And, interestingly, more than half the people who volunteered to give the gizmo a whirl were able to make the vibrator switch on and off, even in noisy, crowded surroundings that made concentration difficult. Several people were able, with less than ten minutes’ practice, to switch the vibrator on and off at will, simply by thinking about it.

Which is hella cool, if you ask me.

I’ve put up a PDF of the display for the Mad Science Fair, “Analysis of the Practicality of Detecting Physiological Signals of Arousal in Adult Human Brains with Practical Applications of Brainwave-Controlled Stimulation Via Neurofeedback Control and Regulation of Vibratory Devices: A Hands-On Investigatory Approach,” which those of you who might find this particular flavor of mad science interesting can read at your leisure. Eventually, I plan to provide a detailed report of the equipment, software, and test results of the thought-controlled vibrator itself. Stay tuned!

When we are young

When we are young, we imagine dragons and elves, magic and wizards, heroes swooping down on flying carpets to save the day. As we grow, we long to see these things. We long to catch a glimpse of a dragon soaring over the mountains at sunset, to see with our own eyes the magic of the elves.

We are told that there is this thing called “science,” and science takes away magic. Science says there are no wizards, no elves, no magic carpet rides, no dragons spreading their wings in the last rays of the sun. And it hurts.

For many, the impulse is to reject this thing called “science,” this destroyer of dreams, so that we can live, if even only a little bit, in the world of magic and make-believe.

But for those who do not do this, for those who want to see the world for what it is, science offers us more than our imaginations. Instead of dragons and elves, instead of wizards and magic, we are offered a universe that is ancient and huge and strange beyond our dreams. We are offered a place where galaxies gigantic beyond our comprehension collide in ferocious cataclysms of creation and destruction, where strange objects that can never be seen tear holes through the fabric of space and time, where tiny things flit around and appear in two places at once. We are offered magnificent weirdness far stranger than the paltry ordinariness of wizards and dragons–for what are wizards but men with a litany of parlor tricks, and what are dragons but flying dinosaurs with matches?

Some who reject science still see, however vaguely, the faint glimmers of the wonder that it offers, and so they seek to appropriate its fancy words to fuel their imaginings of dragons and elves. “Quantum!” they cry. “Quantum thus-and-such, which means magic is real! We make the world just by looking at it; we are rightfully the kings of creation!”

And when told that their crude and fuzzy grasp of this hateful thing called “science,” this shatterer of dreams that comes in the light of day to steal their dragons away, says no such things, but actually something else, they react with derision, and scorn, and contempt. “Science,” they say, “is just opinion. It is religion, full of popes and magistrates who declare reality to be what they want, and not what I want.”

For them, I feel sad. In their desire to wrap themselves up in the imaginations of youth, they turn their backs on things far more fantastic than they can dream.

I love science. It does not steal magic away from us; it shows us magic far more awesome than we could ever otherwise know.

Boston Chapter 10: Pets and Cats and Pets and Cats

As we closed in on Cincinnati, bearing down on the city like…err, two people in a car packed full of stuff, Hurricane Irene bore down on Boston like a a violent, tropical, cyclonic storm of the western North Atlantic, having wind speeds of or in excess of 72 miles per hour and powered by a thermocline along the boundary layer between ocean water and air.

Normally, ordinary reasonable people will, when faced with the prospect of a hurricane, attempt to leave the place it’s approaching. We two, however, as even the most casual of observers may by this point in this tale be able to infer, are neither ordinary nor reasonable.

Our original plan had been to arrive into the delightful care of the pet lesbians late that evening, then spend the entire next day exploring Cincinnati with them before departing on the last leg of our journey to Boston the following morning. After our encounter with the Guatemalans, though, all semblance of planning had been utterly demolished, and even the few remaining tattered scraps of our intentions were soon to be blown away by Irene’s fierce winds.

As Cincinnati’s city lights loomed in our windscreen…

Okay, okay, you got me. That’s a lie. A blatant, dirty, filthy lie. Cincinnati’s skyline at night is hardly capable of looming over a chihuahua puppy with an inferiority complex. The only way to get its skyline to loom involves the use of a helicopter, a telephoto lens, and about six hours in Photoshop. Seen from Interstate 75, the glittering vista of Cincinnati is something of a damp squib. I’m sure it’s a lovely city and all, but the approach turned out to be…well, let’s just say I’ve seen more sparkle during a drag king burlesque show at a science-fiction convention. But no matter.

Ahem. Back to the story. While Claire maneuvered the car into Cincinnati’s warm if homely embrace with the precision and grace that is the hallmark of everything she does, a man’s disembodied voice on the radio kept us updated on Irene’s progress along the Eastern seaboard. According to NOAA projections, which are usually better than tea leaves but not quite as good as a bookie’s spread on the Red Sox game, the hurricane had scheduled its arrival to correspond almost to the hour with hours…confirming a deeply-held suspicion that I’ve had for quite some time, which is that major meteorological events generally happen in order to inconvenience me.

So we determined, in defiance of any sort of reason or common sense, to alter our plans so as to arrive in Boston ahead of the hurricane, the better to appreciate Nature’s wrath from the inside. The reasoning seemed sound at the time–if we got there ahead of the hurricane, at least we wouldn’t be driving through it, right? I mean, that makes some kind of sense, right?

Sadly, it meant cutting short our stay with the pet lesbians and departing early the next morning.

I will confess to being a bit testy about this as I had quite looked forward to spending some quality time in Cincinnati. We arrived at the home of the pets rather late, where we were greeted by two highly adorable but groggy women (reassembled from a pile of kittens under our gaze) and their two cats, Calcifer and Mei Mei. This is what they look like in human form (this picture was actually taken at a con some time ago, rather than during the trip, but it’s a good likeness):

Now, at this point it might be necessary to segue for a moment into the matter of naming cats.

I, personally, have always wanted to own a cat named Loki. zaiah objects strongly to this plan, even going so far as to declare it a hard limit; she will not, she says, share her home with a feline named after a trickster god, on the idea that this might be painting a target that is perhaps a bit too appealing for the whims of Fate to pass up.

As for me, I have the Kanji character for Chaos tattooed on my body, so at this point, I am probably well beyond concerns about self-preservation from the fickle affections of uncaring Fate. I blame it on Youthful Indiscretion, as I hear that’s what one does. zaiah, however, has not been so rash, and so is more concerned with avoiding the gaze of Fate.

Anyway, I bring this up because the pets have two pets: a cat named Calcifer and a cat named Mei Mei, as I mentioned.

This is Mei Mei.

Now, one might argue that perhaps living with a pair of demons in feline form is not the best path to take in the spirit of not wanting to paint a huge target on one’s self for the entertainment of the fates. Technically, I suppose, only Calcifer is a demon (and a minor one at that), though Mei Mei means “sister” and one could infer that the sister of a demon is also a demon, or at least half-demon if the sister is a step-sibling, unless perhaps the sister was adopted, which I suppose might be possible given that I’m not aware of any policies forbidding cross-planar demonic adoptions in Cincinnati’s legal code, though I’m also not aware of any adoption agencies that place the unholy spawn of demonic forces from the Pit…but I digress.

The two of them and their cats greeted us, and made us comfortable in a bedroom with a slanting floor. We chatted for a time (much too long, really considering the lateness of the hour and their schedule the following morning, but I swear it wasn’t my fault…they’re both much too interesting NOT to talk to!).

They were gone on some mysterious errand when we woke the next morning, or perhaps they had reverted back to being a pile of kittens and were watching from somewhere just out of sight. We packed up the car–a task made, it must be said, considerably easier by the absence of our traveling companion, who presumably at this point was grooving in Nashville with her Chinese-speaking Guatemalan companions, or doing whatever it is one does in Nashville while in the company of one’s Chinese-speaking Guatemalan companions, which is an experience outside the realm of knowledge of your humble scribe. It was with considerable sadness, at least on my behalf, that we set out for Boston, racing the fury of Mother Nature to see who would get there first.

As it turned out, Mother Nature has a short attention span.

I’ve been in many hurricanes in my time. It’s inevitable, really, when one lives in Florida, which I did for many of my formative years. I’ve strong memories of driving through the jaws of a fearsome hurricane on the way back to Tampa from Atlanta, on account of some poorly-considered scheduling on the part of the DragonCon staff, who unwisely chose to make the convention coincide with a hurricane. I know what hurricanes look like, so I speak with authority when i say that Irene was a bit rubbish.

The trip into Beantown turned out to be effortless, as all the freeways into town were utterly deserted. The lanes leading out were jammed bumper-to-bumper with folks fleeing Mother Nature, but we were just about the only folks heading into town; it looked, all in all, rather like a scene from a made-for-TV zombie apocalypse movie, only with fewer walking dead and a bit more rain.

Not a lot of rain, mind. When we arrived at the home of Claire’s friend, with whom we had arranged to stay a night before she moved into her new digs at the edge of the Tufts University campus, the rain was falling in patchy gusts from a sky that looked as if it was trying to be sullen but couldn’t quite manage it, much as a young child who wants to be cranky but has just finished a cupcake and two ice cream cones and isn’t quite sure she remembers why. Occasional gusts of wind whipped the leaves around, but didn’t quite work up enough enthusiasm to separate them from the trees.

We ventured out in search of cheap Mexican food, and witnessed an especially vigorous gust of wind that toppled a plastic sign out in front of some store or other, but overall I had the feeling that Mother Nature was really just phoning it in. And I have to admit I felt a little let down. I mean, I gave up a day in Cincinnati, and the way I see it, it was the least she could do to acknowledge that sacrifice with something that was worth rushing into town for. Stinging rain whipping out of a darkened sky, angry bolts of lightning tearing apart the firmament, gale-force winds making the buildings shudder straight down to the foundations…hell, at least an unexpected thunderclap or two would have been nice.

But no. A bit of insincere wind and occasional sprays of light rain do not, in my book, warrant a mad rush away from spending time with the pets. Mother Nature clearly didn’t respect me or my needs, I feel, and I am still a trifle annoyed at her for it.

Why We’re All Idiots: Credulity, Framing, and the Entrenchment Effect

The United States is unusual among First World nations in the sense that we only have two political parties.

Well, technically, I suppose we have more, but only two that matter: Democrats and Republicans. They are popularly portrayed in American mass media as “liberals” and “conservatives,” though that’s not really true; in world terms, they’re actually “moderate conservatives” and “reactionaries.” A serious liberal political party doesn’t exist; when you compare the Democratic and Republican parties, you see a lot of across-the-board agreement on things like drug prohibition (both parties largely agree that recreational drug use should be outlawed), the use of American military might abroad, and so on.

A lot of folks mistakenly believe that this means there’s no real differences between the two parties. This is nonsense, of course; there are significant differences, primarily in areas like religion (where the Democrats would, on a European scale, be called “conservatives” and the Republicans would be called “radicalists”); social issues like sex and relationships (where the Democrats tend to be moderates and the Republicans tend to be far right); and economic policy (where Democrats tend to be center-right and Republicans tend to be so far right they can’t tie their left shoe).

Wherever you find people talking about politics, you find people calling the members of the opposing side “idiots.” Each side believes the other to be made up of morons and fools…and, to be fair, each side is right. We’re all idiots, and there are powerful psychological factors that make us idiots.

The fact that we think of Democrats as “liberal” and Republicans as “conservative” illustrates one ares where Republicans are quite different from Democrats: their ability to frame issues.

The American political landscape for the last three years by a great deal of shouting and screaming over health care reform.

And the sentence you just read shows how important framing is. Because, you see, we haven’t actually been discussing health care reform at all.

Despite all the screaming, and all the blogging, and all the hysterical foaming on talk radio, and all the arguments online, almost nobody has actually read the legislation signed after much wailing and gnashing into law by President Obama.

And if you do read it, there’s one thing about it that may jump to your attention: It isn’t about health care at all. It barely even talks about health care per se. It’s actually about health insurance. It provides a new framework for health insurance legislation, it restricts health insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, it seeks to make insurance more short, it is health insurance reform, not health care reform. The fact that everyone is talking about health care reform is a tribute to the power of framing.

In any discussion, the person who controls how the issue at question is shaped controls the debate. Control the framing and you can control how people think about it.

Talking about health care reform rather than health insurance reform leads to an image in people’s minds of the government going into a hospital operatory or a doctor’s exam room and telling the doctor what to do. Talking about health insurance reform gives rise to mental images of government beancounters arguing with health insurance beancounters about the proper way to notate an exemption to the requirements for filing a release of benefits form–a much less emotionally compelling image.

Simply by re-casting “health insurance reform” as “health care reform,” the Republicans created the emotional landscape on which the war would be fought. Middle-class working Americans would not swarm to the defense of the insurance industry and its über-rich executives. Recast it as government involvement between a doctor and a patient, however, and the tone changed.

Framing matters. Because people, by and large, vote their identity rather than their interests, if you can frame an issue in a way that appeals to a person’s sense of self, you can often get him to agree with you even if by agreeing with you he does harm to himself.

I know a woman who is an atheist, non-monogamous, bisexual single mom who supports gay marriage. In short, she hits just about every ticky-box in the list of things that “family values” Republicans hate. The current crop of Republican political candidates, all of them, have at one point or another voiced their opposition to each one of these things.

Yet she only votes Republican. Why? Because she says she believes, as the Republicans believe, that poor people should just get jobs instead of lazing about watching TV and sucking off hardworking taxpayers’ labor.

That’s the way we frame poverty in this country: poor people are poor because they are just too lazy to get a fucking job already.

That framing is extraordinarily powerful. It doesn’t matter that it has nothing to do with reality. According to the US Census Bureau, as of December 2011 46,200,000 Americans (or 15.1% of the total population) live in poverty. According to the US Department of Labor, 11.7% of the total US population had employment but were still poor. In other words, the vast majority of poor people have jobs–especially when you consider that some of the people included in the Census Bureau’s statistics are children, and therefore not part of the labor force.

Framing the issue of poverty as “lazy people who won’t get a job” helps deflect attention away from the real causes of poverty, and also serves as a technique to manipulate people into supporting positions and policies that act against their own interests.

But framing only works if you do it at the start. Revealing how someone has misleadingly framed a discussion after it has begun is not effective at changing people’s attention because of a cognitive bias called the entrenchment effect.

A recurring image in US politics is the notion of the “welfare queen”–a hypothetical person, invariably black, who becomes wealthy by living on government subsidies. The popular notion has this black woman driving around the low-rent neighborhood in a Cadillac, which she bought by having dozens and dozens of babies so that she could receive welfare checks for each one.

The notion largely traces back to Ronald Reagan, who during his campaign in 1976 talked over and over (and over and over and over and over) about a woman in Chicago who used various aliases to get rich by scamming huge amounts of welfare payments from the government.

The problem is, this person didn’t exist. She was entirely, 100% fictional. The notion of a “welfare queen” doesn’t even make sense; having a lot of children but subsisting only on welfare doesn’t increase your standard of living, it lowers it. The extra benefits given to families with children do not entirely offset the costs of raising children.

Leaving aside the overt racism in the notion of the “welfare queen” (most welfare recipients are white, not black), a person who thinks of welfare recipients this way probably won’t change his mind no matter what the facts are. We all like to believe ourselves to be rational; we believe we have adopted our ideas because we’ve considered the available information rationally, and that if evidence that contradicts our ideas is presented, we will evaluate it rationally. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2006, two researchers at the University of Michigan, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, did a study in which they showed people phony studies or articles supporting something that the subjects believed. They then told the subjects that the articles were phony, and provided the subjects with evidence that showed that their beliefs were actually false.

The result: The subjects became even more convinced that their beliefs were true. In fact, the stronger the evidence, the more insistently the subjects clung to their false beliefs.

This effect, which is now referred to as the “entrenchment effect” or the “backfire effect,” is very common among people in general. A person who holds a belief who is shown hard physical evidence that the belief is false comes away with an even stronger belief that it is true. The stronger the evidence, the more firmly the person holds on.

The entrenchment effect is a form of “motivated reasoning.” Generally speaking, what happens is that a person who is confronted with a piece of evidence showing that his beliefs are wrong will respond by mentally going through all the reasons he started holding that belief in the first place. The stronger the evidence, the more the person repeats his original line of reasoning. The more the person rehearses the original reasoning that led him to the incorrect belief, the more he believes it to be true.

This is especially true if the belief has some emotional vibrancy. There is a part of the brain called the amygdala which is, among other things, a kind of “emotional memory center.” That’s a bit oversimplified, but essentially true; when you recall a memory that has an emotional charge, the amygdala mediates your recall of the emotion that goes along with the memory; you feel that emotion again. When you rehearse the reasons you first subscribed to your belief, you re-experience the emotions again–reinforcing it and making it feel more compelling.

This isn’t just a right/left thing, either.

Say, for example, you’re afraid of nuclear power. A lot of people, particularly self-identified liberals, are. If you are presented with evidence that shows that nuclear power, in terms of human deaths per terawatt-hour of power produced, is by far the safest of all forms of power generation, it is unlikely to change your mind about the dangers of nuclear power one bit.

The most dangerous form of power generation is coal. In addition to killing tens of thousands of people a year, mostly because of air pollution, coal also releases quite a lot of radiation into the environment. This radiation comes from two sources. First, some of the carbon that coal is made of is in the naturally occurring radioactive isotope carbon-14; when the coal is burned, this combines with oxygen to produce radioactive gas that goes out the smokestack. Second, coal beds contain trace amounts of radioactive uranium and thorium, which remain in the ash when it’s burned; coal plants consume so much coal–huge freight trains of it–that the resulting fly ash left over from burning those millions of tons of coal is more radioactive than nuclear waste. So many people die directly or indirectly as a result of coal-fired power generation that if we had a Chernobyl-sized meltdown every four years, it would STILL kill fewer people than coal.

If you’re afraid of nuclear power, that argument didn’t make a dent in your beliefs. You mentally went back over the reasons you’re afraid of nuclear power, and your amygdala reactivated your fear…which in turn prevented you from seriously considering the idea that nuclear might not be as dangerous as you feel it is.

If you’re afraid of socialism, then arguments about health reform won’t affect you. It won’t matter to you that health care reform is actually health insurance reform, or that the supposed “liberal” health care reform law was actually mostly written by Republicans (many of the health insurance reforms in the Federal package are modeled on similar laws written by none other than Mitt Romney; the provisions expanding health coverage for children were written by Republican senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); and the expansion of the Medicare drug program were written by Republican Representative Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois)), or that it’s about as Socialist as Goldman-Sachs (the law does not nationalize hospitals, make doctors into government employees, or in any other way socialize the health care infrastructure). You will see this information, you will think about the things that originally led you to see the Republican health-insurance reform law as “socialized Obamacare,” and you’ll remember your emotional reaction while you do it.

Same goes for just about any argument with an emotional component–gun control, abortion, you name it.

This is why folks on both sides of the political divide think of one another as “idiots.” That person who opposes nuclear power? Obviously an idiot; only an idiot could so blindly ignore hard, solid evidence about the safety of nuclear power compared to any other form of power generation. Those people who hate Obamacare? Clearly they’re morons; how else could they so easily hang onto such nonsense as to think it was written by Democrats with the purpose of socializing medicine?

Clever framing allows us to be led to beliefs that we would otherwise not hold; once there, the entrenchment effect keeps us there. In that way, we are all idiots. Yes, even me. And you.

If People Approached Monogamy The Way They Approach Polyamory

One of the frustrations of being part of the poly community is the number of folks who are already partnered and who want to try polyamory for the first time, but who approach the notion of opening their relationship in a way that makes experienced poly folks cringe. Often, it seems that these folks expect concessions from any person who wants to join their relationship that they would never have expected, or been willing to accept, from one another when they first met.

Now, to some extent that’s natural. There’s a learning curve to any relationship style, and we live in a society that deluges us with so many fairy-tale images of how relationships are “supposed” to go that the idea of stepping outside of those normal social paradigms can leave one feeling hesitant and a bit overwhelmed. Folks who already have a relationship want to try to make sure they don’t damage that relationship as they explore polyamory, but often in doing so they inadvertently set up their newfound poly relationships to fail.

If typical monogamous relationships were approached the way some folks approach poly, it might look something like this:

New poly couple
We have an amazing relationship and we want to make sure that nothing comes between us. So we only date as a couple. We’re looking for a bisexual partner who will date both of us. Since I’m a guy and my partner is a woman, as long as you’re bisexual that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Monogamous equivalent
My friend Bill and I have been friends since high school. We have an awesome friendship, and we want to make sure that nobody gets between us. If you want to have sex with me, you have to have sex with Bill, too. Since I’m a guy and Bill is a guy, as long as you’re a heterosexual woman you won’t mind having sex with both of us, right?

New poly couple
We have a veto relationship. If someone tries to damage or undermine our relationship, we can use our veto to make sure we stay strong. This is important to make sure that new people respect our relationship.

Monogamous equivalent
My mom gets the final say over any of my girlfriends. If you try to undermine our family, my mom can tell me to dump you and I’ll do it. If you object to that idea, it means you don’t respect my mom. I would never date anyone who doesn’t respect my mom.

New poly couple
My existing relationship is always Primary. It will always take precedence over any secondary. If you date me, you have to agree to be a secondary relationship. That doesn’t mean you’re not important; it just means that my partner always comes before you.

Monogamous equivalent
I take my job very seriously. If you want to be in a relationship with me, you will always take a back seat to my work. It’s not that you’re not important; it’s just that my career is more important than you are.

New poly couple
Our families don’t know that we’re poly. They want us to be monogamous. It would kill them if they found out. All our friends are monogamous too. So if you date one of us, you have to be in the closet.

Monogamous equivalent
My family is Amish. All my friends are Amish. I’m not Amish, but I don’t want any of my friends or family to find out. If you date me, you will never be allowed to meet my family (or if you do, I won’t tell them who you are). You will never be allowed to meet any of my friends (or if you do, I won’t tell them who you are). I will not acknowledge my relationship with you. You will not be allowed to talk about me to any of your friends.

New poly couple
I am looking for a new sister-wife for a polyfidelitous family. My sister-wives must all be faithful to me. We will all be part of a close, nurturing family.

Monogamous equivalent
I am looking for a new Best Friend. If you become one of my Best Friends, you will not be allowed to have any other friends. You will be expected to be emotionally close to all my other Best Friends, though.

New poly couple
We want to make sure that we avoid jealousy when we explore poly. So we will only do things as a couple. Any sex or any activity that we do with a new person will only be done with all of us together.

Monogamous equivalent
My friend Bill and I have been buddies for a long time. I don’t want Bill to get jealous if I have a new girlfriend, so whenever we go on dates, Bill will come along with us. If I take you out to the movies, Bill will be there too. The only way that you and I can spend time together is if Bill comes along.

New poly couple
We are looking for a third to move in with us and who will want to be part of our family and share a life with us. Our third will get to share in all the love that we have, and will be a part of our family in a committed relationship.

Monogamous equivalent
I know we’ve never been on a date, but I’m really looking for a husband, not a boyfriend. Let’s go out for coffee. If we click, you can move in with me tomorrow and we’ll get married on Tuesday. I already have the gown, and I’ve picked out the perfect flower arrangement. I have the marriage contract filled out in my top desk drawer at home. You just need to sign it and notarize it. What do you say?

New poly couple
We want to make sure that our relationship stays secure and we don’t feel threatened when we explore polyamory, so we sat down with each other and we worked out a list of rules about how we will do polyamory. Here’s a contract that spells out all our relationship agreements.

Monogamous equivalent
I have been thinking about it for months, and when I have a girlfriend, I’ve decided exactly how I want it to be. So I sat down and wrote on a piece of paper just exactly how our relationship will go. Here’s a list of all the dates we will have and the things we’ll do on those dates. For your convenience, I’ve made up a schedule that has all the times and places for our dates. After we’re finished with the dating phase, here’s a list of all the things we’ll do once we’ve decided to commit to each other. Look, I made a copy for you!