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An Unclassy Joke, Well-Delivered

When I went to see the family my advisor advised me to only make classy jokes. Yes, they are interested in learning whether you are funny, and that is perhaps the most important requirement for the job you are gong to do for them, but make sure you are funny in a classy way, because, if you are funny but in an unclassy way, they may well laugh and laugh and make as if to enjoy your authenticity and genuineness, but behind their social facade they will judge and classify you, and you will never be accepted, not if you work for them faithfully for forty years.

I went to see the family, everything was going perfectly, the conversation lagged and I made an unclassy joke, delivering it well and graciously.

And everything has happened as he foresaw.

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Mister Deep Wanted to Know

Which part of the tree I was, if I thought I was a tree

the root, the bud (a modified leaf) the chloroplast

the stamen of the flower. I get it — if I can imagine part of it

I can imagine all of it — I might as well be the tip of the branch

Seeking the sun, as the place the two branches dissect, each seeking

its Own, or maybe the whole pattern, what’s wrong, Mr. Deep?

He was gone. I think I disappointed him. I think he wanted me to say

That I was both the thought that I was part of the tree, and also

the thought I was the whole thing? Maybe?

Not sure.

These days I disappoint everybody.

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A Model for Creativity

Take the Joni Mitchell line:

Late last night I heard a screen door slam

and a big yellow taxi took away my old man

Now let your mind generate a variant:

Late last night I heard a GREEN door slam

And a big yellow taxi brought me a GREAT BIG CLAM.

And see if that variant is any good.

The model of creativity this presents us with is that our unconscious mind is constantly coming up with variations according to some formal restraints (in this case English with rhyme and meter) and presenting them to consciousness, and then we figure out if they are any good.

It’s a pretty good model of creativity except it doesn’t tell us:

(i)where the original constraints come from

(ii)where the variations come from

and

(iii)what it means for some versions to be good and others not and how we decide that.

Which, of course, are the only things we want to know.

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No Weird Counter Examples

The Philosopher Liam Kofi Bright, remarks on twitter that utilitarianism is right if we just exclude “galaxy brain” takes. Utilitarianism is the philosophical view that what is right is what procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; what Bright is calling to exclude, I believe, are examples like those provided by Robert Nozick of a utility monster, a being who is able to experience a googolplex units of pleasure when he eats us. Utilitarianism plus the utility monster seems to yield the result says Nozick, that we should all jump into his mouth.

Bright’s “no galaxy brain” proviso calls to mind Bernard Williams’ responses to a similar objection against a theory of human rights. On this theory rights are trumps. We proceed making our utilitarian calculations, but in certain cases if some course of action would conduce to the greatest felicity of the most number of people we prohibit it because it infringes on rights. So for example, it would make everybody happy if so-and-so would shut up, but we don’t allow ourselves to make him hold his peace because he has a right to free speech. The objector to this account of rights (or perhaps to rights at all) asks us to imagine that once the man opens his mouth the vapors issuing forth will, Thanos-like, destroy half the universe. Surely in that case we could button his lips? the interlocutor asks. Williams’ response: “Rights are trumps IN BRIDGE not in whatever bizarre space game you’re playing.”

The “no weird counter examples” proviso is attractive. In action theory we define an action as an event caused by a desire. If Brutus stabs Caesar the motion of his hand and the knife in his hand are caused by his desire to kill Caesar and hence it is an act, and a blameworthy one as Caesar was his father, whilst if a breath of his, like the butterfly’s wings in China, causes a hurricane in California, Brutus did not act. To which the clever philosopher asks — what if it in order to express his fiery yearning for liberty Brutus etched “Liberty” in a stone tablet, and a pebble dislodged by his chisel startled an ox that trampled Maria in the marketplace. Did Brutus act to kill Maria? We say no, but if we essay to say why we may find ourselves confounded, generating ever more subtle theories, festooned with epicycles. The no weird counter-examples proviso comes to the rescue. To paraphrase Williams we respond to the over-ingenious theorist — action is a game we are playing in which desires cause motions in normal ways, not in some weird ox game you are playing.

And in epistemology we might say — we know the world through our senses, and Descartes, and authors of the Yoga Vasistha, and Wachowski sisters and other noisy skeptics, Be Dumb. Because in the normal world we know what is the case by looking with our eyes and hearing with our ears. We are not in a jar. Shush Galaxy Brain. No weird counter examples.

And yet we would be rash to do so. Because if we know anything we know there is a pressure not to believe weird ideas, and yet weird ideas have proven true. Slavery is wrong, although almost nobody thought so. The world spins, although the complacent boggle. Dig a well deep enough and you hit infinite space — literally — weird as that idea is.

Do we, amphibian that we are, have a way out of our impasse, forced to live out our lives on the dry land of the normal, but to lay our eggs for the future in the wet pond of the weird? Could we argue weird counter-examples are okay for the brainy among us, or the young, or those under conditions of urgency? In addition to the obvious snobbery of such a course of action, a regress beckons, and not a good one, as when the candy store’s boasts a back room with even more delightful dainties. The rule for how to decide when to be strange and when not — shall it be strange or no? The reader can see why this won’t cut it.

And yet as the events of this week in America show us, too tender allowances for weird ideas lead to atrocities. The fantasy that there are secrets barred to us by the sour fathers of the status quo, which we can see through with enough callous red-pilling, is an adolescent’s wet dream and video game of unlimited innocent freedom to murder.

Maybe we can look at the fruits of our ideas and thereby know them, following the recommendations of the favorite philosopher of George W. Bush, Jesus. Weird is okay if it makes us care about the stranger, his food and his ideas, not if it gives us an unassailable conceptual pillbox from which to snipe our narcissistic rage. Normality is to be embraced if it means we are humble to our earthly routines, but shunned if those walks take us the long way around and we avoid the shantytown by the river.

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The Consolation of Eternity

I was looking at a picture of a dog who passed away in February and feeling sad, and I tried to console myself in an interesting way, that for a while, it seemed, almost worked. I said to myself — what if you knew, or a sufficiently advanced intelligence — a computer, an alien, God — knew every molecule of that dog. Then in the mind of that being for a fraction of an instant everything that was that dog would exist. Because the dog is made of molecules and those are at bottom data, and if this pattern of data was reborn then the dog would be reborn. Just as when I write the letter “J” it is there again when I write “J” a second time.

But that is just the dog at a moment? Well that’s viewing the dog as a number. But in reality the dog is not just a number it is a function. When food appears eat it, when tired of running, sleep. It is a very complicated series of functions leading from one state of molecules to another. And then I thought, well if the dog is an algorithm, albeit a fantastically complicated one, then he is still here. Because algorithms and numbers never come into being or pass out of it. They are eternal. So my dog is eternal. Therefore I never lost him.

The problem with the consolation is that it preserves everything EXCEPT…everything. Because if the dog and my Mom and Dad (they’re gone too) and even me are all abstract structures then it doesn’t matter that we ever lived. We just always were and always will be. What does it matter then that we lived? It doesn’t.

Or perhaps more frighteningly we never did live. You can try to dance around this fact — that the viewpoint from eternity leaves out the actual life we all live — by saying as Stephen Hawking did that somehow there are the equations and then life gets breathed into the equations, or that the numbers somehow get instantiated in time and space. But what’s that? How? The thing that the consolatory viewpoint of eternity leaves out is very hard to say. But it’s the important thing or maybe the only important thing.

But what is it? If we knew that we’d know something! We’d know what it is we don’t want to surrender when we refuse to be consoled. And by knowing the secret of sorrow — what it is we lose when we lose — we would perforce know the secret of joy as well. What it is that we get when we get. Gain when we gain.

Not a number!

So what would it mean to know it? What would the answer to the question look like?

Part of me wants to say — it wouldn’t look like an answer at all, because an answer is always trying to put things in general, repeatable terms — the terms that make the lost dog into an ever-present equation. And if that’s what an answer is, then there is no answer.

But of course that’s probably not what an answer is, right? Because an answer is the response to a question, and if you look at a question’s ID card for place of birth it is a certain place and a certain time.

Eternity has no questions for us.

Though we may have one or two for it!

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Simplicity

I have always wanted to express my thoughts simply, and for them to be simple as well.

For example, I’d like to be able to write like this, from the prophet Micah:

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

I believe this is true. I think whatever the Lord might be, all It or He requires of us is to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. So why can’t I just say it? If I want to — and I look within my heart and I can report back that I do want to.

Part of my bashfulness I think is the worry that if there are simple things to be thought, other people will already have thought them. So it is lacking in humility to say them. It’s like saying ‘remember you will die! Make the most of life!” There is something arrogant in saying that to my neighbor. He or she knows that. And if she wants to think about, she is free to. It’s not my job to tell her what to think.

Justice and mercy are intertwined and hard to get a handle on. These words (what the Lord requires) have a tradition and not a great one. People have used these ideas and the book they are from to conquer Peru and Mexico and put children in Asia and Africa in missionary schools. My simple ideas may be alien and unwanted to other people and it may violate justice to speak them. Mercy is some sort of tenderness towards another person’s vulnerability, an unwillingness to force, or cause pain. Maybe simple words even if they are waking someone up to something she could think about but isn’t ready to, or at least not yet, feel less than merciful.

I feel that bashfulness calls me to express myself in a joke, or a dialogue, or a story that doesn’t lend its meaning on its sleeve. I’m much more likely to tell a story about a puppet who realizes he is a puppet and isn’t sure how to treat his puppeteer, one which let’s the reader co-operate and participate in telling the story, than I am to let the Lord ventriloquize me, and use me or my conception of It or Him, to tell my neighbors what is required of them.

I’d like to express myself simply.

Although sometimes I wonder whether if I’m worried that simple is too simple, if that means that my simplicity will have to be a little complicated. Because there are two sides at least to me, the side that wants to say all the Lord requires, and the part that wants to say — it’s a little more complicated. Is there a Lord? If there is a Lord do I know what He requires? Is He the sort of thing that requires things? Is the Lord of the first sentence the same as the God of the last one? And if there are two sides to me, then the simplest thing is to acknowledge that complexity. Because pretending to be simple is much more devious than just acknowledging my own lack of simplicity.

I always know when I sit down to write these things that the simple dichotomies — in this case simple vs complex — are going to slip through my fingers, and I will be left playing a game where the one morphs into the other.

And I promise I’m not pretending to do that in order to seem more interesting — it’s honestly how it seems.

But who am I promising this to?

Not you!

Me, I guess.

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Saint Hugh and the Compliance Officer

Once during a very long drive I was actually in the middle seat next to Hugh, who you know as Saint Hugh. And I wanted to learn something from him, about how he got to be where he was and got to be who he was. This is more or less what he told me.

Back then in corporate America compliance was a joke. The big companies would just hire compliance officers but their job was to create the illusion of compliance, when in fact, it was all investor-driven, and the board or the CEO and the board just did whatever they wanted. I had been boondocking it and I came to the attention of the good guys and they did the sort of tests they used to do on people back in the old days — to make sure I had fellow-feeling and clear thought. And I did, or well enough for them to think I could be of some use at any rate, and they asked me if I thought I was ready. And I said honestly? No.

Why weren’t you ready I asked Hugh?

Well my training had been focused on clear thought. And I had learned a lot of the clear thought systems — you know the five major ones — (actually I didn’t — I was much less well-trained than Hugh but I didn’t want to slow him down, this was interesting!) and a bunch of scraps from the unofficial systems that I had scraped by myself. I was a bit of an autodidact.

And my fellow-feeling I just got from good enough early parenting. But what I didn’t have was the real time situational awareness that was needed. And I said look, I’m a little shy in RTSA. Not my strong suit. I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m ready.

And my Teacher — she was a girl with freckles named Marjerie — she said sure you are weak on Bicycle/Truck.

Bicycle Truck?

It’s a field metaphor they use. It means that there are some challenges in life that are like a bicycle — you can keep on going through them and overcome them and some of them are like trucks — they will overpower you and you just have to immediately get out of the way.

Makes sense.

It’s a field metaphor. If it didn’t make sense Marjerie wouldn’t have used it.

Saints can get cranky! We had been driving for a long time.

Sorry. Anyway what they said was they would just build up my bicycle/truck discernment skills. They would take advantage of the poor compliance. Because at that time there were a lot of rules about employees but these rules were completely hollowed out by the corps. Some of them had all their work done by free-lancers! They were just a hollowed out shell of an offshore bank, an e-suite and nothing else. So the Team would just get me a job at one of these places where they knew shit was going down and I would hone my skills in real life situations at discerning bicycle from truck.

Saint Hugh looked at my blank expression.

So, for example, I’d come in and every body would claim that I was on drugs. Bicycle or truck?

Truck?

Bicycle. Nobody cared. I just kept my eye on the bean during performance review and I got to stay. But on the other hand — everybody said I had been talking smack about the boss’s girlfriend? Truck my friend! Get out fast. You know why?

Because you can’t talk smack about the boss’s girlfriend?

Close. Everybody talks smack about the boss’s girlfriend. You just can’t be in a situation where everybody says you do.

OK. Makes sense.

I’ll say.

Time was keeping on.

So what did you do?

Well at that particular firm — I think it was cognitive enhancing drugs and finance — I was in love with the corporate compliance officer. And I knew we had to get out of there and I thought she probably would like to get out too. Because things were getting really bad. So I got a meeting with her late at night and said “OK. This whole thing with the boss and his girlfriend and the gossip, there is no question that that is a massive truck bearing down on us. And I know you don’t trust me, you know I came in from outside and I can be a dodgy guy, but I think you want to trust me, and maybe, that not trusting but wanting to, maybe that hard as it may turn out to be, maybe that’s a bicycle.”

I was amazed. Hugh’s girlfriend the corporate compliance officer was the one who negotiated the peace treaty that ended the war. Little girls know her fight proverbs.

Shit, her face is on the money.

Hugh saw our driver was getting tired so he took over and then he detected morale was sneaking down into the yellow range so he led us in some songs from the Big March. I never saw him again but that was my memory of him and you said you wanted to hear it.

When I heard he died in the Battle of the Two Call Centers I cried.

I think he saw the headlights of the monster truck coming straight at him and just put his foot on the gas.

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The Three-Person Job of Comedy

There are certain things that are going on which a lot of us know are going on, but we are incentivized not to talk about them. You probably can think of a few — one guide is that if there is a topic that for Darwinian reasons we can’t help but find interesting — having sex, eating, not getting killed — but all the talk about it is INCREDIBLY BORING it is probably one of those taboo areas. Sex for example, only people who are in such a bad place with the current system that they have nothing to lose talk openly about it. And it’s naive to decry this situation – for the very same Darwinian reasons we find these topics interesting, we also have to be careful about the consequences of our words. Because they matter to us. If we got a reputation as being particularly shabby on the topic of staying alive or sex (food not so much here and now because we live in a situation, many of us, of abundance) others will treat us warily, as well they should.

So if there is a topic where the group could be helped by some straight thinking, but each member has an incentive to lie, how do we do it?

One way is comedy.

So for a safe example (I hope!) — imagine we are all professors in a humanities department in a small, economically struggling university. We, or most of us, have started to admit grad students who are not qualified, because it will help us get funding. To avoid extraneous factors just imagine that we admitted Todd, who is not that good at philosophy, but is the nephew of a prominent donor.

We all know on some level that Todd is not so good. Some of us turn conceptual backflips — what is good anyway? Maybe Todd is a late bloomer? Maybe Todd has hidden strengths?

Now imagine we are at a faculty meeting. People are talking about a particularly idiotic instruction booklet that came with the new copy machine. Its confusing. It’s poorly written. It looks like it was translated out of a foreign language using google translate.

One professor mutters “It’s a sight better than the last paper I got from Todd.” Everybody laughs.

Things have changed.

Now that somebody makes a joke predicated on Todd being a dingus and everybody laughs we have finally come out and said it. We may move forward in a different way. We may not. But nobody can say after that joke that everybody laughs at, that they didn’t know.

In real life though, everybody will not laugh. Some will not laugh because they are what we euphemistically called in the USA after the 2016 election “low information”. They haven’t cottoned on to how bad Todd is and why he was admitted.

Others know exactly what’s going on and don’t laugh because they don’t want it to get back to Todd’s uncle.

But that too is informative!

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Oral Exam

Emre, young free and handsome, all but dissertation, Nest Cohort 99-t-alpha, family Blattidae, species sapiens, hastened across the writhing mass of his brothers and sisters to the chamber where he would be examined on his chosen subject, the history of human philosophy.

He was going to let the examiners ask him why humans had been so obsessed with destruction of the world: Old Kant who had said that it would be better that the world never existed than that an act of injustice occur, genial Hume who argued that it was not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of one of his digital manipulative organs, and of course after thinking about it they had done it.

And the examiners Emre knew as he entered the Knowedge Hall illuminated by their commensalistic fire-fly larva would ask him: was there a connection?

Would he agree with old Davaa that once having thought about the destruction of the world the humans could not stop thinking about it and thus they were drawn, inevitably to do it? Or would he instead endorse the view of venerable Drayfu that the human thinkers had known of the tendency to world-destruction in their race of killer mega-monkeys and had engaged with it, doing the best they could to forestall it? Or would he thread the needle and say they thought what they had and did what they did, and there were many ways to connect or disconnect the two?

But as he continued towards the chamber it troubled him that perhaps there were cockroach parallels to the suicidal and mundicidal monkey monsters. Because was there not the Blastozore that all Blattidae knew you should not think of but thought of any way? Once Alu had theorized the Blastozore could any of them stop?

And beyond the Blastozore was a topic that he had never even dared to speak of. He had never heard anyone mention it. Perhaps — perhaps! — like the planet Neptune deduced by perturbrations in the orbit of Uranus he could detect this Thought by certain cirmulocutions and evasions in the thoughts of his most daring colleagues. Or perhaps that was his imagination and what he was detecting was his own fear, his own sacred trepidation and ambivalence, projected outwards.

That thought Emre could barely dare name but now as he cleared the last struggling feeding sub-sister he dared to.

The Amblomorph!

The Amblomorph in all its necessity! In all its urgency and unthinkability and glamour and guile!

The Danger of Thinking the Amblomorph made his spiracles gasp and his antennae shiver as if he were laying egg after egg though as a male he had no ovipositor and never could. Danger and Joy! Joy and Danger. The sweetest because of or inspite of Being the Most Forbidden Thought!

When the exam was over Emre was told to leave the chamber for a moment and then invited back in by the three sage insects. “You passed.” said Drayfu and they all four shared a piece of rotten banana.

He was a teacher now. But what would he teach? It didn’t matter. He felt as light, bubbly and iridescent as a mayfly. Outside the nest a rainbow stretched across the sky from infra-red to ultra-violet and the palette of spring smells was off the hook.

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Tremendous, Exciting News!

i

When I was in college I took a class in Tantric Buddhism with my friend Andy. Andy was seriously committed to becoming a Buddha. And I said Andy, I don’t know if I believe in that, but if you ever do become a Buddha I want you to appear to me, and he said he would.

ii

My friend Gawain Smitts’s grandfather, Tolder Smitts, was religious and belonged to a small cult where they wore a special kind of hat and counted their beans before eating them, and Gawain used to write essays about how we’ve lost touch with the comforting world-view of religion which allowed his grandpa to die with a sense of a life well-lived, because he had done the needful, wearing his hat, counting his beans.

iii

Andy never appeared to me.

iv

When Gawain got his diagnosis he tried to obtain the necessary courage by counting his beans and wearing his hat. However a well-meaning cousin gave him a copy of his ancestor, Tolder’s diary in which he confessed that he did not believe in his cult and had not for some years, but simply wore his hat and counted his beans so as to give courage to his wife.

v

Andy never appeared to me because he wanted me to know I shouldn’t depend upon other people appearing as Buddhas to believe in Buddhas, just as if when somebody wakes you up you don’t need them to tell you “by the way you are awake now.” You either know it or you don’t and I know it.

vi

Gawain got better. Andy I lost touch with years ago. And this morning after sleeping for eight hours I got an excellent piece of news. Truly tremendous, exciting, wonderful, amazing news!

vii

May you have good news too!

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