Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

Seen on Facebook and the Web:

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built by a race of hyper-intelligent alien beings to determine the answer to "life, the universe, and everything." Deep Thought determines that the answer is, somewhat anticlimactically, "42". It sounds like a joke, but is there more to this answer? Douglas Adams was an unabashed computer nerd and knew a heck of a lot about programming language and coding. In programming, an asterisk is commonly used to translate as "whatever you want it to be". In ASCII language, the most basic computer software, "42" is the designation for an asterisk. A computer, Deep Thought, was asked what the true meaning of life was. It answered as a computer would. 42 = "anything you want it to be." Genius.

I tracked this down for you. It came from "15 Fan Theories that will change the way you see these movies." on ViralThread.  And it's pretty cute. But it's pretty obvious that it wasn't written by someone who was a computer nerd himself. Or a Douglas Adams geek, for that matter. Those who are both would refine it, I think.

To start with, ASCII's not a language, and it's really not software. It's a way of representing data. That pedantry aside, "anything you want it to be" is a terribly imprecise translation for a coder. I'd go so far as to say it's just wrong.

If we want to designate "any value you want" in programming, we use a variable, and speak of such things as "n dimensions". Here's a good example: [LINK].

But ASCII 42 (the "asterisk" or "star") isn't a variable. Rather, it is commonly known as a wildcard character. It has nothing to do with what you want and absolutely everything to do with what exists. It more literally (and quite precisely) indicates that what you see returned is "all there is." To be exact, it matches 0 or more characters in a string (such as a filename) while expressing no preference for what those characters might be. For instance, in Unix, saying "cp * /dest" will copy everything from the current directory into a directory called "dest". And if there's nothing there, it copies nothing. But it won't create files for you just because you want them.  I stress that it can't be something that isn't already there.

In short, ASCII 42 by itself is a way of representing "everything that exists".

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams was a self-described "radical atheist" (he so labeled himself to stress that he wasn't agnostic. Rather, he was firmly convinced that God does not exist), and this wildcard interpretation is far more in keeping with his own philosophy. He'd put the sort of Chopra-esque metaphysical message as the opening quote right out in the open and lampoon it. I certainly don't think he would hide it as a deep message in his work. Rather, every word he wrote illustrated the absurdity of life. And he wasn't coy about it. That's also reflected in personal interviews.

It was brilliant, yes, even if were accidentally so... but in a much different way than indicated at the top of this article. Were I to put it in English, I'd say, "This is it, folks. What you see is what you get."

And to be sure... Adams would not have blocked any attempt you made to examine the Universe you find yourself in, and try to find meaning in what you see. But he's been known to portray those who do so as scientists who became their own laboratory mice. Meaning? Puh-leeze. Look around.
"I want the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything."
The answer makes sense now, right?

It's time to think about the question.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Iron Fist.... without blinders.

 Spoilers ahead. If you care about spoilers, go away. 

I've been binge-watching Iron Fist on Netflix. Before I began I read a few reviews on the web, and they all were of an accord that this series sucks.

I like it. I can't agree with any of the reviews I've read. Then again, all of those reviews are filled with words like "mansplaining", "White savior", and "cultural appropriation". As far as I can tell, not one of them has actually reviewed the show itself. At least, they didn't see the show I did. So this isn't as much a review of the show as it is a review of the reviews.

Take arguments like this, from the Verge, entitled "Iron Fist isn't just racially uncomfortable, it's also a boring show", which is pretty typical. So typical, in fact, that every review I've read could have come from the same pen:
"In the first episode, Danny breaks into unsubtitled Mandarin upon learning she’s a martial artist, apparently assuming Asian women he casually meets on the street are happy to speak Mandarin with a white stranger. Two episodes later, he mansplains kung-fu to her, all to better illustrate how she needs his protection. At no point does Colleen call him out for this. Instead, she reacts with little more than gentle bemusement toward his better handle on language and his skills as a fighter, when she ought to be kicking him to the curb."
The author of this piece, Kwame Opam, chides Marvel for the "creative laziness" of the series. The only creative laziness I see is in Opam's review. He'd rather push his social platform than pay attention to the show. Case in point:
"But more often than not, Danny comes across as a college student come home from studying abroad, perplexed as to why no one gets his newfound love of yoga."
Fucking lazy.

Reality check:
  • Danny Rand is no college student on walkabout. He spent 15 years in the Orient learning martial arts from Mandarin-speaking monks. As he was 10 years old when he arrived, that's well over half of his life. In his life he has been more immersed in Chinese culture than Colleen Wing (she's half Japanese), and more immersed in Chinese culture than he ever was in American culture. This is not appropriation, this is upbringing
  • He meets a woman with a Chinese name who teaches martial arts. He knows this because she's posting bills on the utility poles, advertising her dojo. After he learns her name and profession, then he speaks Mandarin to her. It's a reasonable expectation on his part, given his experience. And when she says to speak in English, he does. This is hell and gone from just starting a random conversation in Mandarin with the first oriental he meets.
  • On the other hand, Colleen simply assumes that Danny is homeless. As he's performing kata in the park, she drops a couple of bucks at his feet. He strikes up a conversation with her in the first place because he's returning her money. She is the one who made the unwarranted assumption based purely on his appearance... not the other way around. 
  • He demonstrates his proficiency with kung-fu to Wing because he's asking her for a job. He asked for a job on the street as well, and she dissed him because she merely assumed that he was a homeless bum. Does she get called out for that blatant display of economic privilege? Not by the hypocrites, no. She just assumes that this gaijin can't know what he's talking about. So he has to demonstrate. This isn't "mansplaining", it's called "making your case"... unless, of course, you are once again a privileged hypocrite.
  • The fact that he demonstrably does have a better handle on Mandarin and does have better skills as a fighter, both hard-won, means that she "ought to be kicking him to the curb"? Seriously? So a White kid raised in a Chinese monastery from the time he was 10 years of age can't possibly act in accordance with his life experience without being resented and kicked to the curb? Because.... he's White? Turn it around: what does that say about the way we should treat Asian kids raised in America? 
Besides, by the time you hit the end of season one and the backstory is revealed, along with the dramatic points that it enables, complaining about cultural appropriation just makes you look stupid. 


The reviews I've read heap a ton of praise on Jessica Henwick's portrayal of Colleen Wing. And yup, she does a fine job... but then again, so does everybody else, despite protestations to the contrary. One of the things that has struck me about this series is the consistency of the acting. There are a couple of stinkers amongst the minor parts, but nobody just up and steals the show as Vincent D'Onofrio does as Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. And Finn Jones isn't the lifeless actor that his critics imagine. Jones plays his character well. If you want to see what lifeless acting looks like, check out William Hurt in Dune or Lost in Space.

It makes me wonder how much of this is amazing raw talent that I'm somehow not seeing (that is, compared to her peers), and how much of it is Social Justice Warriors punishing the perceived cultural appropriation of this 40-year-old comics property by hanging 100% of their praise on the on the female oriental actress. To be sure, the script writers cater to the feminist mindset by casting this slightly-built woman as a martial artist who simultaneously beats up multiple well-trained assailants twice her size. And I don't blame them for that.

But as far as the characters go, don't tell me that it's mansplaining for Danny to castigate Colleen's students for their lack of respect and discipline. As martial arts teachers go, she doesn't make a great impression. Her students are lazy, sloppy, talkative, and disrespectful. Danny has no experience with that, and knocks the legs out from under one with a Kendo stick (as was probably done to him). Colleen then takes the opportunity to ma'amsplain to him that her dojo isn't really a place where students can learn to defend themselves wherever they may be... and in the process learn the accompanying valuable lessons of philosophy... but it's a safe space. Pretty damned short-sighted, since when martial arts are done right, anywhere in your vicinity is a safe space. That, coupled with the pride that sees her turn down an honorable rental agreement in favor of violating the Bushido code and fighting for money makes her a terribly flawed character. You won't hear that from the reviews, though. And it certainly doesn't change my mind when the source of her philosophy is revealed in episode 10.

From now on let's set aside talk of mansplaining and ma'amsplaining and call explanations what they are. And 86 the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't oscillation between claims of cultural appropriation and stereotyping (a tone-deaf progressive dog-whistle for "a foreigner who isn't appropriating mainstream American culture").


I've read the show described as "boring". What they call boring, I call "has a plot".

I've read that it "lacks a villain". I think they underestimate Madame Gao and The Hand.

I've read that the fights "look choreographed". News flash: they all do. Whether on Arrow, Daredevil, Luke Cage... even in the movies of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, they all look choreographed, because they are. And frankly, they're choreographed by people who are far better qualified to judge them than I or any other reviewer I've read. My son, who is a martial arts teacher, called the engagements in episode 1, "a hot knife through butter". He likes it.

I have not read a well-thought-out discussion of the corporate sub-plots; nor do I expect to from those whose handle on economics doesn't include an understanding of capitalism. In this arena there are no true villains or heroes. Just people with differing points of view. The Meacham siblings' initial response to a presumed impersonator wasn't a "poorly justified overreaction". From their point of view it was a justified reaction to an impostor who showed up to prey on their sympathies and fortune. And one can sympathize with the board members who later took steps to rescue their company and livelihood from a single ignorant stockholder. They weren't evil. Selfish, yes; but that that was their fiduciary responsibility. This will easily put people who are looking for black-and-white simplicity out of their depth.

One thing that reviewers get right are the shout-outs to the larger Marvel cinematic universe, whether it's a mention of "that green guy", "the Devil of Hell's Kitchen", the man with impenetrable skin (Luke Cage) or the drunkard female private eye (Jessica Jones) as well as guest appearances by well-known supporting characters. This is prep for The Defenders, a scaled-down team up which will be to television as The Avengers is to the movies.

This is not a show that succeeds or fails on the basis of its action scenes. It's one part action, one part intrigue, and one part detective story with a little bit of soap opera mixed in. This isn't The Avengers: it's a street-level story that stays on the street.

If that doesn't live up to your expectations, maybe it's your expectations that are the problem.

Now, all that said, and having finished watching Season 1, there are things of which I'm critical. The plot's not consistent, there's a bit too much whining here and there, Danny occasionally exhibits some signs that I'd suspect were due to blunt head trauma rather than psychology; and things sort of fall apart (and come back together) in the last episode. And in general, people bitch about "you've been lying to me!" far too often. At some point, intelligent people would have sussed out that everybody has lied about something. There are also points where you'll legitimately say, "I did not see that coming!" And that's a good thing. My point is that the criticisms of Opam and his like are simply political bullshit, and the rough patches that are left don't make the show unwatchable in the least.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017


One of my favorite works of fiction is the Dune series by Frank Herbert. You may have seen one of the dramatizations. Or you may have read the book, Dune. It is rightly called a masterpiece: a work of science fiction, but also one of politics, psychology, sociology, and metaphysics.

If you haven't read Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, or God Emperor of Dune you're missing important parts of Frank Herbert's message. In Dune, Paul Atreides (“Muad’Dib”) leads a revolution and ascends to the throne of the Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe. In Dune Messiah, his revolution spreads throughout the galaxy. He learns that a revolutionary often becomes a slave to his followers, and watches as the future of humanity falls into the trap of predestination. In God Emperor of Dune, Paul's son Leto II sacrifices his life and legacy to restore freedom to the Empire.

It's the theme of the second book that I want to explore today.

One of the interesting things about revolution is that it comes in many forms, all of which are related. A change of opinion and a change of government are differences in scope, not in kind. A change of opinion is the revolution of a single mind.

What Paul learns in Dune Messiah is that the revolutionary quickly becomes subservient to the revolution. A revolution begins with a change of opinion. The revolutionary changes first his own mind, then those of others around him. They, in turn, extend the change. But the moment the revolutionary touches other lives, the revolution is beyond his control.

In my last post I noted that the controversies of politics are rooted in the vagaries of language. As such, we have to be very careful about how we phrase certain concepts so as not to introduce disagreement when none existed before. As above, once a concept has been disseminated, it is beyond our control.


Liberty is a dangerous and powerful thing. So powerful that I, for one, do not wish to give it up. It is unique among precious possessions in that it need not be scarce. It is also something that is extremely difficult to regain once lost. It is dangerous not merely because it gives people the latitude to do bad things, but because it can destroy itself. So when I see trends in that direction, I note them. I point them out.

In my last post, I noted the confusion between rights, privileges, and advantages;. But I did not explicitly state was that this confusion has often been deliberately cultivated. Obfuscation of language is a political tool. It allows the politician to say destructive things with kind words. Furthermore, it's entirely possible for a person who is habitually precise in his own usage and meaning to be surprised by the ways in which that meaning can be misconstrued.

Today it is quite common to speak of “rights” with regard to services that chain another man to one's own will. These are not rights. Nevertheless, that is what they are called in popular discourse, and it makes blanket statements about "rights" extremely dangerous.

For instance, my friend Edric recently tweeted that "Majorities shouldn't get to vote on whether minorities should have rights". That is true... of natural rights. But it is not true of many things that are commonly labeled as rights. At no point do the claims of the minority disenfranchise the majority, much less the whole of society, from discussing whether something is or is not a right.

At no point does the mere existence of a minority negate the voice of the whole. If that were true, we would be left with a “tyranny of the minority” where all that has to be done is to exclaim, "I have a right!" and the discussion is over. This is no less distasteful than a tyranny of the majority. Sadly, I've seen it attempted all too often.

Note that a pure democracy is "majority rule", by definition. It is because of the need to defend minority rights that our founders rejected pure democracy as a form of government. They knew, as do we, that there is a necessary balance between a democratic representation and protecting the rights of minorities. We find the balance point by understanding that no natural right can impose upon that of another person. This is a constant. It does not change simply because one chooses to spread the imposition over the whole of society.

So while Edric's observation is true, it is a narrow truth, easily misunderstood, and extremely dangerous when misunderstood. Given the current state of language, should it stand without qualification, then we would quickly learn what Paul learned in Dune Messiah… That our good intentions can ultimately destroy us if we are not careful.


Sunday, March 05, 2017

My Friend, the Non-Gazebo

My friend Edric Haleen, despite recent appearances, is not a gazebo. Yet I recently received an email from Edric which simply stated,
So, yeah.  This is now a thing . . .
The link is to his brand new Twitter feed, which began with the following images:

Now, for the record, Edric is neither black, nor transgender, nor female, nor an immigrant, nor Muslim, and he didn't come here from Mexico. As for his pride, I haven't inquired.

Also, Edric has famously (among his friends, at least) shunned almost all forms of social media. He's not on Facebook. He doesn't tweet. He's not on Myspace or post on online forums, or do any of the social stuff that so many Americans have adopted as cultural norms. With the exception of his personal website (which I don't think is secret, so here's a link), we've simply come to know that "Edric don't do Internet".

Given several other strange and weird cues, those of us who know him were a bit curious as to whether he was hacked or had simply lost his mind. Since Poe's Law makes guesswork unreliable, I cut the Gordian Knot with this incisive question: "Were you hacked?"

Came the reply...

Not hacked. But also not crazy. He is taking on the role that Dr. Danusha V. Goska would describe as "champion of the oppressed". I'm not using that in a pejorative sense, as I know that Edric's motivations are pure. And I believe that Edric himself would admit it's a fair characterization given the hashtag he has adopted: #usingmyprivilegeforgood.

But in our email exchange he does ask a question:
But why should I enjoy rights beyond people who are simply because I am not?
The question deserves an answer. I thought I might share it with you. I'll give you the short one, then I'll relate and greatly expand what I've already said to Edric himself.

The short answer is that of course no human should enjoy rights beyond another. 

I also told Edric, "Since you now have a public presence, I hope you don't mind if I explore the topic in a blog post. I think it's a fascinating subject."

This is that exploration. It's not a refutation. But I will close the loop at the end, I hope.


I think you would find no Liberal, Libertarian, or Conservative who would disagree with the point. You won't find a Democrat or a Republican who would seriously challenge it. It's one of those Universal Truths.

So if there is discourse to be had, it must lie in the vagaries of language.

Sadly, political conversation too often gets muddied by imprecise language. In general conversation we have a tendency to speak of "rights" when we mean "privileges". Note that I'm using the word "privileges" in a descriptive and non-pejorative way, as we often use that word (without the "s") when we mean "advantages".

Thus, it's common that a particular non-citizen may have all the rights of a particular citizen, some of the advantages, and none of the privileges. That's the nutshell.

So to make this easier, I'm going to define what *I* mean when *I* use these particular terms when I talk about them here. These aren't presented for debate, but so that you understand the words I use.
  • Rights are the those things inherently due to any human being, whether by the grace of God or through the mere fact of his or her existence. But rights are limited to those things that do not impose upon other human beings. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness all can be achieved without imposition. And if we accept that free speech is a right, then it logically follows that censorship cannot be. Rights are both unalienable and not limited to those that are enumerated in the Constitution. 
  • Privileges are afforded by citizenship, are defined by social contract, and are by definition alienable. If you wish some gain that can only be achieved by imposition on another's time, labor, or other resources, then it is provided through this social contract. In other words, privileges are granted. Here's an example to illustrate the difference: everyone has the right to pursue an education. You cannot say to someone, "You are forbidden to learn," as was done to so many slaves in the past. But to have a provided education imposes upon the time and the talents of teachers, administrators, and those who provide the facilities and materials. This falls squarely into the realm of privilege. We are not all privileged to have a first-class education, though we wish that were the case and work to expand education. Social contracts that provide for privileges include taxation or charity. You might call these "entitlements". I don't.
  • (Dis)Advantages are attributes acquired through birth and heritage and genetics. We are born with advantages and disadvantages, and often there's very little we can do about them. I'm 5'8" tall, and not very athletic. I wasn't born into a rich family, either; and inherited nothing in the way of wealth. Those are facts of my existence. Under most circumstances height is an advantage... but not if you want to be a fighter pilot.  So I was born with an advantage there, though I'm at a distinct disadvantage on the basketball court. Under most circumstances my race is seen as advantageous... but not when I was in school, and not when I lived in the southern part of Washington, D.C.. Whether your attributes are advantageous or not depends on your circumstances, understanding that some attributes are more often advantageous than others.
This is non-standard usage, but I'm not terribly concerned about that. If someone can stand there with ginger hair and a radioactive Caucasian glow and claim to be a Black female Muslim, I'm entitled to define my terms.  Most people would say "check your privilege" where I would say "be aware of your advantages". I prefer my phrasing because, "check your privilege" both improperly implies that you have something to do with those advantages; and that they are always in your favor. For instance, the phrase "White privilege" implies that it's something you exercise and that it's always advantageous. It isn't, and it's not. Much controversy revolves around discussion of whether certain specific things are privileges or rights or just the way things are (advantages / disadvantages). There's too much depth to discuss any of them here (well, maybe a little at the end).

Again, my rule of thumb is that it's a natural right if it requires no imposition on another person. I find that to be pretty solidly definable and defensible in that a right is always rooted in the principles of liberty and self-determination.


So, back to topic.

When it comes to genuine human rights, no one would argue that all humans should not enjoy them equally. In the United States we hold (in theory, at least) that aliens and citizens alike have the right to free speech; freedom of religion; to peaceably assemble; to be free of unlawful search and seizure; to be secure in their homes, etc. It doesn't matter whether you're born in Kentucky, formally immigrated there from Korea, or are just a German tourist.
(I say "in theory" because we've made a poor showing of ourselves on many counts, including but not limited to civil forfeiture; a heinous and blatantly unconstitutional practice that should be abolished retroactively.)
When we're talking privileges, though, it's a different story. We have certain "rights" (properly privileges) that are reserved to citizens alone. Foreign nationals don't really have the right to enter the country and take up residence. Many have been privileged to do so, including my grandparents, who became naturalized citizens. Citizenship grants the privilege of permanent guaranteed residence, as a US citizen cannot be exiled; whereas non-citizens or those to whom citizenship was granted improperly may be deported. On the legal strength of it, we call that privilege of citizenship a "right". For non-citizens there's no such thing. We have an INS, and we have laws determining legal processes for immigration. Since Edric's shirt simply says both "immigrant" and "Muslim-American", I assume these have been followed.

The same goes for voting. Voting is the only "right" specifically mentioned in the Constitution that is limited to citizens alone. It is granted to those who are eighteen or older and is presumed to apply to all who are of such age (26th Amendment). It can be revoked, but not on the grounds of "race, color, previous condition of servitude" (15th Amendment), sex (19th Amendment), or failure to pay a poll tax (24th Amendment).
(If Edric's shirt said "Black, transgender, female, immigrant, Muslim-American ex-convict", I would point out that the 15th Amendment's "previous condition of servitude" clause, coupled with the Virginia Supreme Court's ruling that incarceration is slavery (that is, the only slavery that is in accordance with the 13th Amendment) requires that no restriction can be made upon their vote as a result of such incarceration, and that all voting rights must be restored upon their release. I kind of wish he'd just write that in with a silver Sharpee.) 
But why should citizenship be such a big thing?

Well, on one hand, it's not. Just being here puts you in a place where all human rights apply. Being here legally puts you in a position where there must be additional just cause to return you to your home country. Being a citizen allows you to vote.

On the other hand, it is. It's participatory expression of self-determination. The whole point of a country is to build and maintain a society that operates on certain principles (many would say "culture"), and to defend those principles. A giant Achilles' heel would be exposed should we decide that anyone who got from the border to a polling station, legally or not, should be allowed to vote. An invasion would not take the form of a military incursion, but a queue. And it wouldn't have to be done nationally, as state and local elections are of significance. Should we be so irrationally soft-hearted as to ignore the concept of citizenship, we would take the first step toward giving up our ability to safeguard any rights from those who would abolish them.
(I am not saying this is what Edric is doing. But he did ask a question.)
How is it that voting gets a pass on being restricted to citizens given what I said about rights, above? It's because voting, by its nature, is also an application of force. Apply enough force in the form of ballots, then under the terms of the social contract you are granted the ability to impose your will on others through law. You can't vote without imposing on the people who will have to abide by your laws or submitting to those who impose upon you. Under normal conditions we all agree to these rules or are born to them. But having the "house rules" changed by a family vote is a very different thing from having a group of ruffians walk in the back door and announce that the rules have changed... get used to it.


On the subject of advantage (what others would call "Privilege")... once you've said, "Liberty and Justice for All" there's very little to do, really, except educate people about that word "All" without losing rationality or losing sight of Justice. Not every restriction is X-ist. For instance, if I'm hiring, it's a rule of thumb that I should consider any applicant. But if I'm casting a documentary about Hitler, I probably want to limit my auditions to people who physically resemble Hitler. The casting director isn't racist or sexist for auditioning Hitler look-alikes.

I've mentioned elsewhere that we try to impose too many things by force when we shouldn't. We don't need the law to do those things that peer-pressure and economics do better. One of the notable things we can do better is to address those difficult fringe cases that are better served by rational judgement than by the blanket application of intractable law.

Thus, I think it's stupid to have a law about restrooms at all when we all know that even a guy in a dress still has to use the john now and then. If he quietly picks the one that calls the least attention, and everyone quietly looks the other way, then it's only when somebody wants to peek under somebody else's clothing that it becomes an issue for either side. I think we can reasonably limit the problems to that.  If somebody wants to marry someone else, I think it's a religious issue. On the subject of religion, the Constitution says, "make no law". So I'm in favor of no law, just like it says. To me, this means no law about taxes with regard to marriage, too. And frankly, your marriage is none of my business at all. I'm neither in favor of it nor opposed to it. And I think if my "approval" or "disapproval" makes a difference to you, then you need counseling. As far as race is concerned, people are people. If you're from some culture I'm not familiar with, I might ask some ignorant questions out of curiosity; but ignorance isn't racism. Frankly, I'm pretty sick and tired of the racists who think it is, and they are in as much need of remedial education as anybody else.


Now, the above commentary is all over the place, and a lot of it is pretty wide of the point that I think Edric is making.

At the end of the day, Edric wasn't hacked and he didn't lose his mind. He's not a gazebo. The kind of peer pressure and education that I'm talking about is mostly what he's doing here. It's "shock theater", where you notice the absurdity of a White guy making such claims, and it gets you thinking about his tweets in ways that you would not if a PBTFIM-A from Mexico had made them. Edric can correct me, but I think they're deliberately non-controversial when applied to him so that you can see more easily that it's absurd to make them controversial when applied to others.

He's a teacher. It's what he does.

I'll have more to say.