Friday, October 29, 2010

End prohibition

I try to avoid me-to posts, but I wanted to go on the record as urging people to vote yes on Proposition 19.

Welcome to Zombiewood Pines

An old friend of mine from LA has moved to a new neighborhood (or maybe it's another planet) that has been overrun by zombies. The stories of life there are really, really funny. Highly recommended. Read it bottom-up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Five things Paul Graham is right about

For balance:

1. Lisp is cool.

2. Make something someone wants. (And then sell it to them. For more than it cost you to make it.)

3. VC's suck.

4. So do Segeways.

5. There are things you can't say.

Layers of reality

I have been bothered for a very long time by the fact that on the one hand there seems to be a very convincing argument that there is something wrong with David Deutsch's theory of shadow photons, but on the other hand if you look at the math there seems to be nothing wrong. This is a distinctly different situation from the usual suspects of quantum mysteries where the popular account is just flat-out wrong. In this case, as far as I can tell (because I am not an expert), the math really does seem to describe a world where shadow photons exist.

I had a brief correspondence with Deutsch about this, and this was his response:

An analogue of your suggestion about universes is that photons cease to exist after they have passed the Earth, so that we can never catch up with them, heading in directions in which they will never strike anything.

I think it is actually arguable that such photons indeed do not exist. John Cramer's transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics (TQM) actually argues exactly that, and relies on the big bang singularity as the "absorber of last resort" to insure that it is not possible for any real photon to travel "in a direction where [it] will never strike anything." But the validity of TQM is far from certain. It's considered pretty unfashionable nowadays.

I think I've found another way out of this conundrum, but like anything having to do with QM it's a little weird. So in the spirit of such things I invite you to consider the following claim:

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.

Is it true? Of course it depends on your point of view. If you suspend disbelief and look at it from the counterfactual perspective of the Star Wars universe, then yes, it is true. But if you do not suspend such disbelief and look at it from the point of view of the "real" universe, the answer is no because neither Darth Vader nor Luke Skywalker actually exist.

Trick is, what we so glibly refer to as the "real" universe doesn't "actually" exist either. It "emerges" from quantum mechanics through decoherence, but classical reality is only an approximation to the "real" underlying truth. But here's the rub: we ourselves inhabit this approximation and I don't mean that in a metaphorical way. We humans are classical entities. The computer that you are reading this essay on is a classical entity. The information that comprises this essay and the patterns of activation in your neurons that reading this essay gives rise to are all classical entities. When we talk about "reality" we have no choice but to suspend disbelief at least to certain extent, because if we really peel back the curtain all the way, we vanish.

And it's not just the quantum curtain that we have to leave in place in order to function. The reality we perceive is actually several layers removed even from fundamental classical reality. For example, we perceive ourselves to have (more or less) solid bodies. But the "real" truth is that the atoms in our bodies are mostly empty space, and what we perceive as solidity is "really" clouds of electrons jealously guarding their territory by means of their mutual repulsion. Then there are cognitive disconnects with "reality" that manifest themselves as optical illusions, delusions, sensory blind spots of various sorts, etc. etc. etc. Then there are subjective experiences that are only accessible to you. Does chocolate "really" taste good? How about sushi? Are you "really" in pain, or is it all just "in your head"?

Note that I am not arguing for metaphysical relativism here. It is not true, as some imagine, that you can remake "reality" (whatever that means) simply by visualizing a better future or some such new-age claptrap. What I am arguing for is that there are different kinds of reality. Reality is not one monolithic thing. Reality is layered, with one layer emerging from the one below. Classical reality emerges from quantum reality. Chemistry emerges from physics. Life emerges from chemistry. Brains and other data processing devices emerge from life. Memes emerge from brain. Mega-memes emerge from collections of brains.

Whether a proposition is true, or even meaningful, depends on which of these layers you choose to operate on. In the meme layer, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. In the classical reality layer, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker do not exist (and hence the question of paternity is meaningless).

Many philosophical conundrums can be resolved by being explicit about which layer of reality you're operating on. At the quantum layer, shadow photons "exist". (I put "exist" in scare quotes here because photons, shadow or otherwise, don't "really exist" at the quantum layer.) At the classical layer, they don't. At the subjective layer, we have free will. At the chemical layer, we don't.

There. I have just singlehandedly solved mankind's most intractable problems. Seems like a good day's work. I'm going to go get some lunch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Five things Paul Graham is wrong about

I debated with myself for a long time over whether to write this post (which is one of the reasons some of the subject matter is a little old). I like Paul. I read his essays. I agree with most of them. I think Y-Combinator is a great achievement. I've invested, directly or indirectly, in about a dozen YC companies. I've even made some money doing it. And Paul's influence is now such that getting on his shit list can be a career limiting move. But some of the things Paul has said lately I find a bit disturbing. So I decided to go ahead and write this because, if nothing else, it will serve as a test to see if the Silicon Valley culture really does tolerate disruption as well as it likes to think it does.

That said, here are the five things I think PG is wrong about:

1. Efficiency doesn't matter

Paul has argued that machines have gotten so powerful that the efficiency of the programming language you use doesn't matter. And of course he's right about that to a certain extent: efficiency doesn't matter at first. But when you start to get traction, efficiency starts to matter a lot, and the more successful you are the more it matters. If you've done it right then you have machines doing most of your work. If you have machines doing most of your work, then the larger you grow the more the cost of those machines will come to dominate your expenses. Those costs are inversely proportional to your efficiency. If your code runs twice as fast you will only need half as many machines. All else being equal, those savings are pure profit.

Note that I am not arguing for premature optimization here. Premature optimization is still the root of all evil. But it's important to keep in mind that the aphorism of "efficiency doesn't matter" has a limited domain of applicability, and your goal, if you're starting a business, is explicitly to get out of that domain. If you've been in business for a while and efficiency still doesn't matter you have almost certainly failed.

2. The returns on angel investing are bimodal

Paul claims that a startup either wins big or fails, and that therefore if you're going to invest you should invest in as many companies as possible in order to increase your odds of picking the one big winner. He writes, "The expected value of a startup is the percentage chance that it's Google." We had all better hope that this is not true, because Google-sized wins only come along once every few years at most. In the meantime, 700,000 new businesses are incorporated in the U.S. every year. There had better be a couple of those non-Googles that produce a decent return for their investors or the country is in big trouble.

I've been angel investing for five years now. I have a net negative return because of one spectacular failure (from which I have learned a lot but that's another story). But if you discount that as an outlier, my net return is positive, and all of my winners so far have been small: 10x return or less. The key, as Paul seems to have recently discovered, is time. What matters is not absolute return, but return amortized over time. I'd much rather have a 10x return in one year than a 100x return in three (or five or ten, which are more typical numbers).

It is true that VC returns have historically been bimodal, but this is not inherent in the nature of startups, it's because VC's engineer the environment to force the distribution to be bimodal. They do this because they are constrained by the structure of their funds to move money in and out on a particular schedule. They are usually not free to reinvest the proceeds from an early small win into a new startup that might produce another fast small win. Because of this, if a VC cashes out early, that capital can no longer work for them. So they use their influence to force companies to continue to grow past the point where they otherwise would have. This in turn forces the companies to take on additional risks that they otherwise might not have, which causes them in many instances to fail.

Angels do not operate under these constraints, and so they can make a very nice overall return on small wins with fast turnaround. To be fair, Paul did grudgingly admit this possibility in his talk at the most recent startup school, but he doesn't seem to have thought the consequences all the way through. In particular, Paul still claims that:

3. Valuations don't matter

This is the one that worries me the most because the issue has been in the news lately, and because it is so plainly false. To see that it is false you only have to take it to an extreme: Would you invest in a YC company at a ten billion dollar valuation? Clearly not. So somewhere between zero and ten billion there is a line beyond which the expected return no longer has a high enough risk premium to make the investment worthwhile. One can reasonably argue about where that line is, but there are only four orders of magnitude between the $1M valuation that YC companies typically commanded not so long ago and the $10B which is clearly over the line. The last round of YC companies was getting $10M valuations, an order of magnitude over a few years ago, under the valuations-don't-matter mantra. You can only do that trick three more times before you get to $10B. Somewhere between here and there valuations must start to matter.

4. Investors who don't want to be the first movers are "assholes"

The exact quote (captured on video, about twelve minutes in) was, "You start with the committed ones, the nice guys who say, 'yes I'm absolutely in,' and work your way outwards to assholes who give you lines like 'come back to me to fill out the round.'" I have on occasion been one of those assholes, and I take umbrage.

I can certainly understand why a founder would find a line like that annoying. But calling such people "assholes" crosses a line and implies a dishonorable motive, which I think it grossly unfair. To invest in startups as anything other than a hobby is a boatload of work. Notwithstanding what I wrote above under #2, the sad fact of the matter is still that the vast majority of startups never achieve profitability. (I'm talking here about real profitability, of the sort that can provide a positive return to investors after all the company's employees start making reasonable salaries. "Ramen profitability", which YC companies like to advertise, simply means that the company is being subsidized by its employees. This is not a recipe for long-term success.) There are ways that you can improve the odds, even stack them in your favor, but they are, as I've said, a ton of work, and very, very hard to learn. Particularly for a new investor, following the lead of more experienced investors rather than just shooting from the hip can be a very reasonable strategy. And not just because it improves your odds, but also because experienced investors pay more attention to people who have co-invested with them. So even if you're treating your investments as an educational expense and not really looking to make money, it can still make sense to ask who else is in on the deal before you write a check.

So on behalf of reluctant angels everywhere I say to founders: cut us some slack. Many of us are still trying to figure this out as we go along just like you are.

Watching that video again reminded me:

5. You don't have to take notes

At the start of his talk at startup school PG admonished the audience not to take notes because a written version of his talk would be available on line and it would certainly be a higher-fidelity rendition of what he said than anything they could scribble in real time. First, it isn't actually true. The written version of Paul's talk is an edited version of what he said. The "asshole" comment, for example, doesn't appear. But more importantly it makes a false assumption about the purpose of taking notes. Taking notes serves not only to make a non-volatile record of what was said, but the act of writing helps you remember what was said. Writing activates different parts of your brain than speaking. The act of rendering words to a page and feeding those words back through your eyes rather than your ears actually helps you remember things. So taking notes can be worthwhile even if you never go back to look at them. And last but not least, if you take notes, you can write down your real-time reactions to what is being said, which obviously no one but you can do.

[UPDATE] This entry was, unsurprisingly, posted on Hacker News. The top-rated comment is a brief response form PG. For the record, I concede that I was being unfair in point #5. PG did not say not to take notes, he just said that people didn't *have* to take notes if they chose not to because a transcript would be available. To the extent that I have misrepresented or misunderstood PG's positions on this or the other points I raised, it was not deliberate.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Best political analysis ever

It's unfinished and I've only read about half of what is there, but I'm ready to declare "Stop me before I vote again" required reading for anyone who wants to understand contemporary politics in the U.S. If nothing else, it's a model of lucid, clear writing. Fair warning though: the picture it paints ain't pretty.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NPR analyst fired over Muslim comment -

NPR correspondent Juan Williams has been fired from his job because he said that seeing people in Mulim garb on airplanes makes him nervous:

... when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

(The elided portion was the obligatory "I am not a bigot" disclaimer.)

I wonder if I would get fired from my job because I said that seeing people covering their face in public creeps me out.

For the record (just in case any potential employers are reading this), I get creeped out when anyone covers their face in public when it's not Halloween. Man, woman, Muslim, Zoroastrian... I am an equal opportunity cynic when it comes to people being unwilling to show their face in public. The reason is very simple: I grew up in Western culture, where covering your face is done almost exclusively in order to conceal your identity in preparation for the commission of a crime, or, occasionally, simply to scare people. Covering your face in public in Western culture is something that Just Isn't Done. It's just as shocking, perhaps even as offensive, as wearing a bikini in public would be in a conservative Muslim culture.

In fact, that's not a bad analogy.

[UPDATE:] William Saletan over at Slate has, as usual, some worthwhile perspective.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Loki is not a joke, and he is not the devil

Someone sent me this by email. They've given me permission to publish it anonymously:

1) Another weird (fake) religion that reminds me of the flying spaghetti monster is The humor is more dry, I actually had to ask "is this a joke?" when I first saw it. Which, to me, makes it a more humorous one.

2) The other thing that I thought of is that Anton LaVey's brand of Satanism and probably many other "new age" religious practices might already satisfy quite a few of your qualifications. From what I remember LaVey's goal with Satanism was to give people rituals and faith, but one which didn't allow for belief in a deity. It seems like he had some of the same goals you do, namely finding a replacement for religions like Christianity that would throw out the things he saw as bad about them (such as belief in deities) without throwing out what he saw as the benefits of organized religion (such as ritual, community, comfort, etc.).

I chose to email rather than comment because I felt weird about bringing up Satanism in a more public forum. I'm not a Satanist, but I have read a little about it. I that also means that I may not have the most accurate understanding of it. Anyway, it just seemed like the conversation was mostly concerned with the really huge religions of the world and I'd be interested in how it applies to some of the more fringe groups. Even things like Scientology which is another very deliberately designed religion.

This was my response:

The problem with joke religions is that they are jokes. And the problem with satanism is that it evokes an even more negative visceral reaction in people than atheism.

The cool thing about Loki is that religious people wouldn't really know what to make of him. He's a "real" (Norse) god, so he's not a joke. He's obscure enough that he doesn't come with baggage like satan does. (The mere fact that you felt the need to make this communication private is an indication of just how much baggage satan has.) And he has an actual constructive message: be skeptical, because I might be playing a trick on you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Geek dreams

I've been trying for months to get an intermittent problem with our Comcast cable fixed. So this XKCD cartoon really resonated with me.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A myth for skeptics

[This is a followup to an earlier post]

So how do we design a better myth for Scientists/atheists/skeptics/whatever-you-want-to-call-them/us?

Like all good designs, it needs to start with a goal, a set of design criteria. You can't design something unless you know what it is you want to accomplish. The goal here is to design a constructive myth, one whose effect on people will be positive by some quality metric. Which metric? Ideally the myth should cause people to behave more rationally. (Is it possible for a myth to cause people to behave rationally? Yes, I believe it is. Keep reading.) Failing that, it should at least allow the community to deflect some of the criticism and discrimination that we presently endure.

It should be a moderate myth, implausible enough to make it unlikely to foster fanaticism, but serious-sounding enough to make it socially unacceptable to dismiss it as a simple parody. Ideally, it should be an old myth, because humans -- especially religious ones, whom we are trying to reach -- venerate history.

Happily, some of our ancestors were prescient, and there is an extant myth that fits the bill. (This is a good thing because inventing a good myth is not at all easy.) It is the myth of Loki or the Trickster, practical joker to the gods, or, if a different kind of gravitas is called for, evil super-villian to the geeks.

The beauty of tricks is that they foster skepticism. The beauty of Loki is that he can be used to defuse fanaticism. If someone says, "I know this because God told me," we can respond, "No, you only think it's God. It might be Loki playing a trick on you." Note that the goal here is not to persuade the fanatic (that is not possible), merely to humble him and defuse the argument. As long as we maintain some plausible deniability that we might really believe that Loki is out there playing tricks on us the rhetoric is unassailable because it has the exact same basis as the rhetoric of the fanatic. The fanatic can no longer resort to playing the godless card. We have a god. He is Loki. And he can work in your life the exact same way that other gods do. But unlike other gods who foster dependency and submission, Loki fosters skepticism and self-reliance, because Loki is not on your side. Loki is the enemy, forever trying to trick you, to lure you from the truth. But the good news is that you are more powerful than he is, and if you arm yourself with the right tools and training you can defeat him.

To believe in Loki is, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, to be a skeptic, to doubt. And doubt is the seed from which rationality grows. Doubt is the ultimate weapon -- indeed the only effective weapon -- against fanaticism and fundamentalism. Doubt is the salvation of the world.

I hope you will all help spread the Word.

[UPDATE] I see that this post got a "bogus" vote. If you think this is bogus I would really appreciate if you would leave a comment explaining why you think it's bogus.

An open letter to America's Muslims

From the better-late-than-never department...

During the height of the kerfuffle over the so-called ground-zero mosque many American Muslims raised the question of whether they would ever be fully accepted in American society. That question still seems to be hanging in the air, so I though I would take it upon myself to answer it.

Dear American Muslims:

The answer to your question is yes, sooner or later you will be accepted, but it may take a long time. You have to understand there are some features of American culture that are fundamentally at odds with certain aspects of your faith.

First and foremost, where religion is concerned we Americans are shameless hypocrites. Many of us loudly proclaim America to be a God-fearing country, but our real national religion is capitalism. If there is ever a conflict between religion and commerce, commerce wins. So, for example, we have never taken the second commandment very seriously. You may have noticed that depictions of Jesus are everywhere. So your strictures against depictions of the Prophet (PBUH) are fundamentally at odds with our culture. Before you can be accepted, one or the other is going to have to give. If you look at history, the assimilation process happens faster if the group being assimilated adapts to the culture rather than insisting that the culture adapt to it.

While I'm on the topic of commerce being the national religion, praying five times a day is widely viewed as being a little over the top. An exceptionally pious American (of any faith) goes their house of worship once a week. Anything more than that is viewed with suspicion because it's too significant an impact on productivity. This is true for any religion, not just Islam, but five times is day is so much more than any other mainstream religion demands of even its most ardent adherents that you really stick out. Not a good thing if you really want to fit in.

Another aspect of our culture that you need to understand is that concealing one's face is generally associated with lawlessness. In our culture, people conceal their faces not out of modesty but because they don't want their identity to be known. The visceral reaction to seeing someone, male or female, with their face covered in public is overwhelmingly negative. I am myself a product of four cultures (German, Israeli, Palestinian and American) so I am about as multicultural an American as you will ever meet, but seriously, seeing women wearing what looks to me like an instrument of torture over their faces creeps me out.

Last but not least there is the whole terrorism thing. The association of Islam with terrorism is tragic. It is bigoted. It is wrong. But it is, alas, not completely baseless. This is going to sound self-contradictory, but it would really help if the voices of moderation within Islam were louder. In American culture, intentional violence against innocents is flatly unacceptable under any circumstances. Yes, I know that America commits violence against innocents. As with religion, we are hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. Yes, we have killed vastly more civilians by retaliating against 9/11 than were actually killed in 9/11 But killing those innocents was not our intent. To us, that makes all the difference in the world.

This is the crucial thing: American hypocrisy is at once a deep flaw in our character and also the glue that holds our society together. There are differences between us far greater than those that separate Shia and Sunni. But since 1865 we have not settled those differences with violence. The only way we can do that is to set aside some of our more ardent beliefs and behave as if we did not believe them. I have neighbors who are Baptists. According to their theology I am a heretic who is condemned to hell because I have not accepted Jesus as my lord and savior. But that doesn't stop us from going out to dinner and having a good time. We just don't talk about religion.

That sort of suspension of disbelief is much, much harder when your women are veiled and the call to prayer goes out over the PA five times a day every day.

By the way, it is important to notice that it is not just Muslims in America who are marginalized when their religious practices conflict with our cultural hypocrisy. Christians also suffer this fate. Fred Phelps is a pariah, not because he's a Muslim, but because he is too much of a Christian. Phelps's sin is that he takes the Bible too seriously. He is not willing to capitulate to the secular and the politically correct like, say, the Mormons have (mostly) done. But that is the price of acceptance. That is why the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are even more unwelcome than you are.

This is your dilemma: Islam as it is currently practiced seems (to my admittedly unschooled eye) to insist that you be Muslims first and Americans second. But America insists -- and has always insisted -- that Americans be Americans first and Muslims -- or Jews or Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans or Wicans or Methodists -- second. The price of being accepted in America is accepting others whose views are fundamentally incompatible with your most cherished beliefs and not getting in their face. The reason your assimilation is taking so long is that you are too principled, too pious, too unwilling to compromise Allah or the Q'uran or the Prophet (PBUH).

And if you find this letter at all offensive, well, that would be exactly my point.

Embracing myth as a political tactic

[Fifth in a series]


I do not deny that there is a connection between religion and extremism. It is certainly true that once you start to accept things on faith, that opens up a crack in your thought processes through which all manner of things might slip. The whole premise of this discussion is that this phenomenon is real, it's dangerous, and something has to be done about it. The question is: what?

Your answer is to simply stand up for Truth, Justice and the Rational Way. It's a noble sentiment. I sympathize. I really do. But there's a problem: it doesn't seem to be working, at least not here in the United States, and certainly not in the Middle East. And even in the places where it does seem to be working, like Sweden and Japan, it's not because of the efforts of the CSI. I don't know why Sweden and Japan are so good at resisting irrationality, but do observe in those cultures a certain civility and decorum that seems to be absent in the writings of Harris and Hitchens.

Looking at the situation as well from the point of view of tactics and politics I further observe that the world has far fewer qualms about being politically incorrect towards atheists than any other group defined by a set of belief. (I was about to add, "with the possible exception of pedophiles," until it occurred to me that even pedophiles have managed to deflect an awful lot of political and legal arrows by donning the mantle of faith.) Empirically, if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em seems to be an effective strategy with respect to certain quality metrics.

You are of course correct to warn about the slippery slope and the danger of -- if you'll forgive the metaphor -- selling your soul to the devil by embracing myth as a political tactic. And here we get to one of the really crucial issues: to what extent are people capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs? I think humans have a great capacity for this, and I think you actually recognize this too, except you call it "hypocrisy." I call it suspending disbelief, and it can be a useful skill. It takes an exceptionally strong person to face the cold hard truth about the world and not sink into despair, because the truth is that for many people in many ways, life sucks.

What I propose is to design a sort of mythological methadone to get people off the religious heroin they are currently consuming. The challenge is to come up with a myth that serves the purposes of mythology without being quite so addictive and debilitating as what is currently in circulation.

Actually, there already is an atheist myth making the rounds: the flying spaghetti monster. The problem with the FSM is that it was specifically designed so to make it clear that no one actually believes in it, and so as a myth it is self-undermining. It does not serve the purposes of myth. Its only purpose is to ridicule the very concept of myth, and so it actually makes the situation worse. In the religion-as-drug metaphor, the FSM is like a candy cigarette, and about as effective.

And yes, I do have a concrete proposal. I'll post it later today. (No, it is not the Great Conspiracy.)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Extremism vs. religion

[Fourth in a series]


You're right, that the real problem with faith, is the required abandonment of objective reality. It sets you on a path, where you're not really in control any more of where you end up. Since you're no longer accepting feedback from the world to calibrate your beliefs, you can be led (by a sufficiently motivated manipulator) almost anywhere.

You say that it's "extremism", not religion, that I'm objecting to. And you're right, to find examples of religion that are not extreme. But I think you really underestimate the connection between religion and extremism. The reality is that religion requires faith, which sets you up for being unable to distinguish between extremism, and moderate belief.

For a significant fraction of the world's religious believers, being a "moderate" believer actually requires a bit of hypocrisy. For example, one might simultaneously claim that the Christian Bible "is the literal Word of God", while at the same time, in practice, focusing almost exclusively on the New Testament and "just coincidentally" ignoring the many tales of God's brutality in the Old Testament.

Ron, you mention Buddhism and Quakerism, but I don't see how one can thread the needle of being pro-religion (in general) while simultaneously anti-extremism. Much of a serious attack against extremism would be seen, by religious believers, as an attack against their religion. Oh, sure, everyone would pay lip service to "being tolerant", and they would never recognize themselves as extremists. But then you would come to criticize things that are important to them, and I don't think they would appreciate the fine distinction you are trying to make between extremism and religion.

As for Karen Armstrong's books, my objection is that she doesn't seem interested in Truth. But I remain (thus far) convinced that much of the benefit of religion doesn't come to the believers, unless they actually believe. (At least, the part separate from the benefits of belonging to a community with shared culture and rituals.)

That's the fundamental conflict that I see. If you (and Armstrong) are just saying, "let's keep this mythology for cultural reasons", then that argument should work just as well for fiction. I'm certainly not against childhood traditions like Halloween and (secular!) Christmas.

But that isn't enough for (most) religions. They can't just be Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. There's something more ... there's a claim to Truth, but achievable only via faith, not through observation. And it seems to me that once you head down that path, you're no longer capable of controlling where you end up.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A brief program note

I didn't want to detract from all the fun we're having here talking about philosophy so I started a new blog to chronicle an interesting little drama I've found myself sucked into involving a company called OurPlane which recently declared bankruptcy. It promises to be quite the soap opera.

The metaphysics of bowling

[Third in a series]


We certainly agree on more than we disagree, and one of the things that we agree on is that the world would be a better place if religion were more like bowling, which actually brings up a very interesting point: why do people bowl? It is, if you think about it, a completely ridiculous activity. What is the point? You do all this work to set up the pins (or to make machines to set them up for you) only to try to knock them down again under constraints deliberately designed to make the task difficult. If you want the pins down, why not just walk up to them and kick them over? And if you want them up, why not just set them up and leave them that way?

And it's not like bowling skills are transferrable to anything useful. If you go hunting instead of bowling, or running or hiking or gardening or even bird watching you can make the argument that you are honing a skill that under certain circumstances could have actual utility. But bowling?

No, bowling is just completely and utterly useless, except for one thing: it's fun. It's fun precisely because it's not related in any way to anything important or useful, and that is in fact the appeal: it provides an escape. If something is important and useful that inherently means that the stakes are high, topping out at the proverbial matters of life and death, where we find the most important and useful -- and hence the most stressful -- activities of all: the business of keeping yourself and your family alive. Bowling is about as far removed from that as you can get.

In that sense Religion is like bowling. A bowling alley is not always readily at hand, but God is always there, like a little portable bowling alley that you can carry along with you in a corner of your mind. When times get tough you can always turn to Him. You don't even have to put on special shoes.

The problem, of course, is that using God this way requires one (on the hard atheist view) to abandon objective reality, which leads to all sorts of negative consequences. People don't usually engage in jihad over bowling. But they do riot over soccer games on a regular basis, and soccer doesn't require you to abandon reality any more than bowling does. So I contend that it's not religion that's the problem, but extremism, and that this is true in nearly every realm of human endeavor. What makes bowling attractive to you and P.Z. Myers is not that it's not a religion, but that it's not extreme, that it doesn't provoke its adherents to violence or to undermine science education. But neither does Buddhism. Or Quakerism. Or Jainism. I could go on. When was the last time you heard of a bunch of Episcopalians bombing an abortion clinic?

Framing the debate as religion-versus-atheism is a serious mistake, not only because it takes the focus off the real underlying problem, but also for practical and political reasons. It makes enemies of moderate religions who really ought to be our allies in the fight for what I really want: a peaceful, prosperous world with as few crazy people as possible in positions of influence and power. It makes the message a negative one ("There is no God") rather than a positive one, which makes a tough sell in a tough world.

You say that what you want is "greater respect for rationality and empirical science, and less respect for faith, as a trusted means for understanding the world." That is a fine aspiration. But you're more likely to get it if you reciprocate and make an effort to understand and develop a greater respect for faith, even if in developing that understanding and respect you do not yourself arrive at faith. Towards that end I have recommended two books written by the noted author Karen Armstrong. The first is A Short History of Myth and the other is The Case for God, which is really just an expanded version of Short History.

I apologize for bringing up what you may have considered a privileged out-of-band communication, but your initial reaction upon reading Short History was, "I hated the beginning. Just hated it. She was claiming value for non-truth..." To which I responded, "Have you never enjoyed a novel?" The reason I bring this up is that your devotion to objective truth is understandable, even admirable, but if taken to an extreme it can lead you astray, and in ways that have much more serious consequences than just missing out on a cracklin' good yarn. I hope you will keep this in mind as we proceed.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Problem with Faith

[Second in a series]


I want to thank you for the honor of co-posting on your blog. I've enjoyed your blog insights for some time now (and your postings on comp.lang.lisp prior to the blog), and have had fun playing devil's advocate in comments here in the past. I'm glad you suggested this series, and I'll do my best to keep up my end of the debate. I beg your readers' indulgence as I attempt to hone my writing craft for these posts while you all watch.

That said, let's get to it!

First of all, I want to state for the record that you and I most likely agree on the vast bulk of important points on this topic. We're both self-admitted atheists. We both have a rational, scientific approach to the world. From your earlier posts, I've come to appreciate your perspective on religion. You have claimed that religion (or, more generally, mythology) offers some important benefits to some people, which I can't deny. And you have offered me a brilliant analogy, that deprogramming people from religion has a lot in common with getting addicts off drugs. (For example, just shouting at them is unlikely to be an effective detox methodology in either case.)

But there are still (or may be) differences of opinion here, and I'll do my best to highlight them. You say that I'm a proponent of "hard atheism". I am indeed a fan of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. But you have criticized them as not being "effective" at converting the religious, and I don't necessarily disagree. Ironically, I may be one of the few people in the tiny population of readers for which the books have made a valuable difference. Since college, I've been a "secret" atheist, sure of my own beliefs, happy to express them in a private, trusting, environment, but very wary of going public with something that is viewed as abhorrent by a large majority of the U.S. (or world!) population. But after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I became convinced that my silence was cowardly, and I shouldn't be intimidated by the torrent of voices that disagree and disapprove of me.

You suggest that I agree that

religion, because it makes objectively false claims about the world, is an unalloyed evil

That's probably too strong, for my personal opinion. Yes, I agree that religion makes objectively false claims about the world. This is critically important to me, and seems to be much less so to you. I also think that many religions are, on balance, "evil" (with full awareness that morality is also a complex topic, with deep connections to religion). But I would say that these two points are orthogonal. Religion is not evil because it makes false claims. Homer's Odyssey also makes false claims about the world, but an entertaining fictional novel is not "evil".

But there is plenty done in the name of religion (e.g., Inquisitions, Crusades, and flying airplanes into skyscrapers) that I think is not just a coincidence. I don't accept the claim (by analogy) that every large group of people has some sociopaths, so if you find a serial killer within a chess club, you shouldn't blame chess. Religion isn't like chess. The need for religion to require faith (which is "truth" not supported by empirical observation), to take over culture and impose an us-vs-them view of the world, and to elevate its status as more important than anything else in the world (generally because of an everlasting afterlife) ... these are the kinds of things I think lead directly to the anti-social behavior of cruel and evil warfare against other humans. (Of course, there are many other reasons for warfare, but religion is a big one.)

You suggest that religion in general is not a problem, but only particular religions. And you rightly point out Buddhism as an example of a religion which doesn't seem to result in evils of most other religions.

I agree. Buddhism is a nice exception. But I think you can't ignore the historical evidence, that there have been thousands of religions in history, and the vast, vast majority of them have provided ready excuses for insiders to do great harm to outsiders. Religion is usually a tool for cultural supremacy, and the fact that there have been occasional outliers doesn't excuse the threads in common amongst the vast majority.

You conclude by asking what I want. I guess it would be: greater respect for rationality and empirical science, and less respect for faith, as a trusted means for understanding the world. You have in the past suggested to me many (real) benefits of religious belief, and kind of let pass the objective truth of the religious claims. I'm not willing to separate those so cleanly. To me, the problem is that the religious benefits only accrue to those that really believe, on faith, the (objectively false) claims about the universe. It may be that the believers are happy, and it may not bother you that the price of that happiness is believing in false things. But it would bother the believers themselves, if they actually thought that their religion was making a large series of false claims. I think the claimed benefits of (almost all) religions go hand-in-hand with beliefs based on faith. I want to break beliefs based on faith, and it seems to me that generally implies that religion needs to break also.

To get concrete about my ideal goals, let me quote P.Z. Myers, the prolific blogger behind Pharyngula who is even more of a "hard atheist" than I am. At the end of a post in March 2008, Myers gave what I thought was an eloquent description of a beautiful future world:

What I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It's a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It's not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don't elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

And now for something completely different

[Originally written in June 2010, lightly edited to take into account some recent developments.]

I'm going to take a slight detour from my exposition of the Great Conspiracy to do a series of posts that have been in the works for several months now. I've recruited Don Geddis to be a guest blogger here, and we're going to do some collaborative blogging about a topic that has become one of the major themes here: the conflict between science and religion. I tapped Don because he's been a consistent and eloquent proponent of what I will call "hard atheism", the point of view advanced by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris among others, that religion, because it makes objectively false claims about the world, is an unalloyed evil. As an atheist myself I can understand this point of view, but I do not agree with it. I think that religion is much more nuanced than the hard atheists admit, and that they conflate religion with fundamentalism, to the detriment of deeper understanding and societal progress.

So I've asked Don to engage in a debate on this topic, and he has very graciously accepted. The format is going to be a series of posts, with each one being a response by the other person to the one before. Since I'm the instigator I get to go first.

So let me begin, Don, by welcoming you to Rondam Ramblings and thanking you for agreeing to participate in this project. I'd like to start by saying a few words about why I think this is an important topic, and to try to frame the discussion so we don't drift too far afield.

We are living in, to borrow a phrase from an ancient Chinese curse, interesting times. The pace of change -- technological, social, and political -- that we are currently experiencing is unprecedented in the history of the known universe. Much of that change has been indisputably good: when measured against historical norms and in terms of percentages, the world today is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in recorded history. But of course we also face new and unprecedented dangers, particularly climate change and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It has always been easier to destroy than to build, and modern technology provides non-judgmental leverage for both endeavors. I worry about people with a tenuous grip on reality getting their hands on tactical nukes.

I think it is safe to say that there is a near universal consensus that the world would be a better place if there were fewer crazy people in it, and therein lies the rub: many of the people that you and I would consider crazy are more than happy to return the favor and consider us crazy (or immoral or amoral or otherwise mentally deficient) because we don't believe in (their) God. If the issue were to be decided democratically we would lose.

This, then, is my motivation for engaging you in this debate: Religion does indeed appear to the casual atheistic glance to do a tremendous amount of harm. It is natural to conclude that the correct response is to point out this apparently self-evident fact and embark on an effort to bring people to their senses and get them to stop believing in silly superstitions. But I claim that the premise is false: it is not religion that does the harm but rather particular religions. I'll point at Buddhism as the classic example of a religion to which the vast majority of the usual litany of hard-atheist critiques do not apply.

My thesis, then, is that the right way to deal with the problems caused by religion is not to try to eliminate religion, any more than the right way to try to deal with the problems caused by technology is to try to eliminate technology. The right way to deal with these problems in both cases is first to seek to understand the underlying phenomena, and then to (struggle to find a word here that doesn't have Machiavellian baggage attached to it) manipulate those phenomena in the service of our goals.

Which brings me to the first order of business: what are our goals? (One of my favorite aphorisms is that the hardest part of getting what you want is figuring out what it is.) World peace? Prosperity? Saving the whales? If you had a magic wand and could use it to bring about any result you wanted, what would it be?

Well, guess what: we humans have such a magic wand. It's called a "brain". There are no guarantees of course (magic is not 100% reliable), but waving that magic wand (a.k.a. thinking) has been known to occasionally produce amazing results. So let's get started.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

This is intriguing

I just got a Facebook friend request from an AI.

Mega memes and the great conspiracy

I was really hoping to be able to pull this all together in an eloquent grand finale, but it's just not working. So rather than keep everyone waiting I'm just going to do this the awkward way:

1. Classical reality is not metaphysical reality. But treating classical reality as if it were metaphysically real is a useful working approximation in day-to-day life. Analogously, what I am about to describe is also not "really" metaphysically real, but is (I believe) a useful working approximation yadda yadda yadda.

2. Likewise, there is every reason to believe that we don't "really" have free will (because free will is not consistent with a deterministic universe, even a quantum one) but the illusion that we have free will is so powerful and the consequences of descending into fatalism so unpleasant that accepting the illusion of free will and living our lives as if it were real seems prudent.

3. Information reproduces in systems that process classical information like DNA, computers and human brains. The reproduction of information obeys the laws of Darwinian evolution.

4. Some of the information that reproduces in our brains is accessible to us on a conscious level in the form of ideas. But our intuitions about what we think we know can be wrong. Not only do we not know what's really going on around us, we don't know that we don't know.

5. Information influences the physical world through a variety of mechanisms. These include 1) the expression of genes as proteins, 2) the control that brains have over the bodies they reside in, including voluntary and autonomic responses, and the placebo effect.

6. Systems of brains can store and process information in ways that is not possible with individual brains. Companies, for example, have "corporate knowledge" that resides in a distributed fashion in the brains of its employees. In a large company no single person has complete knowledge of how all of the processes in the company work. And yet they do. This is one of the great achievements of modern civilization.

7. If individual brains can have memes living inside them of which they are not aware (c.f. point 4 above) then the concepts encoded in a multi-brain system like a corporation (or a religious group, or a political party) might also not be accessible on a conscious level to any of the component brains that contain it. In fact, it is more likely that a concept resident in a multi-brain system be inaccessible consciously because it is further removed from the mechanisms of consciousness than ideas residing in an individual brain.

8. The mega-memes residing in multi-brain systems reproduce according to the laws of Darwinian evolution just like all other information. They also exert physical influences on the world, i.e. these mega-memes have a phenotype. The computer you are using to read this is an example. No one human being knows how to build a modern computer. The mega-meme that created it resides in hundreds if not thousands of brains.

9. We like to think of ourselves as the masters of ideas, that we create ideas to serve our needs. The Great Conspiracy is the hypothesis that ideas -- and in particular mega-memes distributed in large numbers of brains -- are actually using us humans to serve their needs. The internet did not come into being because we chose to build it, it came into being because the Internet is an idea that reproduces extraordinarily well.

10. Not all ideas that reproduce well have consequences that align as nicely with our human aspirations as the Internet. For example, the idea that one ought to have a lot of children is an idea that reproduces well, as is the idea that one ought to adhere to social norms and not question authority. But the consequences of these ideas might not be so benign.

11. The reason that the Great Conspiracy resembles a conspiracy is because mega-memes reside in multiple brains, and the more brains they reside in the more successful they have been and are likely to continue to be. The reason they don't need to expend resources to remain hidden is that they can hide in plain sight. Any brain that realizes what is going on and rebels is simply cast out of the memetic complex (by, for example, the "phenotype" of the adherence-to-social-norms meme).

12. So one of the predictions of this theory is that no one will pay any attention to it, and I will become socially ostracized for advancing it. :-)

Whether or not you buy this, I hope it's a little clearer now why I had such a hard time rendering this idea into words.

BTW, when Dawkins introduced the concept of memes way back in the 1970's he talked about "viral memes" and the kinds of characteristics that a meme might have to reproduce well. For example, the idea that "God will reward you if you spread this idea" reproduces well because it has this "hook". The Great Conspiracy goes one step further and says that mega-memes resident in multiple brains are actually the central driving force in most human activity. Groupthink is not an aberration, but rather the primary dynamic driving the advance (for now) of civilization.

Monday, October 04, 2010

How the Roberts Court disguises its conservatism

It is no accident that magic makes such a wonderful metaphor for such a wide range of phenomena. Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick try to raise the curtain on the Supreme Court. But not many people will take note because:

... it's not just the illusionist who is to blame. Magic works because the audience so desperately wants to be fooled. The American public seems to want to believe in the myth of a nonideological Supreme Court, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

The whole piece is long, but well worth the time.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ron's new metaphysics

This idea isn't quite ready for prime time, but I seemed to be wearing out my welcome so I'm going to give this my best shot.

First, some ground rules: If one accepts quantum mechanics (and I do) then one has no choice but to concede that any metaphysics is going to be at least to a certain extent metaphorical. I cannot even invoke the concept of "I" -- can't even type the capital C in "Cogito..." -- without implicitly accepting that I am a classical entity of some sort. But there are no classical entities. The universe is quantum. So the minute I begin to speak or type or think -- the instant "I" do anything -- I have already left true metaphysical reality behind to a certain extent. I may be metaphysically quantum, but that is not the I that I care about. The I that I care about is classical. It has a brain that processes classical information and a body that exists at a particular place and time and observes the universe from the privileged vantage point of "here" and "now." Getting even to that point from the perspective of hard science requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

What happens if we take this suspension of disbelief not as a necessary evil that we need to accept in order to deal with, well, whatever it is we decide we need to deal with (this is one of the things that I could use more time to work out) but look at it instead as a means of acquiring useful "knowledge"? I put knowledge in scare quotes because the knowledge we acquire this way isn't strictly true, in the sense that it is not strictly true that we "are" classical entities. But it's a useful approximation for certain purposes, like getting through the day.

So leaving aside the details, what do we "know"? We're human. We have brains that process classical information. We are built by DNA, which also processes classical information, though in a way that is very different from brains. We have constructed digital computers, which also process classical information in ways that is different from both brains and DNA. (And here I don't mean fundamentally different, just operationally different. This is the reason that AI is hard.) The governing dynamic of this incredibly rich and complicated system is Darwinian evolution: random variation and natural selection for reproductive fitness. Intelligence is an emergent property layered on top of evolution. Nothing new here. But remember, none of this is "true" on the most fundamental level. On the most fundamental level all there is is the quantum wave function. But that is not of interest to "us" because "we" are classical entities.

What happens if we pop up one more level, if we leave the level of classical physics and start looking at this complex and chaotic system on its own terms?

Let me try to explain a little more what I mean by that. As scientists (and Scientists) we are familiar and comfortable with two fundamentally different perspectives on reality: the quantum and the classical. The classical "emerges" from the quantum through decoherence. It isn't "really" real in a metaphysical sense, but it is a useful approximation to reality for us because "we" are classical entities.

What if we imagine going up one more level in this hierarchy? Is there some sort of useful concept of "reality" that "emerges" from the classical just as the classical "emerges" from the quantum? I believe there is. For want of a better term I will call it the "informational" level. To move from the quantum to the classical one stops thinking in terms of amplitudes and starts thinking in terms of particles. To move from the classical to the informational one stops thinking in terms of particles and starts thinking in terms of bits.

When I was at JPL I found that it was surprisingly difficult to communicate some of the subtleties of software engineering to scientists. It was surprising because these were not stupid people. They were brilliant, the best in their field. And yet when I tried to explain things like declarative versus procedural programming they just Didn't Get It. Eventually I developed a theory of why they had such a mental block against these concepts: it was because these people were all specialists in the physical sciences. In other words, they were used to thinking about the world in terms of physics, in terms of particles, in terms of things. But bits aren't things. Bits are states of things, or even more difficult to grasp, they are correlations between states of things. They are as different from things as things are different from quantum wave functions. And seeing the universe from the point of view of bits takes as big a mental leap.

What happens if we make this leap?

Well, the first thing that happens is we invent computer science. That's dramatic (look around you) but it does not yet reach the level of precipitating a metaphysical crisis. That comes when you realize that nature may have already invented computer science before humans did.

Consider your spleen. (I don't know why my brain has gotten hung up on spleens, but for some reason every time I have contemplated this part of the story that's the word that has jumped up and volunteered for duty.) It has no idea that it is part of your body. It just sits there and does whatever it is that spleens do (which thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia I could find out in a matter of seconds but honestly at the moment I'm happier not knowing). But imagine if whatever it is that spleens do was so complex that it turned out to be a significant reproductive advantage for your spleen to have its own brain. And imagine that that brain got complex enough to become self-aware in some spleenly way. After all, there is no inherent reason why biological data processing system should not evolve to be multi-cored.

What would it be like to be a spleen?

Well, from the point of view of being a human (or should I say from the point of view of being a human brain?) I would think it would be pretty awful. It's dark and wet and smelly in there. You can't go to the movies or surf the web or have sex. But of course a spleen's brain wouldn't evolve to care about those things. A spleen's brain would evolve to be happy to be a spleen. Any spleen that achieved the sort of self awareness that a human brain has wold fall into a deep despair at the realization that it is merely a spleen and it would commit spleenicde. Evolution would see to it that spleen brains evolved in such a way as to preserve the illusion (for spleens) that being a spleen was a noble and honorable existence, perhaps even that they were created in the image of God.

The Great Conspiracy theory is: our brains are spleens for entities made of bits.

It's getting late and I'm running out of steam so the rest will have to wait for the next installment.

The Great Conspiracy (without nuts)

I think I've figured out a way to make the Great Conspiracy more concrete without sounding like I've gone completely off the deep end. It's not really a new idea, and it's not a completely accurate description of the actual Great Conspiracy (which isn't really a conspiracy, but you'll get the idea).

There is this concept commonly credited to Vernor Vinge of the Singularity, where (to quote Wikipedia) "technological progress becomes so extremely rapid, due to positive feedback, that it makes the future after the Singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict." The Singularity Institute (not to be confused with Singularity University which is not, I have recently learned, affiliated with the Singularity Institute in any way) was founded on the premise that the Singularity will be characterized by the creation of a Superhuman Artificial Intelligence (SAI) against whose awesome intellectual powers we homo sapiens will be utterly helpless, and so we'd better lay the groundwork now to make sure that these SAI's, when -- not if -- they emerge, will be Friendly (with a capital F), that is, that they will be driven by a quality metric that aligns with ours. To fail to do this is, according to the Singularity Institute, an existential threat to human existence (c.f. SkyNet).

Suspend disbelief for a moment and accept that a non-insane person could entertain this as a possibility. The Great Conspiracy then is, in a nutshell, the idea that the Singularity is not a future possibility but has in fact already happened. And I don't mean that it has already happened in a small, metaphorical way. I mean that it has already happened in a full-blown worst-case-scenario (by Singularity Institute standards) sort of way. There already is an SAI out there, and it is carefully managing the world according to its own goals. And, of course, because it is an SAI, it is very, very effective at achieving its goals.

One of which is to avoid detection. Because the most effective way of preventing humans from turning on you is to keep them from even suspecting that you exist.

Like I said at the beginning, this version is still just a metaphor, not really the Great Conspiracy, but it's closer than the very vague version I gave at the outset. The idea in this version is to try to give more of a feel for why the real Great Conspiracy is difficult to describe. The real-world equivalent of the SAI is not actually an AI (because it isn't artificial), but it is, I think, very good at concealing itself. And one of the mechanisms it uses to maintain that concealment is by arranging for the actual truth to seem intuitively absurd, and anyone advancing to appear to be crazy. Indeed, it goes even one step further and arranges for anyone who discovers the truth to doubt their own sanity, and possibly even their own existence.

It's starting to sound like a pretty good premise for a novel, isn't it?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Atheist sectarianism

Anyone looking for evidence that atheism is just another religion need look no farther than the sectarian squabbles currently going on within the church hierarchy.

I have an interesting personal connection with this little drama. Many years ago, during my last existential midlife crisis I attended the grand opening of CFI West. I was thrilled that the center of gravity of secular humanism was shifting towards the other side of the Rockies, and that this new outpost of rationalism would be virtually in my back yard. I was really looking forward to becoming more active in the humanist/atheist/skeptic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it community (Parker and Stone really hit the nail on the head with the punch-line of this South Park episode. Warning: this link contains spoilers.) I was also eagerly anticipating the chance to meet some of the luminaries who were going to be there, notably Paul Kurtz, who seemed to me at the time to be the patron saint of all things secular.

To say that the event turned out to be a disappointment would be quite the understatement. For starters. the building they had chosen had a pretty depressing vibe. It was an old 1960's era brick monolith on a part of Sunset Boulevard on which the sun had long since set. The place (and I refer here both to the building and its surroundings) were badly in need of renovation. But what bothered me most was not the physical plant, but the air of superiority and snobbishness that emanated from the proceedings. There were only about twenty people there, and it was clear that they all knew each other. I was the only outsider, and I was treated like one. They didn't quite say, "Go away boy, you bother me," but they might as well have.

I was shocked. What was the point of even having this event if not to draw new people into the fold? I was puzzled and disappointed, but not deterred. I decided I would try again with a concrete proposal for how I could add value to the organization by helping out with their web presence, which at the time was in about as good a shape as the building and the neighborhood. One of the arms of the secular humanist establishment is a publication called Free Inquiry, but the domain name was available, so I registered it, and sent an email to Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, asking if he'd be interested in having me set up a web site for him. I never received a reply.

(An interesting side note: In 2006 I submitted an article to Free Inquiry entitled, "Why humanism fails to win hearts and minds." It was my first attempt to render onto paper the ideas that I am now fleshing out more fully here in this blog. It was rejected, which didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was that the reason they gave for the rejection made it clear that they had not even bothered to read the article.) has been lying fallow for many years now. But last July I got an email from the web developer at Free Inquiry asking to buy the domain name. Apparently someone is dragging them kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. (To this day they only accept submissions printed on paper in triplicate.) I responded that I wasn't interested in money, but that I would happily point a DNS entry to their server. I would also be willing to donate the domain if certain conditions were met, without being specific about what those conditions were. The web developer responded that this was above his pay grade and that he would have to consult with the church elders.

Two weeks later I got an email from Barry Karr. the director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, saying they were still interested in the domain, but that they couldn't place a value on it as a tax deduction. I replied that I didn't care about the tax deduction, that I was interested in helping the organization and not in personal gain, and that he should call me so we could discuss the situation.

Another two weeks went by with no response. When he finally did respond he said that he'd been dealing with family medical issues, and would like to re-open the dialog. I said sure, call me any time.

Again, no response. Finally, I received this on September 24, almost three months after their initial inquiry, I got this:


I think I have to take this back to square one because there has been a bit of a change in the position of the Free Inquiry Ex. Director (well, not a change, but I guess I misinterpreted his desires a bit). He does not want to give up as the main web address for the Council for Secular Humanism. We had a large meting with our web people, discussing various things, and I thought we all came out of it with the plan that our MAIN FOCUS and url to the world, being Seems I was mistaken.

We do want the domain name and we would use it, but it might be used as a sub-directory to the main page for the magazine, or as a forwarder to the I am sorry for the confusion, the fault is mine. We could pay you an amount, probably not more than a few hundred dollars for the domain name, but, as I think I mentioned before, we could not assign a value amount on it as far as tax purposes go.

Your thoughts.

Barry Karr

I responded -- for the third time -- that I was still willing to give them the domain, that it wasn't about the money, and that they could call me any time to discuss the matter. I haven't heard from them since.

I am hard-pressed to imagine a more inept bit of outreach. But now that I have read the NYT article it all makes a bit more sense. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.