The 4th Humour
uninfluential words from an uninfluenced man
Bile humour Apathetic hemetic Fluent indifferent Emetic Phlegmatic

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Friday, October 31, 2003
Safety: Our Pride and Joy

A short while back, I made a flippant (at the time) comment over at Khan's Journal that honor and pride can be equated with cooperation and defection in the Prisoner's Dilemma (you can a description here somewhere). I didn't think much of it at the time, but the extent to which he's taken the analogy over the past weeks has me convinced that it is indeed true.

In short, if people let go of their pride, they will act honorably and thus cooperate with other individuals for maximum mutual benefit over the long haul. If people retain their pride and defect--rather, screw people over, or deny others the opportunity to fullfill their honorable duties--they eventually end up hurting themselves. It's a variation on the age-old Golden Rule everyone learns in childhood--but isn't suffiently brainwashed with, apparently--to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Based on this logic (and what sometimes surfaces as outright childish tantrum), I've concluded that personal safety is dishonorable. I'm not talking about self-defense here (though it may be argued). I'm talking about all the things people do to make the world a safer place to live--for themselves.

For example: automobiles. Modern vehicles have an increasingly insurmountable (is that possible?) number of so-called safety features: seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and contact patches the size of a fat woman's thighs (thank you Neal Stephenson). That's just sticking to the simple things I understand. Now, likely these features are there to counteract increases in performance, traffic congestion, and human stupidity. So what is the result? People drive more wrecklessly, putting others in danger, because they feel safe.

Contrast this with my car. I drive a classic 1964 Dodge Dart GT, a big hunk of good-old American steel fabricated in my home town. The brakes are mechanical, meaning you really need to press that pedal, so tailgating is definitely out of the question. The exhaust sphincters aren't polished, so when you hit the hammer down, shit doesn't happen (thanks again). Fortunately, it came with the optional lap belt package so that only your face will smash into the airbag-less, steel steering wheel. Consequently, I am a very, very safe driver.

Oh, I forgot to mention something else. Many modern cars have the added safety bonus of being very, very large. This yields great visibility for them at the selfish expense of reduced--or negligible, in some cases--visibility for smaller vehicles. It also puts more distance between the driver and the wreckage.

"But Phlegm, some or all of these features are valid safety devices!" Sure they are, for the individual, and they would be for everyone if they didn't change peoples' driving habits for the worse. But they do. People rely more and more on technology to save them instead of their own skill and sense. This putting one's personal safety over the safety of others is pride. It's defection. It's breaking the Golden Rule. But is it ultimately self-destructive? Well, it can be, with the wrong attitude.

"Ah, but isn't relying soley on one's personal skill and sense also a form of pride?" Absolutely! "So, what's the solution, then?" Look, I'm not saying "no" to safety features. I'm saying "no" to the attitude they come with. Besides, I'm not just talking about automobiles here.

"But isn't it just another form of Darwinism? You know, natural selection? Survival of the fittest!" Sure, I guess, but survival of what? These so-called survival advantages aren't accidental genetic mutations; they're the result of human decisions, of memetics. They are memes that piggyback on our imprinted sense of genetic preserverance, and that's what makes them so successful.

You want to know who REALLY benefits from your personal safety?

I'll answer that, but for now just know this: it isn't you.

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Monday, October 20, 2003
Plausible Time Travel in Storytelling: Is it Possible?

With the exception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show, I hate anything to do with time travel (at least that I've encountered), because nobody gets it right. There's a rip in the spacetime rug, characters patch it up, and paradoxes not mentioned in the story get swept underneath it. There's always a philosophical inconsistency, and that ruins the story for me. It's not realism I need, but plausibility.

Although it would make my explanations easier to understand and relate to, I'm not even going to get into all the movies that do it wrong. I hate pop culture, so I'm not going to encourage it by mentioning anything by name.

Instead, let's take the canonical example of someone going back in time and killing their father. Enter the remedial mind: "Oooh, but if they kill their father, they'll never be born, so they can't go back and kill their father! Oh, but then they WILL be born, so they can! Oh, but then they won't, so they can't! Augh! I found a paradox! Boy, am I smart for figuring that out!" Okay, now what?

There seem to be two possibilities at this point. Either time travel isn't possible, or there are many worlds. Since you can't tell a time travel story with the first, the many worlds hypothesis becomes a popular alternative, even if it is a gross misinterpretation of quantum mechanics and--like God--is not a necessary component to understanding how the Universe operates. Anyway, so then we end up with a world where your father is dead, you were never born, but you exist anyway, and a world that you existed in up until you left it to kill your father.

That in itself it not very exciting, but authors then like to consider how changing that particular event would change the world. Then the character is caught in this strange world where tons of stuff has happened that he never anticipated because of Chaos Theory and Dirk Gently's fundamental interconnectedness of all things. All fine and dandy if you're not a diehard determinist like me, EXCEPT....

Is it even a time travel story anymore? It's more like a "what if" story to me. Well, I guess that's the point of time travel, to answer the "what if" questions. But still, it's imperfect, because an agent had to go back in time to make something change. There was no random factor that just happened another way, so one can't know the true cause of the effects in the future. Maybe killing his father has little to do with what happens in the future compared to the future assassin whose life he inadvertently saved by stepping in front of him in line for the bathroom. Who knows?

Alright alright, so what would I like to see? How do I think it should work? Alright, imagine this: You get a large, round bath, made of ebony...

Okay, seriously. First, to have time travel in the traditional sense, you must at least humour that determinism is true, and that there is only one Universe (and one possible Universe). Since the Universe exists, then any time travel that's ever been done has already happened. Like a big jigsaw puzzle, as The Guide puts it. So paradoxes either never happen, or they don't destroy the Universe. Why? Let's find out.

I go back in time with the intention to kill my father. I kill him, resulting in a paradox. Like a computer program, the Universe is now caught in an endless loop. However, since everything has already happened, we know this can't be so, so something MUST be changing with each iteration of the loop. Let's call it flotsam. So we're caught in this loop until finally this flotsam value reaches a threshold that ends up changing enough butterfly flaps in the prehistoric era to result in my knife just barely missing my father's heart, and my father lives. I fail and the loop ends.

Surely there's no way I'd actually be going back in time a zillion times to kill my dad, though, right? Right. The Universe would be doing this calculation internally, and me as an observer would only see the end result: my failure. I can go back and try again and again, but I will ALWAYS fail. Someone else will get in the way, or he'll trip, or I'll get killed. In other words, I can't do anything in the past that would prevent me from going back and doing that very thing in the future.

Naturally, this could be ANYTHING, so the possibilities are endless if not maddening, and you can only tell stories about how you shouldn't mess with fate, which doesn't exist anyway, so why bother.

So unless you're Douglas Adams--and you're not, because he's dead--forget about using time travel as a literary device.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

It's tough to lead a single life. By that I mean to live a daily life in correspondence with your beliefs. If you belong to a religion, you'll know what I mean. For many, life is compartmentalized and full of inconsistencies. People worship God and yet don't "walk with God". Something like that.

Being consistent is something I've been striving for for a while now. Ironically, I used to shun predictability and monotony, but I've realized that being predictable--whether in a good or a bad way--makes you reliable and thus easier to get along with (as long as you can avoid the trap of allowing people to take advantage of you).

Anyway, I realized something about my own beliefs tonight, and how it applies to everyday life. If I don't believe in free will, and if I don't believe in the Self, then I should not hold negative feelings toward anyone, ever. How does this come about? Well, if there is only one possible reality--the one we're in--I should accept and be therefore content with who I am, because it's the only "me" possible. If I'm content with who I am, it's also because everyone else is they way THEY are. Furthermore, if there is no Self, then there is no distinguishment between me and someone else--or anything else. When the barriers between subject (me) and object (else) are broken, there is nothing left to dislike, and nothing left to do the disliking.

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