Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tearing down Confederate statues is about the present, not the past

The issue of whether or not to tear down Confederate statues is all about context.

Sometimes the context is crystal clear. For instance, I would have no shred of doubt in opposing a wealthy donor's renaming my college as the "John Birch, George Wallace and Andrew Jackson Memorial School" and erecting colossal statues of them.

On the other extreme, while I do fault the many Democrats like Obama for being late to accepting gay rights, I wouldn't refuse to shake their hand or tear down a statue of them over this.

In between these poles, there's a ton of gray area and context at play. How bad were the people, given their time? Is the status quo that their statue exists, or is it something new that's being proposed? Is the monument to them itself historically meaningful or aesthetically special? What role is the monument playing today, and what framing, if any, is it given? After all, I'm assuming none of us would visit the Smithsonian Museum of African-American history and destroy their exit exhibit that depict past racism, because the framing changes its current role.

Sometimes people argue that we cannot hold figures from the past to the moral standards of today. For instance, all the others who owned slaves. But while the rhetoric and norms of racial equality at the time were certainly very different than today, there were thousands of white people at the time who felt slavery was abhorrent. (There's a fascinating profile the New York Times ran the other day of one forgotten activist.)

As I like to mentioned, George Washington went so far as to pay to have advertisements placed describing a runaway teenage slave, to attempt to catch her and forcibly bring her back to finish her life of violence-induced servitude, permanent separation from friends and family at a moment's notice, and absence of any recourse from rape. This not genteel, gentlemanly acceptance of the conditions of the day--it was direct and brutal.

But even supposedly genteel slaveholding should be seen for what it is. When smart, reflective people people avert their mental powers from considering the implications of some of the things they do, they are just as morally responsible as if they had focused their mental powers on those things and endorsed them.

The intellectual and social circles around the founding fathers had constant debate about slavery; Massachusetts, one of the most politically powerful and influential states, adopted a constitution in 1780 (in my hometown, Cambridge, what what!) whose language about the equality of all men (though not women) created the immediate logical conclusion that slavery was unconstitutional. That is, while there were many people who were not abolitionists, the debate at the time involved them realizing the implication of their language and deciding that abolition was the natural consequence of their own moral views.

Later, there was a large faction pushing for the same language in the United States Constitution, but many of the founding fathers stopped them.

Am I really so much more moral than they were, given my time? Would I be so haughty about this if my family's wealth, and that of my friends, largely consisted of slaves? Maybe not, and in some ways I'm very "morally lucky" (lucky in a way that makes me seem moral) not to have been born into such a position. And maybe the founding fathers who opposed slavery explicitly or in practice (there were many) were just morally lucky too. But there were plenty of slave owners who freed their slaves, and plenty of children of slaveowners who chose a different walk of life, perhaps not directly confronting their own aversion to owning and managing slaves, but opt out of the system some degree all the same.

(It makes me think of Marlene Dietrich, asked in an interview once why she took such a clear political stand against the Nazis, contra her more jingoistic theater and film colleagues, and contra Hitler, who wanted her to be some kind of great Aryan star; she replied that though she didn't know much about politics at the time, it was never a complicated question for her--the Nazis were beating children. Elsewhere in the war, even ostensibly pro-Nazi German soldiers frequently infuriated their commanders by failing to fire upon innocent people when commanded to. History is full of huge amounts of opting out of immoral conduct, in the face of huge pressure to comply, although we're not very good at telling the history of ordinary people who did the right thing.)

It's a useful mental exercise to speculate about which of our current norms future generations will see as abhorrent. Eating animals? Circumcision? Would I still have a cow butchered for my pleasure if everyone around me thought I was a monster for it?

That said, I tend to think it's more valuable to add context to our memorials and monuments than to destroy them. every German schoolchild, I'm told, must visit concentration camps and come face-to-face with their country's brutal history. the presence of a concentration camp surely causes pain to many who see it or even just know it's there, but we do not oppose that kind of pain -- we see it as crucial.

Part of what makes Confederate monuments so much more tricky is that there are still so many people that celebrate them or at least treat them with respect, rather than just seeing them as disgraceful or sobering. if the country as a whole treated Confederate sites and monuments like concentration camps, I don't think you would see people clamoring to have them torn down.

The clamor is more about the present day that the past; is an attempt to force a choice from people who like to have it both ways. so many white Americans are free to be tacit, casual supporters and beneficiaries of white supremacy. I see the current clamor as a demand that the country make good on its surface position that white supremacy is wrong and must be destroyed. it's a shame that we still need to voice that demand, but the current state of injustice is the construction of generations of the same people who led the Confederacy and who have celebrated it ever since. In a sense it is they who are truly tearing down these monuments-- their poisonous betrayal of their fellows, their collusion and violence and theft, is a rot they are forcing others to deal with instead of them.

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Recommended foods

I've read lightly but widely in nutritional literature over the years, both boring consensus and more hokey hucksters like Steven Gundry. Part of this is general interest, part concern for my chronic pain, which seems inflammation-related.

Here are my consolidated takeaways for what to eat. (I prefer to focus on what to eat, not what not to eat.)

This list is roughly ordered in terms of what's most valuable -- both from top to bottom, and from left to right. Foods on the right are still mostly recommended, but the most often-recommended ones are at the left.

  • Top overall advice: Michael Pollan's "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
  • Top foods: Avocado, Blueberries, leafy green vegetables, raw vegetables, fish, nuts
  • Leafy vegetables: Spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, bok choy, romaine lettuce, red lettuce, green lettuce (not iceberg), kohlrabi, baby greens
  • Green vegetables: Avocado (yeah i know it’s a fruit, shut up), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, artichokes
  • Fresh fish (all as wild as you can plausibly get): Salmon, sardines, oysters, mussels, rainbow trout, arctic char, barramundi, cod, mackerel
  • Canned fish: Sardines, anchovies (you can cook them in a puttanesca sauce), clams, tuna
  • Nuts: Pistachios, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds
  • Bioactive: Pickles, kimchee, miso, yoghurt, kefir
  • Oil: Olive oil, avocado oil, canola, soybean, sesame, coconut
  • Grain: sorghum, millet, quinoa
  • Fruit: Blueberries, (tropical fruit: plantains, bananas, papaya, mango--some say underripe is best), kiwi
  • Vitamin-rich protein: Eggs, the less industrial the better; tofu, pate, edamame
  • Breakfaste: Bran cereal, meusli cereal, oatmeal (without much syrup/sugar added)

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Friday, August 04, 2017

A golden age of criticism?

Most of humanity's writing is taking place on phones, but only rarely is this writing given critical focus or appreciation.

What could the patterns and institutions look like that appreciate a great Insta convo? Great FB groups mgmt?

For older ephemeral writing, eg newspaper columns and letters, it took centuries to develop institutions and attitudes to collect and criticize. What is our @nyrb? What is our ? What is our Cahiers du Cinema? Do these analogies exist? Will they?

And, what has to expand and evolve in step with these media so that we can recognize, and not dismiss, the forms that are emerging?

The notions of "selected letters and essays of _____" was born of scarcity of printed pages. How does this translate in the age of scarcity of attention?

The dichotomy of literary/artistic creators vs. critics was born of a scarcity of publishing and performance space and time. If it's difficult and costly to sample, say, a play or a volume of poetry, we need critics to indicate which are broadly worth attention.

Since internet media are fundamentally easier and cheaper to sample and switch in and out of, do we still need critics? In what role?

Is a social media filter like Upworthy an analogue to a curator: applying an opinionated lens, and collecting a live and historical archive?

Do we still need boundaries between what is and isn't included in some collection? Are they only a vestige, or do they help focus?

is there something fundamentally patient and accessible about letters which makes them able to be appreciated by strangers? is a wonderful letter something we want to reread, whereas a wonderful SMS, even if it deeply thrilled the writer at the time, isn't?

Letters and prose as a form are inherently recursive: a novel can have characters write letters to each other and print those in full. But books, film and television are still struggling with how to work smartphone based communication into their narratives.

The most successful attempts at this seem to me to come from the bleeding edge of social media creation, like Vine and Yung Jake's Unfollow.

is it fundamentally a problem for storytelling using current forms of writing that the technology itself changes so fast? A novel from 100 years ago that includes letters is perfectly understandable today. What about a video from 2003 about Myspace? Can teenagers today even understand what's going on in the scene in Scorsese's The Departed where Matt Damon texts from his pocket?

More importantly, does a creator like Scorsese avoid using true current forms of writing in their stories because of rapid obsolescence?

In the past, critics have often come from ranks of former creators. Are forms of writing evolving too rapidly for a community of critics to emerge?

Do critics perform a significant enough role in reality for their declining presence to matter? Or are critics actually doing quite well, because the lowering of barriers to writing means that many more people can fluidly participate in criticism?

Is this, in fact, a golden age of criticism?

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Raising Jewish children

A friend asked me if my objections to the bris, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, mean I don't think of myself as raising Jewish children.

I do consider myself to be raising Jewish children. I expect, for example, my daughters to have a bat mitzvah (boy is this going to be news to them...).

Part of the thing for me is that I've never witnessed a bris ceremony, or really ever heard a Jewish person talk about finding meaning in it -- it just hasn't been part of my experience, except as a source of implied exclusion because of circumcision. But essentially every other aspect of Jewish life has been reconsidered and reinvented across the centuries; Jews who consider themselves deeply religious pray in all sorts of ways and different amounts, and they follow all sorts of different levels of kashrut. (As my old rabbi Larry Kushner used to say, if you won't eat roadkill no matter what a scanner says about its safety and nutritional content, here at least keeping kosher a little!)

When something that Jews used to do doesn't make sense anymore, like obsessing about virginity or enslaving people or forbidding those with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, subsets of Jews who totally consider themselves religious change it, and do so proudly. That's one of the things I love most about being Jewish -- at least in the Jewish tradition that I've always felt most clearly a part of, at its core has been an insistence on returning to first principles and refusing to do something just because other people are doing it.

That's always seemed intimately connected to the history of oppression of Jews: there are too many people who gang up on the powerless because they can, but rather than match their violence and cruelty, Jews have insisted on a path that puts morality and respect for life and human flourishing above all else.

Thus you can have a leading rabbi in Jerusalem publicly eat pork in a time of famine, you can have any 13-year-old give a public speech disagreeing vehemently with God's actions in the Torah, and you have an outsized representation of Jews in the world's charitable and humanitarian organizations.

I love Jewish ceremony and collectively experiencing milestones and recognizing traditions -- and I think the most fundamental tradition of them all is the insistence that tradition itself comes second.

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Blogger Sarah Wheeler on Sat Jul 29, 05:28:00 PM:
I really like your take on Judaism here (maybe because we were raised in the same home), I never articulated it that way. I did not even think for a minute about circumcising my son, who I do want to raise Jewish and who I'm excited to share lots of Jewish tradition with. I never understood circumcision, and find it one of the most bizarre things that lots of people I know do.

Yes, you are a feminist

Reading about Victorian England is making me realize that Americans today who claim they're not feminists have beliefs about gender that would make them be considered extreme, radical feminists 150 years ago.

I mean, Mary Somerville was a brilliant mathematician but she had to wait until her husband died to start communicating with other mathematicians and publishing, because he refused to allow any wife of his to be so unladylike and ruin her "disposition" or something with that sort of mental strain and nerdiness. And even then, like Ada Lovelace, she could only sneak in some publishing by adding copious, original "notes" to the end of mens' work (that she had transcribed from lectures or translated).

Even just from a capitalist standpoint, think of all the stifled innovation, all the jobs that could have been created, all the lives that could have been saved by women engineers. "Let's not be so intent on confining women into absurdly tight roles and dainty expectations that we literally kill ourselves, destroy our wealth and make ourselves unemployed" -- that's all it takes to be at least some kind of feminist.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Letter to the NY Times about Rosenstein memo

Friday, July 21, 2017

To the editor:

The July 19 piece "Citing Recusal, Trump Says He Wouldn’t Have Hired Sessions" repeats an error that the Times and many other news sources have made about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's 5/9/17 memo criticizing then-FBI Director James Comey.

The article states that "The deputy attorney general recommended Mr. Comey be fired". Not so. Nowhere does Rosenstein's memo actually recommended that Mr. Comey be fired.

Rosenstein surely made this omission deliberately, and carefully. Did Rosenstein craft his memo to appear to cross a line, when skimmed, which Rosenstein refused to actually cross? The memo's content, in contrast to the President's use of it, certainly lends credence to reports that the President had demanded a recommendation that Mr. Comey be fired -- and assumed he got it.

The Times has been more careful and precise in past articles, such as the 5/12/17 "Caught in White House Chaos, Justice Dept. Official Seeks Neutral Ground", which discusses Rosenstein's memo at length and never claims that it contains a recommendation that Mr. Comey be dismissed.

Over time, many media outlets have let the inertia of conventional wisdom slowly replace reportorial precision. The Times should hold itself to a higher standard.

-Ben Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem after being hit from behind by an SUV while riding my bike in Brooklyn, June 2017

Don't I want things simple? Fewer obligations, fewer promises, fewer ties?
Fewer people to let down, fewer relationships that never get the depth they're due,
Fewer mistakes, fewer disappointments, fewer times to concoct an explanation,
Fewer times to hem and haw, to wring my hands and my mind, fewer apologies, said and unsaid,
Fewer live wires of fury, fewer grievances,
Fewer questions that can never be answered, fewer mysterious forces in my way,
Fewer meetings, fewer times I work unpaid,

Fewer monthly bills, fewer Schedule Cs, fewer todo items buried inevitably?
Don't I want to escape from the web of obligations, of government forms, of pleading with cops and doctors for something better
than the runaround? A web of virtuous connections is one thing, but don't I want free of this web of inertia, of meaningless procedure?
Because what, after all, do I get from being a part of it all?
I get to be a husband, yes, with unspoken desires and endless compromise,

but also with a connection whose layers are veins of color and flavor, rich not only with easy joy but with something compounded and deep,
the tangible marrow of deep bones colliding, the meeting of our brilliance and of our flaws,
the true fractured crashing together of two black holes,
drawn out not from tedium but from the fractal complexity of all the encountering eddies,
billions of short stories and byways, each deserving a novel.
I get to be a father, already recognized as inadequate by my daughters, though their perceiving that gives me the funny proud knowledge
that they exceed me, they will and they do now! I get to indulge my loves with them, and through them,

I get to slowly exhale, with squeezed lips, feeding the spark of love for books, for ideas and opinion, seeing its flames lick and catch.
I get to be the cause of tears, and sometimes the place of comfort, the shelter for tears, the companion when friendships seem foreign,
when their perfectionism, like mine, makes mockeries of their efforts to create the art they imagine, when they're sunken and submerged
and the reasons why don't feel like the reasons why. I get to be that for them both,
so different from each other but both intensely vibrating with the world,
feeling in their strands of web the twang of every mosquito's footstep like it is coming from inside them,
the fluttering of a valve or the tightening around one of those organs we don't understand.
That's what it is to live: to feel sensations from the pancreas and the spleen, such a crucial part of me, so unknowable.

My workings are a mystery play, evocative of meaning but evasive of it.

The race to keep from being overtaken by my multiplying constraints seems like everything,
but below, the story of what's going on, the things that matter, keeps going and going. I am shepherd to a continent,
to the aspirations of organelles, of passing friends who think of me as unexpectedly deeply as I think of them,
of the learned sufferings of my children, a pattern of pain at big and small cruelties that they know through the distinct lenses they're assembling.
I'm shepherd to the quiet duty of a husband, father, brother, son, citizen, critic and objector,

these duties that share the name with others' but are not others', concrete and palpable to my fingertips,
so small and uncelebrated it seems they'll will vanish if I look away,
whose textures and weight no one can ultimately know but me.
Shepherd to vision and hearing, touch and taste, shepherd to the ability to talk someone into joy or sorrow if I want and if they'll let me,
Shepherd to a certain deliverance, shepherd to writing, to movement, shepherd to skin and scars and fingernails and fears,
Shepherd to an aching astonishment at people's callousness, a landscape of cruelty that isn't spectacular or cinematic,

but tasteless, textureless, dull bloodstained sandpaper on a power sander
left in a lightless room, by bored cops on less than even a whim,
to slowly eat through a painter's life's work,

Shepherd to punishment for punishment's sake, to stealing credit when they notice someone has no recourse,
to the loud manipulator using and cowing the quiet source of the work,
to the cyclical graphs of mutual access and exclusion,
to lectures about rules and principles given by men who risk nothing for them
the moment there is any intimation of power or tribe,
Shepherd to the smell of parasitic opportunity,
Shepherd to shambling collection of urges and contradictions and discontinuities,
grins and memories and rotting garbage and impossible joys, all of it.

The role of shepherd isn't made of anything. It's created, whole cloth. It can be picked up or put down in a moment.
So it's meaningless? No, the opposite. It can only be held with will, from will. With faith in its basic truth, from faith. In relationship.
It is held by us, in a trust fall, and our muscles can falter, but they must hold. The tiredness is not resignation closing in,
it's the sum of all the showing up, the saying this is my problem too, the doing the right thing, the hidden professionalism,

the getting out of bed, the telling a joke, the sharing a cigarette, the going down, the listening when I'm bursting to speak and then
seeing new dimensions open up,
the holding on and the letting go, the treating it with fresh eyes, the channeling some echo of spirit even though the magic seems gone.
Palms and wrists are scrambled for action: this is how they get to keep living, this sick and sorry web is their patrol,

its peeling skin their turf, yielding gems and pustules not in turn but in concert.
The point is that it's their territory and they're walking it. That deserves applause, not because they're so great at it,
but because that's what applause is for: a sending out love for all the hidden days of cobbling together some step forward,
or for treading water a little longer, saying: you muster knuckles and kneecaps, we muster them too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Naval Ravikant on The Knowledge Project

Shane Parrish's Knowledge Project podcast did a long interview with AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, covering a wide range of topics, and quite a bit of light philosophy.

It was a bit of a struggle for me -- he's such an unusual person, so different from me, and I found myself disagreeing deeply with some things he said about life and philosophy, and even more just with his tone of certainty. It's a reaction I have to Tyler Cowen as well.

That said, I do recommend listening. In particular, I found his point around 52:00 about not cherry picking from others' lives very profound.

For example, re: Naval's "I don't believe in macroeconomics", I propose that he found a country whose currency goes on and off the gold standard randomly and at different rates each time, and which suddenly floods the streets with bills unexpectedly, and other times orders all currency burned. No way of knowing if that would work better or worse than our system, right?

That's what feels so alternating to me... while he's clearly thought deeply and intelligently about a million things, and is smarter than me in a dozen ways, it also seems like he avoids settling his views in mutual appreciation of multiple opposing forces. He has to pick an absolute position. (Contra his claim that he doesn't do absolutes!)

Maybe that's connected to how he gets so much done: he seems to truly embody that dictum of "Hell yes, or not at all".

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Friday, July 07, 2017

If horses had guns, maybe they'd still be around!

It's interesting to view the Trump election in light of the ongoing conversation about automation and AI ending human jobs.

It's as if the socialist public works programs the left has always wanted more of are finally getting put on the table, but via a rightist, nationalistic, paranoid and xenophobic nativism. National socialism, you might say.

Of course, military employment has long been something of a compromise between liberal supporters of socialistic full employment and the jingoistic right.

In this light, Trump's proposed import tariffs are effectively a proxy for subsidized employment. But they are a very poor proxy, in terms of economic efficiency, since automated manufacturing requires so few jobs anyway--especially when those jobs need to pay relatively high American salaries.

What we really need is socialized income to distribute the gains from technology, and socialized jobs to keep people off oxycontin and video games. So again, public works and high taxes.

The impetus for this, ultimately, is the same as the welfare state in general--maintaining stability and staving off revolution. (That need not mean actual discrete political revolution, just the undermining of an existing power structure.)

Horses are famously held up as an example of what happens to an obsolete workforce; apparently the horse population of the developed world has declined to a practically genocidal degree in the last century or so.

If the horses had guns, maybe they'd still be around!

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Real talk for the intrepid traveler about visiting Georgia

Note: an updated, photo-enhanced version of this post is up on Medium.

Here are my off the cuff tips for visiting the nation of Georgia, written for a friend of a friend. My knowledge is a bit out of date, and I probably have a few details wrong, so take it all with a crumb of salty sulguni cheese!


The most important thing is to meet people, strike up conversations, be curious, be open to accepting invitations. Hospitality and generosity are central elements of Georgian culture, in a way that's honestly reminiscent of Burning Man. But in Tbilisi, it can take a bit of work and adjustment to get past the surface anonymity of the big city. (Big for Georgia, that is... the city center is only like half a million people).

If you are friendly and curious with people you meet, and tell everyone how much you want to experience Georgian culture, Georgian music, and Georgian food, you'll open the door to invitations.


One central Georgian cultural experience is the "supra", a celebratory dinner that's filled with toasts and chatter and singing.

Of course, like so many cultural practices, it looks different from the inside than it does from the outside. We outsiders tend to treat it like a totally distinct, binary thing. But for people inside the culture, it's just a fluid part of the way things work.

So most supras just happen organically when people get together to eat or drink, if the setting is right. ("Supra" just means "table".) If people are eating and talking and someone keeps getting up and making toasts with a little mini speech first, it's a supra.

The toastmaster is called a "tamada", though again, it's more of the name for the act, which anyone can step in and do, than a singular role that is only performed by one person. Traditionally, there are 12 toasts, to things like old and new friends, love, the dead, and children. So a very Georgian thing to do, that would be very welcome, when you're in a supra-like environment, would be to stand up and hold a glass of wine or vodka (not beer though) and give a little 3 sentence speech and toast. Nothing fancy, just something from the heart, like "This is my first time in Georgia, and the first time meeting most of you, and I want to appreciate the welcome I'm getting, and promise that I will pass this on to others. To welcoming people from far away!" Then drain your glass to really represent.

Georgians certainly drink a lot, but it's not a college-style binge drinking culture. You'll smell alcohol on people's breath (including, terrifyingly, cab drivers), but it's uncommon for people to be really wasted. Part of this is because Georgians tend to eat while they drink, which slows down the drinking and alcohol digestion.

Georgian food:

Georgian cheese bread, called khachapuri (khah-chah-poo-ree, notes on the pronunciation of Georgian letters are below), is a daily food that is present at most traditional meals, like baguettes for the French.

If you're into trying new foods, you should seek out the various regional varieties of khachapuri, all of which can be found in Tbilisi. Different bakeries and restaurants in specialize in different regional dishes, especially khachapuri, so ask around.

"Acharuli" khachapuri is from the Achara region in southwest Georgia (it's usually written in English as "Adjaria"), and it has a half cooked egg on top that finishes frying in the hot cheese, phenomenal when done well. "Penovani" khachapuri is cooked in a phyllo dough. The most common variety is "Imeruli" khachapuri, from the Western Imereti region, which resembles a pizza slice with no tomato sauce.

Georgian food has a combination of middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Russian influences, as well as totally unique dishes. The distinctive cheese on khachapuri, for example, is usually Sulguni cheese, which is made from the milk of these stocky mini cows that live only on the mountains or Georgia. There is a lot of pomegranate, walnut and plum. Be sure to try tqemali (sour plum sauce), satsivi (walnut sauce), mchwadi (aka shashlik, in Russian), chkmeruli chicken, and chicken/meat cooked with any of a variety of fruits and nuts, especially pomegranate. Other good dishes are lobiani beans and cooked mushrooms (I forget what these are called in Georgian).

Georgian language:

In general, because Georgia is so small, Georgians know the country isn't well known, and they appreciate travelers being curious about Georgia and learning even a little bit of the culture and language. Pretty much everyone under 30 speaks some English, but if you try a few Georgian words and phrases, they'll go a long way.

Georgian is a unique language in many ways. It is not an Indo-European language, and the vocabulary and script is completely unfamiliar to outsiders. Even if you don't have time to memorize them, do try to look at the alphabet and the word sounds online or in a guidebook -- the script is fun and bizarre.

"Georgia" in Georgian is "Sakartvelo", the land of the Kartveli people, and the language is called "Kartuli".

Pronunciation is very similar to Spanish: every Georgian letter is pronounced consistently, and emphasis is mostly even across syllables, with a little extra emphasis often put on the second to last syllable.

You roll r's as in Spanish, and vowels are pronounced pretty much the same: 'a' and 'e' are soft (like in "España", but the 'e' can be somewhat hard as in "feliz"), but 'i', 'o' and 'u' are hard (as in "gusto" and "limpio").

Unfortunately, many Georgian letters are tricky! "kh" means you make a choking k, like in Hebrew. "ts" (as in, "its") and "zh" (as in "treasure") are single letters in Georgian, and they can start a word.

Ask Georgians to help you learn to say the word "baqaqi", "frog" in Georgian, for a good example.

Another good word to help you hear the language better is "chika", "glass"; the ch is aspirated with a sharp exhale, but the k is soft and gentle.

Words can also have multiple consonants in a row... "cakes" translates to the word "namtskhvrebi"!

The verb generally goes at the end of the sentence.

Useful phrases:

  • "Bodishit, Kartuli ar vitsi." == Sorry, Georgian not [I speak]
  • "Ingliusuri vitsi." == English [I speak]
  • "Ukatsravad, Ingliusuri itsit?" == Excuse, English [you speak]?
  • "Tu sheidsleba" == please
  • "Es ra ghirs?" == This what costs? (Aka, how much does this cost?). The "gh" is close to the guttural sound of an 'r' is in French.
  • "Gaumarjos!" == Victory! (Aka, cheers!)
  • "Kargia!" == Good is! (Aka, it's good, or this is good) This is short for "kargi aris"; 'aris' is a conjugation of the verb 'to bee's
  • "Tuvaleti sad aris?" == Toilet where is? (Where is the bathroom?)
  • You can politely call men you're asking questions of "Botono" (sir), and women "Kalbotono" (madam). Ukatsravad, Kalbotono, es ra ghirs?"

Check out a YouTube video of how to count to ten.

Random things to try to do, if you can:

* Take any day trip a Georgian invites you on. Try asking people if they know any good day trips. If you get lucky, a Georgian might invite you on one. Near Tbilisi there is the old capital with some thousand year old churches, and an isolated monastery you can go near and look out upon.

* Take longer trips as well, if you have time! The Black Sea coast is gorgeous, the wine country of Kakheti in the east is beautiful, and there are tall mountains quite close to Tbilisi (in Gudauri) which have skiable snow for much of the year, and breathtaking views. In Georgia's many small villages, any newcomer is a novelty, and a bit of warmth, gesturing and broken Georgian is often enough to lead to an invitation to come try a villager's homemade wine. Also, everywhere you go there are tiny, old churches; often you aren't far from a church that's more than 500 years old, which is still in active use and drawing local singers (see next bullet point).

* Visit a church where people sing informally. Georgian religious singing resembles chant but is polyphonic, and the more amateur the singers, the better. Sometimes you can get tipsy Georgian men to sing together impromptu. It's beautiful.

* Hear a Georgian folk singer strum the guitar and sing in Georgian at a bar at night. I've sometimes heard this called "Tbilisi city music", but I'm not sure that's right.

* Ask people which bakeries have really good khachapuri, and bread in general. The daily bread is fantastic, and breakfast can just be some sulguni cheese and fresh bread.

* Go to the bazaar, "basroba", with endless varieties of produce and objects and tinkering, with lots of old people who give you a sense of the old, tiny village countryside

* See how many Chinese-style soup dumplings you can eat at "Khinkal Sakhli", "Khinkal [dumplings] house". Georgians think of these as totally Georgian, but obviously they're an import from East Asia via the Silk Road.

Dating scene:

Finally, just a bit of orientation about the dating and hookup scene... My personal knowledge is way out of date, but generally speaking, it's a more conservative culture sexually than urban Russia and Eastern Europe. Until recently, premarital sex was totally taboo, and there's still a big, destructive cultural pattern around the insistent macho man and the pious virginal maiden. It's several decades behind the US and Western Europe in fully acknowledging date rape as criminal assault.

There are also many popular misconceptions about sex, like the idea that it's unnatural for a woman to enjoy getting oral sex, or absolute certainty that every man knows 100% of the time if a woman he's having sex with is a virgin.

This has been changing, but Tbilisi is still nothing like, say, Tallinn or Kiev in its club/bar culture. (One American I knew in Tbilisi used to take a trip once a year to Eastern Europe just to experience this difference.)

Freedom and policing:

Georgia is a fairly typical transitional state, where you can expect some level of surface professionalism from most police and guards, but there is also plenty of bribery and arbitrary state violence. So you probably want to avoid getting caught smoking a joint outside a club, say.

There's also a small amount of organized (and semi-organized) crime, so you also want to be very apologetic to the 300 lb. scarred dude you bump into on the dancefloor.

The flip side of this is that some of the most important intensely defensive tough guys are also very generous, passionate and affectionate. There are tons of stories of this, like rival crews attacking each other and then stopping and agreeing to be brothers and drinking and singing all night. Or, muggers taking pity on a poor victim and giving the would be victim money.

There is some petty street crime, as in most big cities in the world outside of Western Europe, and it makes a difference if you know how to be street smart, maintain awareness of your surroundings, not attract too much attention in shadowy, lonely neighborhoods late at night, etc. My Georgian friends assure me that it has declined significantly.

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The dangers of scoffing at new age cures

Nikhil Sonnad recently wrote a piece for Quartz pointing out that many of the same pseudo-scientific products are promoted on both Gwynneth Paltrow's Goop and Alex Jones's InfoWars.

This article lost me at "people who can afford $25 'activated cashews'", which I gather means that they buy some amount of many cashews for $25, which of course most people I know have done cumulatively. So it's a statement that only sneers, and doesn't inform.

I also think it's misleading to say that Alex Jones "has said" Sandy Hook was staged, which I assume is literally true, but obscures the fact that he has since walked that back. Not that Alex Jones especially deserves excusing, but we're only getting the sizzle and not the vitamins -- the self-satisfaction and superiority, and not the caveats.

And that's just in the first few paragraphs. If I edited this person, I'd make a mental note to carefully check all of his facts and reign in his phrasings, to make sure we're not overstating, obscuring and sensationalizing information for the sake of entertainment. That editorial oversight doesn't seem to have happened here, so I don't know how seriously I should take the rest of it.

That said, my extended friends and family include quite a few people who buy these sorts of nonsense products, and probably half of them sometimes use homeopathic placebo pills and creams. The weirdest thing I've seen is a necklace with a piece of electronic circuitry on it, with a vague claim that it conducts some sort of beneficial energy field.

I've spent lots of time around learners and teachers who peddle much of this kind of nonsense, and claim to practice or study things like the effects of remote prayer, reading auras, and surviving bodily death. I've argued with the more intellectual promoters of such study. They feel that the limits of what is considered respectable to study in mainstream scholarship are too narrow, and it is cital to support the types of seeking of knowledge and connection that are excluded from study elsewhere. This has been the case with formerly eyeroll-inducing folk practices/substances like meditation, yoga, acupuncture, red wine, curry, MDMA, cannabis, germ flora, and prenatal and early childhood exposure to nuts and seafood -- all of which have demonstrated their value, in the face of dismissive skepticism, through further scientific study, or are in the process of being so.

I do think that there are some disturbing limits on what the mainstream considers respectable to wonder about. For instance, somehow it became ridiculous in serious conversation to worry about GMOs. Calls to more actively monitor GMO research and production, or to label them, are met with eyerolls. But there are many documented cases of environmental damage from GMOs, and disturbing legal precedents that make it illegal to farm with seeds you own if the company which modified them doesn't want you to. In other words, there is ample reason to respect and listen to concerns about GMOs.

Similarly, vaccines in the US have indeed hurt many children due to government and industry incompetence, irresponsibility and/or greed. There are also many different points of failure at which the administration of a vaccine dose could harm your child, and the public at large, on net. I do allow all immunizations that my children's doctor recommends, and I think that's the responsible thing for all parents to do. But I certainly have reservations, and I think if you don't, that's fine, but it's because you're not informed or reflective enough on the topic to realize that reservations are appropriate. But parents with reservations are treated as know-nothing fools.

Another one is vitamins. There are numerous articles that announce that multivitamins have failed all sorts of experiments, but that don't get into the weeds about how some of the components of multivitamins have shown positive effects. We know precious little, really, about vitamins and nutrition, but we don't know enough to be certain what the effects of taking all sorts of supplements are.

To take up an especially dangerous example of excessive certainty, I think we popularly assume we know more about climate change than we do. I agree that it's very likely true that the planet is warming and human activity is the main cause. But I also acknowledge that the global climate is a hugely complicated and somewhat chaotic system, whose complexities our past models and theories have often significantly failed to capture

I don't buy crystals or homeopathic placebos or other similarly ridiculous products. But I think we should all keep in mind how very many times in history folk knowledge has run ahead of scientific knowledge, and how many times mainstream science has served politics, groupthink, hubris and oppression and forestalled understanding and truth.

It's fine to say that, on balance, the evidence for homeopathy or activated cashews appears vanishingly weak. But they can be bullshit without us having to overstate our case. I think people who believe in that microchip necklace or the power of crystals are ingenuous fools. But I also think there's plenty I don't know about all of the ideas around them, and the experiences of their users. It's not where I would focus research, but I don't want to be too smug about it.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

What is an ad?

I think one of the fascinating aspects of the media transition we're in is the ambiguity around what is and isn't an ad.

This is new territory being explored, with a lot of fudging that would never fly in respected old media institutions… from Michael Arrington arguing that fluffy TechCrunch coverage of companies TC invests in wouldn't be an ad, to secret VC arrangements with journalists that exchange exclusivity for favorable coverage (I know a VC incubator alum who can vouch for this), to a Product Hunt editor who told me he runs product announcements on the front page *only* if he has a personal or professional connection to the company in question.

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The generation of kids growing up under Trump

From an email I sent on Jan 31 of this year:

My daughter asked me last night at bedtime if we would ever have to move "while I'm still, you know, a kid living at home" because of Trump. She's heard snippets of conversation from us and kids at school about the question of moving to Canada etc.

I talked to her about our responsibility to stay and work to help out other people who need our help, and to make the country be the best it can be.

I'm fascinated to look back in 15 years and hear this generation talk about what this political experience was like for them. Carmen and her fellow 2nd graders are totally with it enough to have very intense feelings and to pick up the fear and dismay the adults are feeling.

One child I know, who is half south Asian and half white, asked his mom after the election, "Isn't it better to be white?" She said no, every kind of person can live side by side, etc. He said "I don't know mom… It's better to be white."

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Friday, April 21, 2017

I vote 'No' on referendums

A friend asked my me my opinion of referendums. I'm generally opposed to direct referendum voting. 

Now, all of this is provisional. It matters the health of the legislative and executive systems we're comparing it to. It matters the threshold.

(I'm using the plural referendums because sometimes even I need to give the smug erudition a freaking rest.)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Problem one: disconnect between the values/intentions of voters and the outcome of referendums

Sometimes the issue is clear and the politics make sense, eg Massachusetts recently voting to legalize pot (which I support), or various states voting to block gay marriage (the blocking of which I oppose). But much of the time the tradeoffs at play are obscure, the wording doesn't fairly reflect the core questions, and people don't really understand what they're voting on, or how it got here. if one group is doing an end run around a legislative compromise, for example, or trying to get their shoddy hospital funded before a more carefully planned one can be approved.

Part of this problem: not much incentive for deliberation. the typical voter doesn't have much of a reason to study up on the various referendums. At least a legislator is much more likely to cast a crucial vote, whether from the perspective of the odds of the bill passing, or the focus which their vote will receive.

The classic example of problem one is the observation that referendums that propose new government spending generally pass, but referendums that cut taxes also generally pass. (As far as I know, states must all balance their budgets each year, so these are even more contradictory then they are on the federal level.) The same referendums, worded to explicitly reflect the full impact of these proposals, would likely not pass.

Compare this to the federal budgeting system, where (IIRC!) even though Republicans have enjoyed a two House Majority and the presidency for two different periods in the last 20 years, they have passed relatively few unfunded tax cuts. It's just a bit less willy nilly with legislators.

Problem two: the values/intentions of voters being wrong

The first aspect of this is status quo bias. Our federal and state systems have a heavy status quo bias, in that there are lots of ways for legislation to fail and only one or two ways for it to pass and become law. Thus our legislative systems have the value built in that "I'm not sure" becomes "let's not change it". This bias is not without its problems, but I think it's generally a good thing, and the country's founders certainly agreed (though they were wrong on plenty of stuff).

The yes or no format of referendum questions demolishes this. The two options don't seem significantly different in prudence, and if anything, I think psychologically many people have a preference for saying yes if we can't think of a reason to say no. With the current system, why not just keep throwing a referendum like Brexit or  against the wall until it sticks? It only needs to pass once!

Voters should be asking themselves, "Am I SURE that it is a good idea to..." before reading referendum questions, but they generally don't. They're wrong not to.

The counterargument is that often populations seem to be ready for a social change before their legislators are. The public turned against the Vietnam War long before Congress did, for example, and the Massachusetts legislature is only begrudgingly cooperating with the instructions of the marijuana legalization referendum. But I think most of the time, a legislature will slowly come around, and it's very much worthwhile having that slowness for other purposes.

Then there is the fact that most people just generally aren't that smart or knowledgeable about most things, and aren't good at even assessing or acknowledging their own ignorance. Of course, neither are legislators. But at least legislators have had to jump through some hoops of competence and organization to get where they are, and spend part of their days discussing the meaning and impact of legislation. And at least legislators must face budget and procedural constraints that require them to justify their proposals to some degree in a broader context, rather than skipping this context entirely, as referendums do.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I think referendums would be workable with a higher threshold for passing, like 60% of eligible voters ... I'm sympathetic to the need for an end run around pervasively corrupt governments, I just think, for the reasons above, that 50% of those who happen to vote that day is a ridiculous threshold for a permanent change to the law.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Consciousness confused

I recently wrote to a friend, criticizing Daniel Dennett. The friend wrote back:

[I see] “the hard problem” of consciousness as pointless word games. “Sure, you have all these components of mentation, but where is THE THING that is consciousness? That must be magic!” – sounds to me like “Sure, you have these pistons and sparks and a combustion chamber, but where is the THING that makes the engine turn!?” Just because your mind can’t transition from your model of the parts to a simple model of the emergent aggregate doesn’t mean you have to introduce extra magical entities.

Whereas Dennett almost single-handedly changed the field, and has been one of the most clear and lucid thinkers on the topic I’ve ever read. His view is getting commonplace, but was revolutionary when he introduced it. It helped me form my own ideas on computation and consciousness. Anyway, I love him, and feel like I have to come to his defense!

I think that's a pretty good quick description of Dennett's take. I do think, though, that it's significant that he so often turns the conversation towards the question of linear thinking (the thesis of his book Consciousness Explained, IIRC, is that consciousness arose from people talking to themselves) and away from what I think is the much thornier question of awareness and experience itself.

Here's why I think the question is still interesting. if we built a large replica of my brain, with little marbles to represent the various hormones and synaptic chemicals, we could in theory perfectly replicate all of the things that happen in my brain as I laugh while looking into my daughter's eyes. If we did this, according to Dennett's argument, there would be no meaningful difference between the experience of all those marbles being shuffled around in the experience I believe I am feeling when I actually share this laugh with my daughter.

Of course, from the outside, the two are indistinguishable. you can ask the marbles, using some text interface, to describe the feeling of laughter. And you can ask me. if the replica is good enough, the answers should be the same. Dennett is right to wonder why on earth you should trust me in my claim that I'm experiencing an ineffable subjective reality, and dismiss the marbles' identical claim. And that's certainly a rhetorically compelling question!

But turn it around: if awareness is only an illusion that results from emergent complexity, are we really ready to say that to whatever extent it feels like something to be me, it will feel just as much like something to be the system of marbles?

I think Dennett's preference in talking about the most human forms of awareness, such as the ability to think through questions in an almost linguistic way, is partially a reflection of how much less challenging that aspect of consciousness is to explain, given awareness itself. This is a line that I have seen Dennett fudge time and time again. I'm not sure what Dennett thinks it's like to be a mouse, but I would guess that a mouse experiences distress and panic in a way I would recognize, without needing to be able to talk itself out of a bad habit; just as I have at times been able to experience and react to pain even while heavily sedated and unable to form reflective thoughts. It's really the mouse's awareness that's the bigger mystery than human reflective thinking, we just don't have many talking mice to interrogate. (And how I'd love to quiz a bacterium!)

and yet, we are close to being able to produce a robot mouse able to perform the sort of pattern recognition and reflex reactions of an animal mouse. It seems that if awareness is a mere byproduct, animals could have evolved without it. why must it feel like hunger to be flooded with hormones that instruct me to seek food? I don't think it feels uncomfortable for air to be compressed in a tank, or that it feels explosive for the complex chemical eddies within a star to swirl their way with maximal efficiency to the surface.

It might not be fair of me to demand that Dennett answer to all of my different scenarios. but he is declaring, in a way, that no boundary exists that distinguishes human experience from any old complex information processing physical system. that's an affirmative description of the world that implicitly posits a huge range of whispers of experience, and to not address these is to not fully back up that affirmative description.

Whereas the "hard problem of consciousness" camp (which I think I'm in) is not putting forth an affirmative description, but merely articulating a sense of confusion and contradiction.

To make a dangerous analogy, I think it's a bit like the Shakespeare authorship question... the traditionalists/Stratfordians like to think of themselves as realists and describe the skeptics as fantasists who are affirmatively constructing ridiculous theories. But I think our default view should be that we are almost entirely ignorant of the creative processes of people who lived 400+ years ago and left little documentation. "Absolutely no one else collaborated significantly on any of the plays or any of the poems attributed to William Shakespeare!" is not a prudent view, it is an almost religious one; and when you dig into the scholarship that claims most intimate knowledge of the creative process behind Shakespeare's writings, you start to see very circular references that create statements like "Shakespeare wanted to explore theme X" out of whole cloth.

What separates me from Shakespeare authorship traditionalists is that they think this discussion is sickeningly indulgent and tired, while I find it fascinating and unsettling. Perhaps I'm a Shakespeare authorship skeptic because I'm infatuated with an illusion -- that's what traditionalists seem to often think. But I don't think they've given me answers that would justify their certainty.

I'm capable of having entire conversations while in what seems to have been an unconscious or semiconscious state. (I joked around with my surgeon, then told him the exact same joke when I gained full consciousness 10 minutes later.) I'm capable of feeling things when I'm having no thoughts at all (which happened when I was knocked out with sedative gas and then given a shot in my hand.). Why do I have awareness sometimes but not others? couldn't I perform many of my functions as a human without consciousness? What do I have in my brain's complexity that a replica wouldn't? what's it like to be a marble-based simulation of Ben's brain? what is it like to be a mouse or a gnat or a worm or a bacterium?

What separates me from Dennett most is that he finds these questions boring, while I find them unsettling, complex, mysterious and fascinating. Perhaps that's because I am immaturely infatuated with my own illusion. But I don't feel that he has given me answers that would justify his certainty.

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Blogger Shawn on Sun Apr 23, 04:11:00 PM:
Hi Ben. Fun stuff.

I for one am really ready to say that your reported experience would be indistinguishable from your marbles-replica's. The examples you give of experience divorced from awareness are less illustrative than they might appear at a glance. If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No? And how are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

And I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. (I'll speak here for myself, since I am not conversant in the Dennett camp's arguments.) The type of certainty you are objecting to is something more like: "In the absence of evidence for something ineffable/magical above and beyond what may be explained by the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, we are not justified in believing the ineffable/magical thing is real/extant." One need not be 100% certain to find materialists' formulation compelling. The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?
Blogger Ben on Mon Apr 24, 02:19:00 AM:
Thanks for the close read and thoughtful response!

If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No?

Good point. It's certainly hard for me to reconstruct what my mind might have been operating like at the time. The reason I have the hunch that I was not conscious (or not veryconscious) is that that is what general anaesthesia does, generally, and I think the idea that I was communicating complex ideas while without much consciousness squares with what I've also experienced other times I've been on some sort of mental autopilot -- while very drunk, say, or while cooking, where I might find that I've gone very far down the road of some cooking process that doesn't match my intentions, because I'm entirely thinking about something else. A more pure example of this is complex sleepwalking. are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

I don't mean to suggest I can "feel" things without awareness, just that I can do so without the sort of pseudo-verbal consciousness that Dennett centers on. First person solitary experiences don't make for very compelling evidence in a debate, so all I can say is that I think I understand deeply with the difference is between experiences I have recapitulated linguistically so that they are now primarily a verbal reconstruction, vs. experiences that were immediately seared into me in a nonnarrative form, whose place in my mind I have kept intact and been careful not to recolor. There are physical experiences that do not seem to me to originate in my consciousness; they enter my awareness by piercing it, and my consciousness must be roused to process and respond to them.

I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. ... The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?

I almost agree, but I do think there is an epistemological gap between their assertions and mine. I'm certainly not assertively claiming that something magical exists; and I think "ineffable" only applies until you understand a phenomenon. I, too, am a materialist by default.

My difference with the Dennett camp is that I think the evidence available to us is incredibly confusing. I'm open to the possibility that the confusion is entirely the result of illusions, and that there is nothing more to understand that the heart of the question of consciousness than what we already do understand. But I'm also open the possibility that there are aspects of the scienctific phenomenon of consciousness that make being a whale different from being a simulation of a whale.

I admit that it's going out on a thin rhetorical limb to assert the possibility of this with so little idea of what it could be! I guess I have to face up to have similar this is to the very weak defenses of religion put forth by some scientists, that go something like "I have no idea how a scientific explanation of God might work, but I think there might be one someday, because I sense the existence of God in a way that doesn't feel like an illusion".
Blogger Shawn on Tue May 09, 02:15:00 PM:
Thanks for humoring me! And please excuse my laggy response.

First, I understand you are still using the Ben and Alice blog to basically think out loud, so I am not too hung up on rhetorical strengths/weaknesses. I'm trying to engage with the logical content you are kicking around. And it is fun to engage with, so thanks for sharing.

Second, I made at least two untested inferences that may have been mistaken. A) I assumed the hypothetical "marble replica" of your brain would extend to either the entire nervous system or at least include analogues for all the nerve/sensory inputs to your brain. I wonder if that more complex model reduces any of the confusion here. Perhaps not... And B) I thought you were making the very strong argument that no materialist theory of consciousness could capture all the nuances you describe (e.g., genuine "whaleness" as distinct from a whale simulation); but I believe now that you are making the somewhat more limited argument that these confusing bits of experiential information are not captured by the Dennett theory/model. Is that right? If so, you have tentatively persuaded me there is some room for daylight between our experiences of consciousness and current materialist models of consciousness (specifically Dennett's notion of an emergent pseudo-verbal consciousness). And you have certainly persuaded me to catch up on Dennett's writings. Do you have a recommendation for where to start re his theory of consciousness?
Blogger Ben on Tue May 09, 04:54:00 PM:
I think you've summarized my position well. I am a materialist, though I'm open to the possibility that there are aspects of physics, computation or complexity that are part of what's going on in the phenomenon of consciousness, but which we don't yet understand. That is, I'm not the sort of materialist who thinks that materialism means any apparently faithful simulation of a mind will have the same characteristics as an actual animal mind.

Thanks for asking me to get specific about Dennett's work, because it forces me to admit my ignorance of the great majority of what he's written! I'm basically going on the strength of having read Consciousness Explained over a decade ago (though it made me so vividly frustrated, it seems more recent!), having listened to a polite debate with Sam Harris ( ), and having read the New Yorker profile of him. My sense from this limited exposure is that he dodges the full complexity of the most sticky questions by instead answering different, more satisfying ones.

In short, I appreciate Dennett's mocking the mystery-of-consciousness crowd (including me) for our resort to what seems like handwaving and magic to explain our theories. But Dennett thinks if you take a bunch of Legos and sorting machines and program in rules for moving them from place to place, at some point, somehow, you're going to make it feel the same way that an orgasm feels to me. Or rather, Dennett doesn't just think this is true, he is so overwhelmingly certain that he thinks it's laughable for me not to be sure he's right.

We are at the very beginning of understanding systems that are in some ways more complex and powerful than entire galaxies. All I am saying is that I balk at the job of appreciating, let alone understanding, that complexity and power and its sources.