On the importance of diction

Mathematicians are spoiled. They’re spoiled because the truth of their statements is all that matters. There are verbose or terse ways of stating the same facts, but in the end, no one really cares as long as the statements themselves are true. No matter how much you despise the particular mathematician, his true statements remain true.

The more ambiguous the notion of truth is in a field, the more room there is for other things to matter. In those more subjective fields, it is a fact that tone matters. Perhaps more than content. If the goal is to ever convince anyone who is either ignorant or unconvinced, diction, tone, and the overall ability to be taken seriously all matter.

If you’ve ever read The Little Prince, you may recall the anecdote about the Turkish astronomer who wasn’t taken seriously until he put on a suit.

It’s the same with race issues. If it’s easy to dismiss someone as rabid, angry, unreasonable then their content doesn’t even matter! Even word choice is important. Using popular race studies buzzwords like oppression, marginalization, privilege, intersectionality, derailment, safe space, institutionalized racism, bigotry, entitlement makes it easy for the reader to write someone off as simply frothing. A couple of examples. Hyperbole doesn’t help either. Just the way that after you’ve heard the VP of engineering say he’s “SUPER EXCITED” about something for the 20th time in the last 10 minutes, it becomes meaningless.

I’m not saying I know better. In all of my writings on atheism, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same slogan-slinging. But it becomes more evident that there is something I can learn from just about anyone. Social justice warriors included. That is this: if you want to convince someone who isn’t on your side, you have to speak their language. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir.


Dolly: Nigel? Nigel where are you I need your help.

Nigel: Heavens alive, I’m right here. Don’t have a fit. What do you need, little girl?

D: Someone told me, “You are the most selfish person I know.” I don’t think of myself as particularly selfish. I don’t understand. It bothered me. Why?

N: Ah, there is a certain amount of discomfort that comes with the dissonance between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Did this person give examples?

D: No, but our relationship was the one during which I tried the hardest not to be selfish. This meant doing a lot of things I would rather not have done. I thought that was the way to create something lasting.

N: What did that get you? I presume, not the intended outcome…

D: I’ve been taught that I’m not supposed to think about it that way — in terms of what I can get, so I didn’t think about it. In retrospect, acting the way I did locked me into an uncomfortable set of expectations that I would continue to do all the things I didn’t really want to do or explain myself about what has changed. Either continue or get into fights.

N: The special becomes standard. The standard is expected. Any deviation will be a problem because humans are loss adverse. 

D: I don’t understand. I should give as little of myself as possible?

N: Don’t be absurd. Give yourself in a way that you can sustain — in a way that is honest. Do what it pleases you to do. There is a common misunderstanding, that “doing as you want” is necessarily in opposition to the desires of everyone around you. But I am sure you can think of examples where others delight in the things you choose to do.

D: Sure. Baking. Playing the piano. Reading interesting things so I can tell them interesting things. Having fabulous hair… Oh, only joking.

N: Right, steady on there. You’ve spent nearly your whole life alone. You know what you like. You know who you are. Don’t try to impress anyone. Don’t apologize or try to make yourself anything else to please someone because you know that whatever mask you wear cannot last forever. Then you won’t like the accusations of lying, but you’ll richly deserve them.

D: No. I’ve always had you. With you, I am never alone. You don’t let me get away with a damn thing, Nigel. But on issue of impressing people — I once took a bunch of hard classes I wasn’t qualified for to impress a boy. I didn’t regret it. It was like being refined by fire and I would  never have found that motivation in myself.

N: Did doing that keep you from doing things you would rather have been doing?

D: No? I took them in addition to all the classes I wanted to take, and then forced myself to be twice as efficient so I could still do all of the frivolous things I loved. It was beautiful.

N: Here again, a misunderstanding. This is inspiration, not forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do in order to impress. Had this boy been interested in World of Warcraft, would you have played to please him?

D: No way. Do you even need to ask.

N: There. Then all along, what you said you did to impress him — those were things that you wanted to do. You weren’t trying to impress him. He helped you fly.

D: I see. That’s interesting. But doesn’t this way of thinking seem closed off? What about trying new things? Especially new things that I never had any interest in before? But now, perhaps I know someone who is very enthusiastic about something. Is it bad to let that enthusiasm affect me, and to try the things they love?

N: You don’t need me, you’ve answered the question yourself. If their enthusiasm awakens something in you, makes you curious, then that is again you wanting to try something. Remember to be driven by you, though. Don’t do it to please them, because they keep pestering you, or any of that.

D: It sounds like you think I should be waiting to win the lottery. Just wait for someone who wants exactly what I happen to be. And in turn, who is exactly as I want already.

N: Not precisely, but you’re getting closer. You’re an optimizer. It’s not fair for you to pretend to work for a paycheck with anyone. Your fickle heart will run to the person who fits, who understands better, no matter how many rules and obligations you’ve used to tie yourself down. I’ve taught you better than that. You know how to be alone. Be alone. Wait to win the lottery… and even when you think you’ve won, accept that that person may not feel the same about you.

D: How depressing. At least I’ll always have you.

N: Yes, darling, forever and always.

On lists for liking

Nigel: What are you doing, little girl?

Dolly: I’m trying to make a list, Nigel.

N: Hmm. I can see that. To what end?

D: I’m making a list of reasons I like someone to see if they are valid reasons to feel the way I feel about them.

N: Oh! How droll. You seem to be having some difficulty though. Why?

D: Well, I don’t know what reasons are valid, and even if I did, I’m not sure what weight to give them.

N: That does seem like a problem. Maybe I can help. Just list anything that comes to mind and we’ll sort through it together.

D: Good idea. Nigel, you’re the best. Okay. I have a boy in mind. In no particular order, I like his eyes, his hair, his ribs, brushing him and the way he smells. He’s a pretty boy.

N: Darling, you can’t be serious. Those things are ephemeral. You can’t possibly base a meaningful relationship or friendship on those things.

D: But Nigel. What about living in the moment? I also hear that all of the time. Live in the moment, enjoy the moment. I can’t be thinking about when he loses his pretty eyes in an accident, and all his pretty hair to baldness or disease. I can’t worry about whether he’ll become so obese I never see his ribs again. Right? Enjoy what exists for just right now?

N: Dolly — those words don’t mean what you’re playing at. You know better. They mean that you shouldn’t fret about losing what you have, the way that your favorite sonnet does. But nothing you listed there has any predictive power about anything else. Don’t you like anything about him that gives you insight about who he is?

D: I like the way he looks at me, I like his company, I like how he makes me feel. He is sweet.

N: But you are trying to inform your feelings for him, right? Attempting to correct the magnitude of your feelings to factual observations and using unassailable logic? In that case, it rather begs the question to mention how you feel. All of these are about your own feelings. Try for facts, but deeper ones than the first ones you gave.

D: I don’t know very much more about him. He purrs continually when I sit near him.

N: Dolly. Dolly, are we talking about a cat? Please tell me we aren’t talking about a cat.

D: Yes! Here’s a picture. Every time I see him I want to take him home with me he’s such a darling old gentleman. Just the best lap cat I’ve ever met. I mean, there isn’t much more I can know about him, right? Isn’t it enough that I just like him?

N: …

Why did I ever think you could be serious. Even for a moment. I think I need tea…

This thought experiment has been cute, but I would question the need for such a system. Surely its use would not be to try to convince yourself of someone’s worth once you already felt they were a waste of your time? If you had the most robust list of valid attributes, an impeccable metric, and the coolness of mind to apply it, would you use it in this way? Would you force yourself to admit you had unfairly dismissed someone as someone you couldn’t date or be friends with?

D: No, I don’t think that’s an intended purpose of this system.

N: Right. So it is only to force yourself in the other direction: to reign in strong feelings that you determine, by these measurements, that you have no right to have. 

D: I think that’s the purpose, yes.

N: That would imply that there is no use for feelings at all. Nothing that can’t be accounted for cleanly by looking at the facts and pushing all of them through to their logical conclusions. But then you have that! What happens if two people look the exact-same on paper, but yet you feel differently about them? Is that extra information invalid — and you have to ignore it? Because there is a world of information that comes in with no conscious effort. Information we have no ability to explain, information we aren’t conscious of, but nonetheless have bearing in some way. For example, we are more attracted to people with complementary immune systems and we can “tell” this by their pheromones — we think they smell good. 

D: Don’t be tiresome, Nigel. I know about pheromones. But those are for the purpose of reproduction, right? What if your focus is on long term compatibility? Don’t you have to ignore factors like that and the initial rush of dopamine and other happy neurotransmitters?

N: The answer isn’t to ignore any of it. Or to peg feelings to the set of conscious information. But maybe, realising that there is so much that you aren’t aware of, credit the non-conscious information for what you may think is an irrationally strong feeling. Have you figured out the motivation for using such a system? Rationalizing feelings out of existence?

D: I’m not sure. But perhaps it’s to never have to look back and say, “I was possessed to say that. Now I have to explain why it’s no longer true.”

N: Oh, for heaven’s sake. Dispense with list-making. Dispense with quality-measuring. Leave the metrics to the mathematicians. All that you need is to keep that nonsense to yourself. If you need to declare anything, declare it to me, little girl. I’ll write it down for you and we can throw it in the fire and watch it dance.

D: Sounds like a plan! What if it’s something that I ought to say? Something that someone needs to hear from me?

N: Nonsense. What’s meant to be will be. A person who belongs with you will never need to hear you say a single damned thing. He or she will read it in your eyes, your touch, and in the nuances between your words. Don’t forget your motto. We finally found one that fit. Let’s say it together and get on with our day, shall we?

In every way implied but never stated.

Death note

I was a child with a penchant for the macabre and recall writing my will every few years. In this childish document, I’d apportion out my finest possessions to my friends. The only things ever worth anything were an iPod and iBook in college.

Naturally, I was intrigued when I saw a headline about a soldier’s goodbye letter to his wife [linked below]. I would be absolutely gutted to receive a letter like that. Not because my love is dead, and not because the letter is touching. It’s only heartbreaking because it sounds like it was written by Hallmark. Perhaps you can purchase this in the card aisle, right after “Condolences” and before “Happy Birthday from Grandma” — it’s in the “Goodbye Letter to Wife” section. It could have been for anyone. If I were to use the CIA’s black highlighter to redact tired, overused statements, both letters would have no content.

Can I do better? I will do better in my next entry, and by gosh and by golly, my goodbye letter will be to my kitten, Cecilia.

Soldier’s heartbreaking goodbye letter


Is that what I should think about sex?

After reading and liking Alain de Botton’s Manifesto for Atheists (also known as the “Atheist 10 Commandments”), I found out he had written a book about sex and society entitled How to Think More About Sex.

My first impression was “My, these are oddly specific examples. I wonder if they come from his personal experience?” That made me uncomfortable, as if I were reading the diary of some middle aged, balding man. His tone is academic, but his examples give too much unnecessary detail. A search for porn included phrases like “slutty teenagers fucking” and he gives strange details, as evident in the following:

… all he wanted was to stay home in his room with the curtains drawn masturbating to the memory of a woman’s profile that he had glimpsed on the way out of the newsagent’s.

The writing was distracting, and most of the example stories unnecessary (we know that people can type all manner of filthy things into google to search for porn without these things being listed for us), but I forced myself to finish and found he had a few worthwhile points.

On art and attraction

He attempts to answer the question “why are we attracted to certain people but not others?” After controlling for reasons evolutionary biologists would give (health, symmetry, etc), that is. Here he mentions the work of German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, who argues that we grow up missing certain things in our environment (or ourselves), and what we find beautiful in art reflects these deficits. For example, someone who is hopelessly purposeless and whimsical might revel in the beauty of Dutch still lives in their photo-realism and rigid rules, while someone who is realistic and responsible may love the dreamy work of the Impressionists.

He goes on to say that perhaps being attracted to beauty isn’t shallow and meaningless — that the face, like art, reflects something we are missing. I like the way this idea excuses our inclination to equate beauty with goodness, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to these claims.

On sex vs love

Here he expounds on Freud, who he quotes

Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.

We learn about love from people we are forbidden to have sex with. And from people who put all of the work into maintaining that love. We focus on the wrong thing:

By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real — that is necessarily unright — human being.

Apparently, we have only expected that sex and love be merged in one person since the mid 18th century, and we have the bourgeoisie to blame for it. Prior to that it was accepted that there might be specialization. He mentions the troubadours of 12th century Italy as an example of people in love with romantic love who didn’t necessarily desire sex, and the libertines of early 18th century Paris as people who cared only for sex. That there should be specialization seems obvious to me —  I even wrote an childish essay in high school claiming this.

On porn

His treatment of pornography was laughably heavy-handed. While I agree that it’s a huge waste of time and resources, I’m not sure there is a good way to channel those urges into something more productive. We’re agreed that it should be a goal. He seems to be in favor of internet censorship, saying dramatically “the wrong pictures may send us down a fatal track”. Unless he’s talking about auto-erotic asphyxiation, fatal may be a bit dramatic. What would he suggest as a replacement? Porn that is more like art. Or perhaps, masturbating to religious artworks. Yes, he does call the virgin Mary (as depicted in some paintings) “sexy”. I’m unsure whether using Boticelli’s The Madonna of the Book for this purpose would make people more or less disgusted with themselves after the fact.

On adultery

He takes the interesting tack that we shouldn’t make such a big deal when our spouses cheat. That on the contrary, maybe it’s the wronged spouse who should apologize for being boring, ill-tempered or “simply failing to evolve and enchant.” Reflecting on wedding vows and basic expectations of monogamous relationships — it seems strange that there is so much emphasis put on faithfulness, and so little put on helping one another learn and grow. Sexual jealousy is an evolved trait that is all but useless now. Unfortunately, it still seems to figure large in most relationships.

To end this too-long book report/review, I’d like to share a wedding vow he proposes:

I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets…. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.

Not terribly romantic, but it is charming in its honesty.

Into the Wild

At the end of the movie, I was surprised by the epilogue. “This was based on a true story?” I thought it couldn’t be, because McCandleless and his parents were just stereotypes painted in broad strokes. His parents — the well-meaning, upper middle class, keep-up-with-the-Joneses types always worried about what the neighbors might think. Struggling through a long-dead marriage ostensibly “for the sake of the children”. And McCandleless, the idealistic, starry-eyed hippie boy with little life experience taking extreme measures to find himself. Oh yeah, and to denounce capitalism.

His fundamental goal in life seemed to be finding truth. His biographer, Jon Krakauer, defends his journey as that of someone wanting to be “the first to explore a blank spot on the map.” However, in 1992, there weren’t any left* so he just pretended there was no map. Maybe this works on a journey of self-discovery, but just try an analogous statement for mathematics and see what you think of it.

I understand the appeal — truly, I do — to set off once in your life and really live according to your own beliefs. To discover who you are in the absence of society and others. Because those others have expectations for you that you probably can’t disentangle from your own goals without this kind of reflection. What I don’t understand is why one wouldn’t take an extra day with someone familiar with the Alaskan wilderness and learn the proper way to survive. If the goal were to learn to survive or die trying, then fine. But McCandleless stated in his writings that his goal was to live alone in the wilderness and think. This op-ed piece has the full text of McCandleless’ Alaskan diary and if any meaningful thoughts occurred to him, it seems he neglected to jot them down.

In the end, I think this type of story is what gets valid complaints against a society driven by consumerism lost in a sea of derisive sneers and indulgent smiles. “Oh, you’re a little hippie who doesn’t know anything about the world yet. Tell me more…”

The trouble with adults is, you have to talk like them if you want to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Chris McCandleless never managed.

* Not sure I believe this entirely. But it would be an obscure place, and probably not within the US.

Racism feedback loop

I came across two pieces today on race: one was an interview with the African (but not African American) author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Americanah, and another on the Paula Deen racism scandal.

In the first, Adichie relates her experiences learning about what it means to be black in America. She has to be told what’s offensive, and why. The example given is a joke about watermelons. She also comments on how frequently she’s told that she’s refreshingly not-angry for a black person.

The second makes the case that racism is so ingrained in southern culture that most southern racists can’t see that they’re racist at all.

As a society, we’ve been attempting to stop this sort of racism (personal, attitude based — as opposed to structural or institutionalized) by “education”: that is, by telling people that certain words and joke topics are offensive and off-limits.

There’s an easier option. We could simply stop passing on the need to be offended. What if, instead of validating potentially hurtful words by going on rants about past injustices, parents decided to brush off these incidents? “Oh honey, she called you a n*gger? Who knows what that silly word means. Nevermind, call her out for ad hominem attacks next time.” Diffuse, distract, ignore. With time, words lose their ability to hurt anyone. It seems a more efficient solution than trying to convince people that they’re bad, bad, horrible, racist people. Besides, nothing’s so troubling to someone who intends to hurt feelings as a person whose only reaction is a puzzled gaze.

On the other hand, the way we’re doing things now results in too many people with chips on their shoulders. Angry, sensitive people looking to be offended. This difference makes racists feel justified. Vindicated, even: “see? I’m right! Those people are just nasty, angry violent people, so unlike us decent people!” Setting aside special taboos for words, jokes, subjects and phrases just gives them special power. Really, it seems useless to teach our children they have to be upset about certain things.

Friendzoning: a response

I have, in a previous post, mentioned this article on friendzoning as a sexist myth. I invited anyone who’s interested to discuss it with me. The following response is a good example of the attitude the original author objects to:

How quaint, a female attempting to scientifically disprove the friend-zone, a phenomenon that exclusively occurs in males. If you think that guys “owe” being nice to you, but you don’t “owe” anything in return is hilarious, because it takes the concept of feminism and burns it like a bra. Guys don’t “owe” you the time of day. Want to know what it’s like to be treated “normally” by a guy? become a lesbian, and you’ll see that doors stop getting opened, guys stop caring or even talking to you, and the friendliness dies entirely. Welcome to real treatment from guys: it’s like you don’t even exist. That’s how guys treat each other, and it’s also how we treat women we can’t get sex from.

That “niceness” that the article claims, “everyone should do it as it’s common courtesy,” is just incorrect. It’s a woman author, and she thinks that guys go out of their way to be nice to each other…we don’t. So she’s taking a special move that we perform for women (in the hopes of sex) and assuming it’s a normal gender-less move. As a feminist, she should be ashamed for demanding unequal treatment, plain and simple. If she thinks she’s “owed” having us be nice to her, she’s as delusional as the guys believing they’re “owed” sex.

It’s simple for guys: We are nice to women, we are supportive, and attentive, and sweet, for one thing…SEX. That’s it. don’t make good with the sex, piss off, cause we don’t want to hear it. women can pretend that guys who are direct (like this message) are being jerks and are the exception, but it’s also incorrect. I’d rather tell you that i want sex upfront than lie to you and make you think I really care (we don’t).

Those that claim that they don’t want it are actually just using that ploy because it’s easier to dupe women into thinking you really care, and they open up. it’s a tactic, like in chess, and they really don’t care. it’s just that most women aren’t too bright, and they don’t notice it’s a ploy, so they fall for it. Then once they fuck, the guy leaves and moves on, and the woman is left surprised, confused, and feeling like she was used by the guy…because she was.

It sounds messed up, but take a step back and REALLY think about it. It’s a supply and demand thing, and pussy is a valuable commodity. You don’t get something for nothing.

What I find particularly interesting is that I’ve only heard this type of response from two men and both of them claimed to speak for all men.


It has become customary to comment on the beauty of any person who is not beautiful in the traditional sense. Especially if that person is female. Fat women, older women, women with flabby arms or cottage cheese thighs. Little girls with congenital defects like Treacher Collins syndrome, or progeria are called beautiful as if that word had the power to erase the reality of their conditions.

But why does a child fighting for her life need to be told that she is beautiful? This is not common when talking about boys with the same illnesses. They are more often referred to as “strong” and “brave.”

The need to continually say that women and girls are beautiful is a result of measuring a woman’s worth by her physical attractiveness. Not everyone is beautiful, but it shouldn’t matter! The “everyone is beautiful” movement is not positive or revolutionary: it buys into the incorrect idea that beauty is an inherently good trait that one should aspire to.

There’s no sense in lying to ourselves to maintain a useless metric of worth. Why not be honest and find a better one, like kindness or intelligence? Then at least if we spend our lives working to raise our value in society, we might accomplish something useful. More useful than spending hundreds of thousands on beauty supplies, fad diets, fashion and plastic surgery, anyway.