What is Ada Hiding?

November 19th, 2010  |  Published in idiocy, music, whoopi-goldberg

Eisegetical Idiocy

Like any self-respecting American Twentysomething with a beard and plastic-framed glasses, I listen to a lot of The National. I got to thinking about the opening lyrics to Ada, one of my favorite songs of theirs:

Ada don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk about reasons why you don’t wanna talk.

So there is a set of reasons R1 why Ada doesn't want to talk, and she doesn't want to talk about these reasons R1 for (possibly) different reasons (call these separate reasons R2). Matt Berninger is earnestly entreating Ada not to talk about reasons R2.

So, naturally, I got to thinking about what the hell R1 and R2 could be. Some options:

    • R1: Reason she doesn't want to talk: Blackmailed by Russians.
    • R2: Reason she doesn't want to talk about these reasons: The Russians will break her kneecaps.
    • R1: Reason she doesn't want to talk: Her throat is very sore.
    • R2: Reason she doesn't want to talk about these reasons: It is sore because she yelled at the TV too much while Perfect Strangers reruns were playing.
    • R1: Reason she doesn't want to talk: When she talks, she is is invariably reminded of her childhood dog Scruffers (she would spend hours each day imagining Scruffers talking, thereby creating an indelible mental association between her childhood pet and the locutionary act in general).
    • R2: Reason she doesn't want to talk about these reasons: That is incredibly, incredibly embarrassing.
    • R1: Reason she doesn't want to talk: She has taken a vow of silence as a sign of religious devotion.
    • R2: Reason she doesn't want to talk about these reasons: Her religion is "Whoopi Goldberg."
    • R1: Reason she doesn't want to talk: She cannot have a conversation that does not result in her yelling furiously about Lizard People and Freemasons.
    • R2: Reason she doesn't want to talk about these reasons: If she were to talk about this she may have to confront her Problems.

WELL, this ended up being a lot more autobiographical than I thought it would. Whoops.

(Sidenote: this demonstrates, of course, the fundamentally recursive nature of language. The sentence

Ada don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk about reasons why you don’t wanna talk about reasons why you don't want to talk.

is perfectly valid, as is

Ada don’t talk about (reasons why you don’t want to talk about)^n reasons why you don't want to talk.

for any nonnegative integer n. The National has supplied us with a roundabout proof that there are an infinite number of valid sentences in the English language!)

Phenomenal Shifts, Antienlightenment, The Buddha of Asininity

September 5th, 2010  |  Published in idiocy, mouth-flappin, vanity

I had a "moment" the other day. It was a roughly instantaneous, completely internal moment I'll refer to as a phenomenal shift. I have had a number of such moments in my life. They're really weird. I shall attempt here to describe the events, in the hopes that perhaps (a) you, the reader, have had such moments, and will optionally relay to me the existence of such moments; or (b) we can verify, at long last, that I've lost my mind.

These phenomenal shifts are mysteriously Big Things for me -- though not immediately interestingly causally efficacious per se, they haunt my general worldview in weird ways afterwards, coloring the way I think about Being, the way I tacitly cleave the ontic joints of the universe, &c, &c.

I'm really curious about whether this is an integral part of the human experience or whether none of you have any idea what I'm talking about.

What are you talking about?

The first phenomenal shift I experienced took place when I was a little kid -- six years of age, give or take. I took a look at myself in the mirror and realized, at that point, that I existed. It is as though, prior to that single moment of realization, I had been an automaton, interacting with the environment but not thinking too much about it. Very much like a little adorable Roomba, perhaps. Subsequently, I realized that I was a thing in the world (whereas previously I merely was one). I remember vividly being really freaked out by this.

That sounds idiotic.

Yeah, Strawman Interlocutor, you're right. Jeez. Let's see.

As a little kid, I hadn't read Husserl or Fichte or much of anything, so I couldn't put realizations into any sort of conceptual framework. All I could do was stare in the mirror and marvel at the fact that I existed. And I did so. I would sneak up to the mirror and stare into it for extended periods of time. Day after day. Marveling at the fact that I existed, that anything at all existed.


So the crucial part of these "phenomenal shifts" is the single moment when you intuitively realize something big about Being, even if you can't immediately formally state exactly what that Something is. That's it. You're just minding your business and bam, you get hit over the head. With a Truth Pillowcase full of Reality Doorknobs.

I'm able, two decades later, to go back and couch this first, strange phenomenal shift in terms of my dubious oversimplification of some concepts put forth by Dead European philosophers. This is convenient, but not what I want to talk about here. The key, strange experience here is a sudden internalization of a fundamental part of existence -- namely, "I exist", or something along those lines.

So you're talking about Buddhic Enlightenment?


No, you are. Siddhartha Gautama sat underneath a pipal tree until he had a single moment of enlightenment, in which he

Shut up, Strawman Interlocutor, just shut up.

What I am describing is basically a dumbed-down version of what Buddha had after hanging out under his Boddhi tree, except instead of a wonderful, windless flash of Universal truth, I just get confused.

It's just as sudden, though -- an instantaneous, incorporeal tidal wave of nonpropositional and unreasonably inscrutable information.

So you've had more of these things?

Why yes, Strawman Interlocutor, I have. I've had a few of them in my life. The realizations have been similar -- suddenly occurring big, vague, remarkably affecting thoughts, not immediately expressible in language.

The one I had a few days ago occurred while I was brushing my teeth. I was thinking about a number of humans I've known very well and bam, it hits me. Something along the lines of "you are a human being who exists, and your actions and personality are known extremely well to these other existent human beings, with whom you have had real interactions".

I forgot that I was brushing my teeth and just kinda stood there for a while. Probably ten seconds passed before I was able to get it together and move again.

It sounds idiotic, stupid, and completely banal. That's kind of the point I think.

So what, I don't care, so what. I don't care.

There is, of course, nothing odd about a thought or mental state not being immediately expressible in language. I mean to say nothing here concerning the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, concerning Wittgenstein, concerning Jerry Fodor, really concerning anything profound.

Again, nothing I say here is meant to be "profound". What I am attempting to do is convey the properties of a class of powerfully moving mental events which I have experienced a number of times.

That was all far too lucid and comprehensible, Karl. Would you mind muddying the conceptual waters a bit

Look, this is a very real mental phenomenon which has taken place in my flesh-and-blood brain a number of times, and it's wigged me out, and I'm wondering if it happens to other people (i.e. it's a part of the human experience) or if it just happens to me (i.e. it's a part of the guy-who-has-to-paint-his-face-like-a-clown-every-night-before-he-goes-to-sleep experience).

A list of my go-to jokes

July 6th, 2010  |  Published in humor-instruction, idiocy

As you may or may not be aware, I am widely considered something of a "humorist", and it is typically expected that I be "on" twenty-four hours per day.

As I am but human, flaws and all, my wit cannot possibly be maximally sparkling and ebullient at all times.

I therefore keep, in my back pocket, a number of standby jokes, old "go-to" jokes, if you will.

As a service to you, I have compiled them. Feel free to use them. These jokes have not yet failed to elicit laughter, and I have used them all many times. They are each usable in nearly all situations -- that is their beauty.

"Ice-breakers" or "Silence-fillers"

  • I am not racist, but does no one else find it odd that Portugal has produced so many scumbag alcoholics?
  • So I went to the store the other day, to buy a quantity of ammonia and a gasmask, and it was brought to my attention that "inflammable" is roughly synonymous with "flammable", can you believe that? I was in such disbelief of this statement that the manager of the store had to call the cops!
  • So my dear, dear late Grandfather, May God Rest His Soul, just a few days before he died, gave me one of those "advice talk" type things. He looked at me, in my eyes, and said "Karl, I'm not long for this world, but don't ever take a job with a Portuguese, or so help me God I'll rise up from the grave and kill you with a shovel."


  • Well at least I'm not a dirty Iberian, who bathes in mud instead of water, who is drunk all the day long.
  • "That's what she said."
  • Perhaps I should remove my pants and, additionally, remove my shirt, at which point we shall see who is so smug, if it is still you.

"All-occasion jokes"

  • I'd be able to pay much better attention to your stories if your face were prettier.
  • [Point to conversation partner's skull] Is that the outward manifestation of a severe cognitive deformity I see, or are you merely from Portugal?
  • Here's a trick. Think of a number between 1 and 10. That is the number of times I have hated you so far this conversation, hated you so very much.

I can all but guarantee that if you commit these to memory and use them with regularity, you will be the life of the party.

Health Care Reform and the environment

March 5th, 2010  |  Published in idiocy

In true Freakonomics style, I will offer a poor argument that contains numbers. This poor argument will relate health care reform and global warming.

Let us assume that a reasonable reform of the health care system in the US will result in an average increased life expectancy of 0.1 year per person [1]. Since there are about 308,805,776 people in the US right now [b], this means that health care reform would add about 30,880,578 person-years to the total number of years lived by US citizens [2].

On average, each US citizen is responsible for 22 tons of CO2 emission annually [3]. If HCR adds 30.8 million person-years, this means that we'd expect health care reform to be responsible for, minimally, an additional 679 million tons of CO2 released [4]. That's Two Extra Australia-years. Or a year's emissions from the UK. That's a lot.

The solution is, I believe, to don't fix what ain't broke, and, additionally, to consume the elderly.

However, let it be stated:

There actually do lurk beneath this stupid argument some tricky things (for reasons why the argument is weak, see footnote 4).

What are our policy goals? Is a primary goal the maximization of expected long-term aggregate benefits for humans? That sounds OK, I guess. So making our lives a bit worse and shorter is worth it if we're pretty confident that by so doing we're also making our children's children's lives longer and better than they would be.

Is there really a tradeoff, though, between our quality of life (better healthcare, cheaper flights, heated pools, etc) and the quality of life of future generations (who have to live with a destroyed planet)? I'm sure many people much smarter than I have answered this question reasonably, but the answer is, it seems to me, a resounding "maybe."

This seems to be a situation in which we can perhaps have our cake and eat it too -- we can still have nice things like longer life expectancies and heated pools, and our descendants can also have nice things, so long as we are working like hell to get very low-negative-externality and sustainable energy production [5].

So, I suppose, the tradeoff exists now (adding years to our lives and adding cars to our garages fills the air with CO2; burning oil leaves our descendants less oil), but things could change hugely if we pay enough engineers to change the world in sufficiently wonderful ways.

So, in conclusion, we need to sponsor much more basic research, so someone can invent me some damn cold fusion already so I ain't gotta feel bad about having two laptops open right now.

[1] The number was basically chosen randomly. However, according to the UN, the US average life expectancy in 2005-2010 is 78.2 years, and the UK average life expectancy is 79.4 years [a]. It is not at all implausible that a more effective health care system would, ceteris paribus, remove 8% of the difference in life expectancy between the two. (This corresponds to a 0.13% increase in average life expectancy, by the way.) In any case, the analysis holds so long as any HCR does, indeed, result in better health care; the numbers will merely be different.

[2] A person-year is, of course, a unit of time for describing cumulative years spent doing something (in this case, breathing). Two people each living forty years live a combined total of eighty person-years. This is really silly because, in the short and mid term, we expect the US population to grow exponentially, and so healthcare reform will end up affecting a much greater number of people. A reformed health care system will probably affect our children's health care as well. In any case, let's just consider the people who are alive right now.

[3] Data from [c], which is from the WRI. They give the 2002 US figure as 20 tons / person / year, but also say that the 2006 figure is probably 12-15% higher. I've conservatively added 10% to get a 2010 figure.

[4] This is tricky for a number of reasons I'm sure you can see. Tacit assumptions abound. Most notably:

  • We assume individuals are, on average, responsible for a uniform amount of CO2 emissions throughout their lives (since good HCR will help old people more than young people, if old people's CO2 footprint is different from young people's, we'll have to take this into account). I'm not sure. I cannot find the data. It doesn't seem intuitively that wrong, though.
  • There is a lot of uncertainty we're just writing away. Will technologies change? Will 50% of humanity be killed by WWIII in a decade? I don't have the patience or the knowledge to rattle off lists of conceivable "things" and assign probabilities to them, so I'm ignoring them.
  • Is the provision of better health care to more people alive right now to be considered morally equivalent to the prevention of damage to the earth which we expect to affect future generations? That is to say, assuming we have perfect knowledge of how our actions affect future generations, is an expected 0.1 year increase in life expectancy for a person now the same as an expected 0.1 year increase in life expectancy for a person in 200 years? The problem is, of course, confounded by the fact that we don't have anything even closely approximating perfect knowledge. Anyways, I'm washing my hands of that whole ordeal, as this is just a "blog" and I am not an "expert" but instead am just "some guy with a keyboard and a beard."
  • Most importantly, this assumes CO2 emissions will remain static over the course of the lives of the people we're reasoning about. This is, given the evidence, ludicrous. CO2 emissions will probably increase quite a bit over a good chunk of our lifetimes (we're perhaps one of the last generations afforded this luxury). The figures given above actually probably quite understate the actual situation. They should be considered a lower limit, given the caveats above. Also, as noted in [2], population numbers have a habit of growing exponentially. Well, probably sigmoidally, actually, but that sure looks exponential from here. So that's two nonlinear functions that we actually assume to be constant, which is just plain silly, really.

[5] Note: we are not currently working like hell to do this.


What do they teach at Alien Universities?

February 22nd, 2010  |  Published in idiocy

The question everyone else is afraid to ask!

It is plausible that very many different types of aliens exist (the number of stars in the universe is mind-bogglingly large, thus the number of planets is very large, thus the number of planets hospitable to life is very large, therefore, since we know that it's possible for life to appear on planets hospitable to it, we can say it's pretty darn likely there's lots of other kinds of life out there).

At least some sufficiently intelligent, curious, and advanced cultures/lifeforms will have things akin to what we humans read in books and study in school ("science", "mathematics", "philosophy", etc.).

Now, assuming they have a means of reasoning and storing knowledge (we have "brains"), a system of communicating with each other (we have things like "French" and "Venn diagrams"), and a system of creating continuity of knowledge between individuals and generations (we have things like "books", "folklore", and "social norms"), what is the overlap between what they "know" and what we "know"? That is, what is taught in their "Universities" that is also taught in ours (and vice versa)? In what ways can we be reasonably certain that what is taught in their "Universities" is similar to what is taught in ours?

(Of course, "University" here need not have anything to do with educational institutions -- we could just as well ask "in what ways are the statements Motherbeing transmits via ultraviolet light to the cryptobreathers similar to what is in our textbooks" -- the use of the term "University" to speak of the hypothetical aliens is to be interpreted completely metaphorically.)

Now then, which branches of our book-learnin will they also probably have?

Stuff taught in our Universities' "Humanities" departments: Eh, mostly conjecture. We assume, recall, that the lifeforms have a sufficiently advanced means of communication; we also assume that they're curious and smart, so they probably have something like our Linguistics (they will care to examine this means of communication). One would think the smart and curious creatures would also care to document past happenings and reason about them, I guess. I don't care to conjecture about much more.

The "hard" sciences: It is almost certain our hypothetical aliens will study physics and chemistry. Further, theirs and ours will converge (molecules over there will do the same thing as the molecules over here; they have the photoelectric effect just like we do). They will also have something like biology ( if they're smart and curious, they'll ask questions about their physical bodies and the creatures around them). As for the interesting question of how their formulation of, say, quantum mechanics could differ from ours -- I'm not remotely qualified to even begin to guess.

Music and art: Not really an interesting question.

Engineering: It is almost certain that they'll have some sort of engineering. Assumedly, the smart and curious alien is a physical being who interacts with a physical environment, and the being will therefore manipulate things to build more complex things, and will want to study how best to do this. Any conjecture beyond that isn't really interesting.

Philosophy: I'd think, in fact, that at least some of our alien friends think about a lot of the things our philosophers think about. I'd posit the following sticky questions are probably present in some form in at least some of the alien cultures:

  • identity (when are two things identical? Am I the same thing I was thirty seconds ago?)
  • platonism vs. antiplatonism in various domains (does "red" exist? Does the number two exist? Does a collection containing zero objects exist?)
  • free will (perhaps -- I'm actually not so sure about this one)
  • ontological commitments (do I exist? Do others exist? Does the thing in front of me exist?)
  • knowledge (assumedly our alien friends "know" things, and at least some are aware of knowing things. Determining what constitutes "knowing" something turns out to be a huge mess)

It is perhaps out of smallmindedness that I assert that these are universal questions -- a cogitating agent can arrive at each of these questions relatively straightforwardly when it starts really attempting to analyze its condition, regardless of whether this is a human being on Earth or a Znox'x'ow on planet Urth.

Mathematics: This is the interesting one. Suppose the Znox'x'ow have mathematicians. Suppose one of them was taught English and could communicate with a human mathematician. What would happen?

Here are a few conceivable outcomes from the Intergalactic Congress of the two mathematicians:

(a) The human mathematician and the Znox'x'ow mathematician will understand each other perfectly after they get matters of terminology out of the way (what you call "zero" we signify with a pop of our tentacle; what you call "König's Lemma" we call "the dream-consumption hypothesis", etc.). This is certainly plausible -- mathematics is, after all, a description of immutable truths about the universe, and so if the Znox'x'ow are smart and curious, they will discover all of the same math we have and will have (just as they will surely discover the photoelectric effect).

(b) The human mathematician and the Znox'x'ow mathematician sit down and discover, after some period of time, what appear to be irresolvable conflicts in their respective mathematics.

(c) The human mathematician and the Znox'x'ow mathematician will lecture each other about new and exciting things, each of which is genuinely unknown in the other's system of mathematics (but certainly doesn't contradict any currently existing math).

(d) The human mathematician and the Znox'x'ow mathematician will lecture each other about new and exciting things; each will sit down for a while and prove the equivalence of these new and exciting things to things their species is already aware of.

Now, (b) won't happen. That's not how mathematics works. If there is a tension between two statements, something will give. Perhaps one is not well-formed, perhaps one is actually false (and the mathematician was mistaken), perhaps the mathematical system must be amended to resolve this tension (as naive set theory with unrestricted comprehension had to be amended to resolve Russell's paradox, for example). In any case, mathematics does not admit contradictions.

Option (a) could happen. If we had an arbitrarily large number of mathematicians working for an arbitrarily long period of time, and the Znox'x'ow had an arbitrarily large number of mathematicians working for an arbitrarily long period of time, this is probably mostly what would happen. We would know lots and lots of statements about lots and lots of types of math, and we would know, for each of these statements, lots and lots of equivalent statements. They would have the same situation.

More likely, however, we'd have some combination of (c) and (d). Obviously, there's lots of facts about math we don't know, which is why we still pay people to think about math, so option (c) should seem quite plausible.

Now, we humans have many branches of mathematics. There are many different kinds of mathematical constructions and many different types of statements about properties that mathematical objects can have. We often have many different equivalent ways of expressing identical mathematical facts (the Axiom of Choice, for example, has a bunch of equivalent formulations). We'll see seemingly distinct mathematical constructions which end up being equivalent (Turing machines, register machines, and the untyped lambda calculus, for example, all end up doing the same thing). Math is a mess. This is just how it works.

Option (d), then, is plausible. In fact, (d) happens between human beings working in different branches of mathematics all of the time. There is no reason to think it wouldn't happen at our intergalactic math congress.

What, then, can we expect our Znox'x'ow mathematician to know? Will he know what addition is? Multiplication? Will he be familiar with the definition of a Sylow p-subgroup? Will he recognize the Heine-Borel theorem? Will he have finite model theory? Questions abound! I certainly don't have any answers (for what should be extremely obvious reasons), but it's a fun thing to think about.