1998 Notebook

A Way to Spend a Year

Try this: keep a piece of paper with you at all times. Every time you hear, or read, or see a death (fictional, that is), make a tick mark. You'd be quite surprised at just at how quickly they'll add up.

So far this year:

  1. Three deaths while watching an improvisational comedy group.
  2. P.D. James reads from her most recent book; the scene is the discovery of a murder victim.
  3. Two deaths on Star Trek: Voyager, and another in the movie Nuts.
  4. Lots of deaths watching people play Quake II.

Conservatively, I'd say about a dozen, and these are just the ones I remember offhand. That's a death about every two days. Is it any wonder that the society we live in is violent?


Anyone want to go to a concert?

Joe Jackson's playing in Portland nine days from today. He's one of the few people I'd really like to see in concert. The funny thing is, I can't find anyone who's interested in going. It isn't practical for me to go alone.

It makes me feel lonely. There isn't anyone around who's on my wavelength. It's not just Joe Jackson, either. There are a bunch of projects I'd like to do, or places to go, or subjects to discuss, but I don't know anyone around here who would share my enthusiasm.

Am I weird? Is it just me? Is it really so strange, shocking and revolutionary to go see a concert on a weeknight? It must be.


A Novel Way to Spend a Week

Try this: turn everything off. Don't read the newspaper, listen to the radio, play recorded music, watch television, or surf the Internet. Turn the clock to the wall, and remove your wristwatch. Disconnect the answering machine and turn off the phone's ringer. Let the daily newspaper sit in a pile. Do your best to avoid all things which distract you, or let you know what the time is.

Spend an entire week this way. You'll be surprised.


A Nice Side Effect

I forgot to mention: a nice side effect of turning the media off for a week is that you're also freed from advertising. Try it, you might like it.



What are this country's taboos? What can't be discussed?

There's the scatological topics, but those are straw men. What are the really big subjects that we can't tackle? What are the subjects we can't even think about?

This isn't one, but here's an interesting thought. It's sure to annoy radical liberals everywhere. What's the best way to deal with overpopulation? Export U.S. culture to the rest of the world. If U.S. culture really brings prosperity, then education should come along with it. And we all know that a high standard of living is the best way to lower birthrate.

So... maybe Baywatch is one of the best things the USA can offer the world.


A Taboo

Here's a taboo in the United States: discussing licensing of parents.

As Stanislaw Lem pointed out, in America there is more regulation of building a garage than having a child. And as for regulating being allowed to have a child...? Imagine the outcry from both the political right and left. Now that's a taboo subject.


The Post-Persons

Back in 1973, Philip K. Dick published a story called "The Pre-Persons". It was a screed against abortion. In the story, children under thirteen could be killed if no one wanted them. Before they learned algebra, they were considered "pre-persons", and without souls.

[One of the male characters actually said this to his son:

It's a certain kind of women advocating this all. They used to call them 'castrating females'. Maybe that was once the right term, except that these women, these hard cold women, didn't just want to - well, they want to do in the whole boy or man, make all of them dead, not just the part that makes him a man.

In case this doesn't clue you in, Dick had serious psychological problems concerning women.]

As Thomas Disch observes in the introduction to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 5, the question this story raises is: if abortion, why not infanticide? By extension, why not set the limit arbitrarily at twelve years old?

Reading this story gets my blood in a fine boil. It makes me wish I were a writer. I have a scenario in my head, but it doesn't have the elements to make an actual story. It goes something like this.

Our nameless protagonist is starting the first day at a new job. An old hand shows him the ropes. The primary duty is simple care for a ward of women who are pregnant, with IVs in their arms. They are for all practical purposes comatose. The work consists of checking catheters, changing diapers, turning them over to prevent bedsores. When he inquires, he is told that the women proved that they were dangerous to their pre-born children. They are kept sedated for the duration of their pregnancies, until just after delivery.

That afternoon, the old hand calls him over and introduces to the other part of his duty. They head to the recovery ward. There they remove the straps that bind a thirteen year old girl to her bed. They escort the recently awakened girl to a courtroom. When they get there, the bailiff reads the charges against her: endangering the welfare of a pre-born child by not reporting the pregnancy, not seeking a physician's care, and by attempting suicide twice. The protagonist notices scars running up the inside of her forearms.

The girl's lawyer makes the claim that she was not acting rationally due to the fact that she had been raped by her father, who is responsible for the pregnancy. The judge dismisses the claim, noting that the father has already been tried and sentenced while she was sedated. The charges stand.

We fade out on a thirteen year old girl, raped by her father, failed twice at suicide, tied down and sedated for most of nine months, now awake and facing charges that could lead to her imprisonment for the rest of her life.

It is the ruin of a life, through absolutely no fault of her own. This is the side of the anti-abortion movement that people don't talk about: the absolute destruction of people's lives. Women become no more than wombs, and if they try to take control of their lives the only solution is to keep them strapped down, sedated and fed intravenously until they give birth.

Yes, it's an extreme. But I contend that it is less extreme than Dick's vision.

Nobody likes abortion. But the alternative is more horrifying than Dick's story ever could be.


The Post-Persons, take 2

I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear enough in the previous notebook entry. The only part of my scenario I find improbable (but not impossible) is a thirteen year old woman standing trial for endangering the fetus she carries. All of the rest follows logically from the position that killing a fetus is immoral. That rules out abortion in the case of rape (including incestuous rape). Also, if a woman endangers her fetus, it's the logical next step to restrict her freedom. For someone who is determined to abort (or, as an alternative, commit suicide), then a pro-life person has an obligation to prevent that person from harming herself. And that would require in the most extreme cases being strapped down. From there it's a very small step to keeping the person under sedation through delivery.

Maybe you can stomach tying a person down and keeping her sedated for the duration of a pregnancy, but I can't. And I can't understand how anyone could let this happen.

If you disagree, try this on for size. Imagine your mother (or wife, daughter, girlfriend, or you) being raped. Would you force her to carry a resulting fetus to term? I would never deign to give that kind of power to rapists. That's exactly what pro-life people do. If they say they don't, then they're hypocrites who refuse to face the consequences of their beliefs.


Fear and Ignorance

Here's one thing I don't understand: religious people who don't want their children to be taught evolution. It's science. Creation isn't. Are we clear on the difference?

What I suspect is that these people are so insecure in their beliefs that they don't believe deep down that given a choice between religious and non-religious belief, their children will choose the religious doctrine. Why else do we see, all over the world, people who refuse to let their children even know about the existence of different religions, beliefs, and lifestyles? If you think the only way to keep your children religious is to keep them ignorant, then you need psychological help.


The Quiet Day

Imagine what it would be like if everyone walked or biked for a day. No cars, motorcycles, or trucks would be allowed to run at all except police, fire and emergency services. It would be so quiet throughout the town... what a lovely image.

It's so simple, yet so impossible. How did our world end up like this? Why is this thought so utterly impractical?


Degrees of Separation

Though there are more than 5.75 billion people in the world, sometimes it seems a really small place. You've probably encountered the phenomenon yourself: a friend is your teacher/boss/lover's relative. Suddenly an intimate connection is created in your mind between unrelated people whom you know in totally different contexts. The world gets a little smaller. It's just another example of six degrees of separation.

[In gay circles, six is replaced by three, or maybe two. Sometimes it really seems like one.]

When another one of those unexpected close connections is revealed, it feels to me like everyone in the world takes one step closer together. Eventually we're all going to be standing in one place.

I fear death by suffocation.


Earring placement

Why do most men wear earrings in their left ears? I tried hunting down a reason but haven't found much information. The BDSM F.A.Q. says that there's no such thing as an "earring code". Yet why does the following phrase from adolescence go through my head?

Left is right, right is wrong.

That phrase must have come from somewhere. The implication was that if you wore an earring in the left ear you were straight, and in the right homosexual. Note the identification of "wrong"=homosexual. Grrrr. This is one of the reasons I wear ear cuffs on my right ear - just to be contrary.

So where did that phrase come from?


Deceptive Packaging

Why doesn't the packaging for blood testing products show any blood? One box of glucose test strips shows a finger lightly touching a strip, without a drop of blood in sight. That's not how tests are done; they require blood. Are the manufacturers afraid of making people uncomfortable? Personally, I'd rather see even faked blood than a whitewashed lie. Just a drop of blood's required, so why be afraid of it? Certainly the people who use the tests strips are inured to the sight of blood, and the product isn't sold over the counter anyway.

It must be a taboo.


Why Coupons?

The supermarket near me has just started offering people a free discount card. It replaces coupons. The downside is that the corporation gets to track all your purchases, and when you make them. Why don't they just discount prices instead of going through all the administrative overhead of issuing cards? Do they actually save money that way? They must, otherwise they wouldn't do it. But how?


A Favor From Yesterday, A Nod To Tomorrow

At breakfast yesterday, there was enough cereal in the box for only half a bowl. That wasn't enough, but there wasn't much choice. Afterward, I went to do my physical therapy. On the floor by the machine was an entire unopened box of cereal. In delight I wolfed two and a half more bowls, to make a normal breakfast.

While I now remember buying the cereal the day before, during breakfast I had completely forgotten about it. When I found the box, I had the strangest feeling: the box was a gift from the person who bought it a day before. He knew I'd need it, so he bought it for me. There seemed to be no connection between the two of us except for this considerate act he did. The disassociation between my sense of self and memory, normally unnoticeable, was this time profound. It forced me into a new way of seeing.

All that happened yesterday. Today I'm grateful that me-of-a-day-ago chose to remember these musings, and I hope he's happy that I wrote it down like he wanted. I'm going to spend some time today doing things for me-of-tomorrow.

This point of view might seem obvious to everyone else, but I've never looked at my 'self' as a succession of daily individuals who do things for each other. It's fun, and makes this place seem less lonely.

But... where do they go when the day is over, and a new person takes their place?

(For varations on this theme, see John Varley's story "Just Another Perfect Day", Greg Egan's collection Axiomatic, and David Brin's Kiln People.)


A Question

Question: What do children owe to parents when they become adults?

Answer: Nothing.

Having and raising children is a choice. The responsibility that comes with that choice is raising those children in the best manner possible.

However, that doesn't give a parent a right to claim any debt for eighteen years of work, devotion and sacrifice. We've all heard the cliché of a mother who plays the emotional card "I carried you for nine months". I've even heard childbirth described as "descending into the mouth of hell" - with the implication that a child forever owes her or his mother for this one act. It ain't so. When you decide to bear children, you take the consequences. Those children owe you nothing. It's your responsibility. Putting emotional demands on someone else for the consequences of your choice is, frankly, sick. If you want respect and love then you have to earn it.


Razors or Razor Blades?

It's an old story that razor companies gave away razors in order to sell razor blades. The same thing happens in the medical supply industry.

There are blood glucose test machines for people with diabetes. They allow a person to test his or her own sugar level. This is a wonderful thing that can prevent insulin shock. But there's a drawback; the portable tester requires one-use-only testing strips. There's not much to the strips themselves; they're basically an open circuit treated with a chemical mix, sandwiched between two layers of plastic. They probably cost less than a dime to make.

When I went to buy a box, sticker shock hit. A box of 50 cost about $33. That's about 66 cents per strip. I thought this was excessive, so I mentioned it to my brother (a pharmacist and certified diabetes educator). He told me that when they were introduced on the market, the testing machine cost about four times as much, but the strips cost about 30 cents apiece. Nowadays, the machines are cheap but the strips are what make the profit for the corporations. What's worse, the devices are patented (since they're devices, not medication), so the manufacturer can sue people who make strips which work in their machines. Apparently they do.

All this has got me thinking. What incentive does industry have to actually cure a disease, once and for all? We all know the answer: none. The purpose of industry is to make money. That is completely at odds with actually curing disease. The ideal goal of the "health" industry is to sell temporary relief, not cures.

So, for all you free-marketers out there who think that everything is done better by private industry, here's a counterexample.


Postscript, 2003-03-15. A while ago I took a look at David Friedman's anarcholibertarian manifesto The Machineries of Freedom to see what he had to say about health care in his brave free world. The topic was given in two pages of hand-waving. I wasn't impressed, much less convinced.

Christmas already?

On the way back from El Paso, Bill and I passed the Nogales Assembly of God. We were surprised that God needed some assembly. Models, maybe, but God?


A Message for John Searle

After a long and exhaustive search that ended in failure, I've concluded that I have no intentionality. I've looked everywhere but can't find it. Consciousness, yes. Intentionality, no.

Sorry, Mr. Searle. It looks like consciousness without intentionality is indistinguishable from consciousness with intentionality.


Assorted thoughts of the last few days

Doesn't freedom of religion also include freedom from religion?

!!! all the time !!!

The election is over. The Republicans lost a few seats, and they're acting like it's the end of the world. Newt Gingrich put it in perspective the next day: Republicans still control the House, the Senate, and have a majority on every committee.* Scary, isn't it? It's the best incentive I've heard to get active.

* I tried to get the exact quote, but it's amazingly hard to find.


That's not funny, that's sick.

A child's toy: Jiggles the PupTM. No, don't ask. You don't want to know. Hee hee hee.


Red shoes, anyone?

The U.S. government is mired deep in hearings about impeachment. The members of the House Judiciary Committee are split pretty cleanly along party lines. The public doesn't seem to care too much; the President's approval ratings haven't dropped appreciably. Yet the Republican party lost several seats in the recent election, to their surprise. The phrase "exit strategy" is probably being used behind many closed doors.

Listening to the hearings reminded me of a story: the classic fairy tale of the red shoes. When the girl put them on, she began to dance and couldn't stop. Nothing could keep the magic shoes from dancing, driving her to exhaustion.

The Republican party put on the shoes when they gave the special prosecutor so much leeway. Now they're mired in impeachment hearings, the public doesn't care, and they're losing seats in Congress. Yet they've pushed the issue so far that they can't back down. Instead, they must keep on dancing, dancing toward an ending that by now nobody wants.

Another good parallel is Stanislaw Lem's novel Fiasco. It's an SF tale of first contact gone horribly wrong. Yet, after you read it, you realize that there is no one thing the characters did wrong. Each response follows logically from the previous action. The situation progresses from bad to worse, and everyone is carried along. That's where the U.S. government seems to be right now: heading in a direction few want it to, but no one has the courage or power to stop it. Maybe it would have been possible if the beginning had been different, but now it is a juggernaut. I just hope it doesn't become a totentanz.


More on Intentionality

Let me get this straight. John Searle believes that intentionality is a prerequisite of consciousness. He claims that AI is impossible because he believes that computers cannot have intentionality. Instead, they perform nothing but "meaningless" formal symbol manipulation.

Well, if intentionality is so important, would someone please define a test to see if something has it? No one has, and no one will. There is no test for this alleged mental property. We impute consciousness to others based on their behavior, not on mystical knowledge of their mental state. That's what the Turing Test is all about; it's a test of behavior.

So he claims that intentionality is an unmeasurable property of some objects. Wow, that really increases the amount of scientific knowledge in the world, doesn't it?

Searle's response to the behavioral argument is that in the "cognitive sciences" (his quotes), intentionality is assumed to exist. (wait for it...) Can you say "assuming the conclusion"? I knew you could. Searle's position seems to be that he has intentionality, and he is like other humans, so they have intentionality. Since computers are unlike him, they don't and can't.

Strangely enough, even smart people like Daniel Dennett seem to think intentionality is important. Why don't we just ascribe consciousness to the id or superego and be done with it? It would be just as valuable a concept, just as measurable, and just as scientific. That is, not at all.

And no, my repeated searches and checks have still failed to turn up a single sign of intentionality in me.

[Any misrepresentation of Searle's beliefs as stated in his essay "Minds, Brains, and Programs" is completely... unintentional.]


The consequences of impeachment

Wow. Lauren Weinstein, moderator of the Privacy Forum email digest, just weighed in with a strong editorial issue on the privacy consequences of the Clinton investigation. Scary stuff.

Here's an even scarier thought: throughout most of Clinton's presidency, he was under investigation. If he's impeached, can you imagine how incredibly bitter and strong the campaign will be to investigate and incriminate the next Republican president? It's going to be a bloodbath.


Last updated 6 January 2003
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons except running man logo from Negativland's recording "Escape From Noise"

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