Category Archives: Commentary

Goodbye, Sir Christopher

Yesterday, I received the news of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee after his long life of 93 years…and a life well-lived it was! I saw him in his Hammer film roles, recently in the title role in a televising of Horror of Dracula, and as the wizard Saruman in the Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit films.

I remember him as Sith lord Darth Tyrannus — Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels — seeing the priceless look on his face when Palpatine orders the future Darth Vader to kill him. He was a James Bond villain, a real-life Allied agent in WWII, played both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and even had his own heavy-metal band! How kick-ass is that?

Here’s a clip of his appearance on This is Your Life:

The world is made a poorer place with his passing, but brighter by his legacy. May he rest peacefully in the endless, dreamless night. Peace out, Sir Christopher.

MetaCognitions 2014.12.10

Nobody should ever be forced from their home because they can’t pay the bills, particularly at this time of year.

Altruism is not the absurd slavish caricature birthed from the sick imagination of Ayn Rand; Intelligently done, altruism benefits the altruist, it benefits the receiver, and it benefits the community.

It benefits the altruist in both the rewarding feeling of a good deed done and the possible return of the favor on some future occasion, either by those witnessing it or the receiver — you can’t gain if you don’t participate. Some such deeds, of course, may also involve tax-exemptions for your time and expense. Doing genuine good pays.

It benefits the receiver in obvious ways, specifics depending on the nature of the deed.

Finally, it benefits the community by placing less unnecessary strain on public resources, allowing members of the public to allocate more to areas not directly involved in matters of basic survival, like infrastructure, law enforcement, public works, emergency response services, but also funding for more and better educational institutions like schools, libraries and museums, to enable a more informed and capable public sphere, and in the long run, a more competent electorate.

Cynics will of course say that the last three are not essential, but for a functional democratic republic with reasonably well-informed voters, I say that’s nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.

Such a view speaks more of an unrealistically pessimistic view of people in general, and of the intellectual needs of the electorate in particular.

If you have uninformed and incompetent voters, they’re going to elect uninformed and incompetent candidates who will say and do uninformed and incompetent things once in office, and they have, and that’s never good, unless your goal is to turn the movie Idiocracy from a comedy into a documentary.

Shut up and calculate! Wonders v. Magic Wands in Science Fiction

Science fiction has a history and an unfortunately well-deserved reputation for sometimes playing fast and loose with the science it uses, often verging into the use of “pure fecking magic” (PFM) in some subgenres.

I classify such technological magic along a spectrum between Wonders and Magic wands.

Wonders are often not explained, and are often best not explained. They have the virtue of being both more consistent in principle with the best currently-known real science and so seeming less contrived.

Magic wands are those plot elements that are allegedly scientific, but suffer from being poorly or overly explained. Not only this, but they suffer from a profound disconnect with actual science, often contradicting fundamental scientific laws.

It is my view that the best SF is that which uses the best science of the time it is written, as it takes more imagination and creativity to write skillfully while working within a set of constraints than to just make shit up, piling up contrived detail upon contrived detail and expect uncritical suspension of disbelief from the readers.

Forcing yourself to write within limits tests your skill as a writer.

The best SF uses good science to aid in the storytelling, lending plausibility to the narrative, not as an impediment, and does not try acts of logical terrorism that would make William of Ockham spin in his grave at a radial velocity of c in the famous equation E=mc^2.

My reasoning for this is that too much profligate magic, too much contrivance and poor explanation overstimulates and desensitizes the imagination, dulling it, even the writer’s own, both distracting and detracting from an otherwise good story.

Even if a plot element does do something fantastical, it should at least be somewhat friendly with the best known science, or do what it does without blatantly violating what we have good reason to think we know.

A good example of that is psionics in the science fiction RPG Traveller. Let’s look at psionic teleportation.

Teleportation is limited in that it must obey the laws of thermodynamics and the conservation of momentum, with limits put on both altitude teleported to and distance travelled on a moving and rotating body like a planet.

Sudden altitude shifts can result in differences in gravitational potential energy which can lead to dangerous overheating or hypothermia. All that energy you pick up or lose has to go somewhere. it gets turned into heat, and transferred to you or bled out of you and dispersed into the universe.

Teleporting from a moving body to a relatively unmoving one is dangerous when travelling great distances even without altitude shifts. It’s smarter and safer to make a series of many very short jumps than one very great one. You keep whatever relative velocity you start with, and this can result in severe injury, or winding up inside a solid object if you jump too far or can’t accurately visualize the target location.


These do more than just make sense. They are plausible ways of providing setting balance and force the psionic player to think about his powers, rather than thinking with his powers.

That can make all the difference between SF and science fantasy or superhero fiction.

MetaCognitions: 2014.10.30

What is the ultimate grounding for what we can truly know and understand? Is it some logical first principle we’ve yet to deduce, like Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum?” Is it instead some base, primal, anti-rational impulse?

But why need ultimate grounding at all? The search seems pointless and unnecessary to me, and even the question of what that grounding is seems ill-founded, for built into it is the presumption that there is such a grounding, or that there must be to call what we know real knowledge.

That is something that, even hundreds of years into the age of science, has not been shown even if it is so to be shown at all.

How do we seem most often to come to know what we do? When I was a religious believer, I learned of things like scripture and of religious experiences by being told about them by others.

I learned of these things first through sense-experience, through bodily sight and hearing, the data processed by my brain, by listening to and reading the words of others. And I’ve no reason to think I’m exceptional in that, either.

I’ve little doubt that had I a mystical experience before being told what to expect beforehand, I would not have known what to make of it. Experience is theory-laden, and not just sensory experience, either. It’s the same even of allegedly directly revealed truths.

Even revelation can be theory-laden.

There are assumptions built into their narrative descriptions of what their source is, the nature of that source, the meaning one is to attribute to them, and so on. This theory-laden nature also pertains to the culturally-specific details of the experience. Those religious or spiritual figures we encounter in these experiences are most often those whom we are taught to expect by our dominant faith traditions.

We contribute to what we perceive through our habits of construal and presumption. Often, these construals and our presumptions are unwarranted and lead us to unreliable conclusions on the nature of reality, prone to accepting questionable claims before fully thinking them through.

We can and must act in this world of the actual, the real, whether we think it grounded or not, just to survive. We must accommodate things as they are and respond through our efforts regardless of any apparent lack of absolutely self-justifying first principles.

We must allow ourselves to bite the bullet and use the rules of whatever game we play for what they are designed to do, and not worry overmuch whether those rules obey themselves.

Those who play Checkers must obey the rules of whatever version of it they play, but the rules of Checkers don’t themselves have to obey the rules of Checkers.

I believe this to be the case both with the search for knowledge, and as we play the game of life.

On the Truth™ of Zathogs

Fractal2Never mind what a “zathog” is even supposed to be. Think of it as standing in for any sort of claim held to be definitely, objectively, or absolutely true, but on little good evidence with often faulty or unpersuasive reasoning.

Full knowledge implies full understanding. Absolute knowledge implies absolute understanding. Objective knowledge implies independently demonstrable understanding. You must at least in principle be able to show that you know what you claim to.

Also, certainty of knowledge or belief is an understandable but often mistaken human feeling. Our convictions have a distressing tendency to fall flat when those darned pesky facts disagree with them, and we’re forced to accommodate an external reality merely to continue with our lives, health, wealth, and our sense of well-being.

We must know more than what something’s called or scanty details about it from literature giving contradictory accounts, to say we truly know a zathog is such a way, or another way, or even that it exists at all.

To say that a thing is beyond all comprehension, to dismiss it as a mystery while claiming to know it with certainty is to claim knowledge that one can’t and doesn’t really have. One can’t do so coherently without committing a performative contradiction—when one’s claims are at odds with the verbal actions one is undertaking in strategically making those claims to begin with.

That includes any unsupported claims about a zathog that we could possibly make.

Either zathogs are beyond all comprehension and we know nothing about them, or they are not. It can’t be so both ways. If we truly do know some things and not others, how do we justify exceptions?

To be rational, any exceptions we make must be reasonable, plausible, and more satisfactory than, “I know this is true because of vacuous, irrelevant, and unfalsifiable ‘reasons’ X, Y, & Z.”

If we truly do know anything about zathogs at all, then we’ve not perfect but probable reasons to justify our claims about them, producible when needed with no silly excuses required. We can’t expect to have perfect reasons, so we must make do with what we can. It’s an unfortunate consequence of living in a complex, contingent reality with a finite ability to gather and store knowledge.

What if we know nothing else about zathogs but that they exist, and never mind what they look like, want, do, or even think? On what do we base even that claim?

To convince canny skeptics, testaments of conviction, blurry photos, shaky videos, unsupported anecdotal accounts, or appeals to intuition, of the existence or nature of zathogs are of little use here.

Logical argument has limited use as well, without objective evidence to verify the reality of zathogs. You need testable, relevant, non-circular, publicly accessible, repeatable data to ground even the very best of good reasons.

The acceptability of our reasons and our data is our substitute for the feeling we may desire of metaphysical certitude. Even without complete closure, we may have some confidence in what we know, until newer and better reasons and more accurate data make themselves apparent in future.

Why so Skeptical?


Richard Feynman
Cover of Richard Feynman

There is a reason, a simple one, why I hold to the rules of argument and standards of evidence that I do, and not just ‘accept’ important claims without any reason: To do otherwise would be dishonest, as I’d be fooling first myself and then others in promoting nonsense disguised as fact.

There’s a Dick Feynman quote that applies nicely here:

“The first principle is that you must not be fooled – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We live in an imperfect world…

Los Desastres de la Guerra is a set of 80 aqua...
Los Desastres de la Guerra is a set of 80 aquatint prints created by Francisco Goya in the 1810s. Plate 9: No quieren. (They do not want to. ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If wishing made something so, if desire by itself granted its object, then no hope, no desire, no wish, no prayer to a deity would ever go unfulfilled, and words for ‘disappointment’ or ‘rejection’ wouldn’t exist in the vocabulary of any language, for no love would be unrequited, and no personal nor conspiratorial plans would ever fail.


All would be perfect in the world. Everything would run smoothly, just like we want it to. But that is not what we see. It does not appear, as far as any real evidence shows, that there is anyone at all fully running or orchestrating this whole mess we call a world. Disappointment is frequent, faith unrewarded, our hopes often dashed.

There appears, instead, that there is no hidden agency in control of anything, much less everything. It seems to me that any such agency, whoever or whatever is claimed, does not appear to be doing a very good job at running things nor of concealing itself.

Not if so many people really do know of its intentions and doings.

Yet such people, quite a few of them rather intelligent and otherwise rational, claim to know these things, but their claims tend to conflict where they overlap. They cannot all be right, but they can all be wrong.

What we see instead is a world badly in need of work, partly because of the consequences of relying on wishful thinking in our policies, and human governmental institutions which sometimes work at their own cross-purposes. We see a world in which fervent, unselfish prayers offered to the deity, for the safety, lives or health of others regularly go unanswered. We see a world in which our best laid plans can fail disastrously, in which our love, even the most pure, is often rejected or ignored.

You could say that those wishing didn’t wish hard enough, but that’s both reprehensible victim-blaming and bunkum. It implies giving a quantitative value to wishing, which is nonsense. How do we measure wishing or even prayer to determine how ‘hard’ or ‘genuine’ they are? It’s saying that the victim must have brought misfortune upon themselves. But we appear very much to live in a world where ‘stuff just happens’ without any obvious conscious intent, or truly knowable purpose.

Sometimes, bad stuff happens to good people, horrible stuff even, and the worst of us can often live long and prosper (with apologies to Mr. Spock). It seems to me, given what I’ve seen of the world in my nearly 50 years of life, that we appear very much on our own, without anything hidden or secret watching over us or delivering unerring justice for the innocent and to the guilty, in this life or afterwards.

No one chooses to get a terminal illness. No one chooses to become a diabetic. No one chooses to have their best friend or a loved one in their family die of complications from an accident or surgery. No one chooses to have their beloved cat die from renal failure, or massive stomach bleeding or liver cancer. Nobody chooses to have a serious psychiatric disorder like PTSD, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. They do not necessarily do something ‘stupid’ nor commit some terrible sin to make these things happen to them.

I’m not arguing that nothing happens for a reason nor that personal blame must absolutely never be laid, but for what does go on, those reasons are usually physics or biology, including the physics and biology of our brains in making our choices, responsible or not, the uncertainty of contingent human social interactions, and not any apparent intent or design of mysterious unseen powers, conspiratorial or theological, in our personal lives or events abroad in the greater world and universe.

At least, that’s what the evidence shows.