Tag Archives: love

The Utilitarian and the Devil: A Parable for the Dead

One day, the Utilitarian got out some candles, noxious herbs, bread, sour wine, and some blood, took off his clothes, and summoned the Devil. The Devil appeared in the the palpable dark punctually, just as the last incanted word left the Utilitarian’s lips. He was dressed in a traditional suit, black and dark red. The air around him was musty, smokey, and with that hint of rotten eggs and chocolate just burnt too far to be pleasant. The Devil had the smile of a man who knows he’s won, but patient for the game to play out. He didn’t hide it, and he and the Utilitarian both knew the Utilitarian was outmatched. It made the Devil’s cheeks a little warmer red, and the The Utilitarian even more wan than usual. The Utilitarian, suddenly aware in the presence of the highest of angels that he was totally nude, shivered and crouched. The Devil grinned just a bit too far for his face, and exhaled. His breath was like the warmth of brick fireplace to the cold Utilitarian. The Devil’s breath was a little too close, inviting, but uncomfortable like a winter’s morning when the cold has bit your bones and you think you’ll crawl into the fire so you can at least die warm.

“Yes?” said the Devil, in a growl that rumbled up to a hiss on the note of his curiosity, “What…. would you like… from me?”

The Utilitarian stood dumbstruck for a moment, staring with his lips slightly more apart, seeming to get even paler. He remembered himself, snapped his lips together, and tried to bring his shoulders square with the Devil’s. “I’d… I’d like to sell my soul,” the Utilitarian said, gaining back some of his lost strength as he went.

The Devil reached into a nonexistent coat pocket and pulled out a full clipboard, quill pen resting at the top, and took it in hand. “Excellent!” he declared. “What shall it be? Money, sex? To be the most famous of philosophers, respected and beloved of Mankind? Or perhaps something more prosaic, in keeping with your demeanor. Peace on Earth, perhaps? Please, my dear Utilitarian, don’t keep me waiting!” As the Devil spoke his smile never retreated an inch from his ears. He took up the quill pen in a position of mock preparedness, while the Utilitarian caught his breath again, and cleared his throat.

“I will sell my soul to you in exchange for passage to Heaven for 10,000 unworthy souls.”

The Devil’s smile shrank to a dot of a mouth, and he narrowed his eyes. Now, it is said that an unstained soul (which The Utilitarian had) smells ever so much sweeter to Hell than its sullied cousins. This is not untrue, but 10,000 was a lot of unworthy souls. They were perhaps not so tantalizing, but they were the Devil’s fair and square, and there were 10,000 of them. On the other hand… he slapped his pen down on the clipboard and both vanished in a flash of fire. The Devil stared at an imaginary point across the basement’s width. To the Utilitarian, he seemed to be thinking, but it was terrible to watch the Devil think, and it made him shake again. The Devil looked back at the Utilitarian, meeting him in the eyes. “It may not be mine to give. I shall make inquiries.”

With that, the Devil was gone, along with the summoning circle and its creepy paraphernalia. All that was left was some misplaced wax and the cold, naked Utilitarian.

Months passed without word from the Devil. The Utilitarian lived an ascetic life, balanced with charity and good works, in anticipation of the Devil’s return. He wanted nothing to sully the value of his soul. He remembered the Devil’s smile at him, and he knew the Devil would somehow find a way to pay.

The decades came and went, and the Utilitarian remained a blameless champion of the suffering. He fed the hungry and found great pleasure in it. He reached out to the mad especially, and sheltered them from the world when they couldn’t shelter themselves from the beasts of their minds. He came to enjoy his work, and his enjoyment only made his good work better. As he slowly shrank into a stooped old man, he barely thought about the Devil anymore. He had come to love his life for the joy of the service. He was no longer holding his soul virtuous for the sake of good value, but had become that value itself.

But one morning, as the Utilitarian was getting out of bed, he heard a caller knocking. It was the Devil again, just as he had been, as if he’d just stepped out for a cigarette. “Are you still interested?” asked the Devil.

“My soul for 10,000 unworthy?” asked the Utilitarian. The Devil nodded once. “Then,” continued the Utilitarian, “I am still interested.”

“Well, then. Let’s seal the deal over a game of chess, and drink some tea!” said the Devil, happily producing a kettle and game board from nothing and nowhere. The Devil set out the board and patted his stomach unconsciously. He gestured for the Utilitarian to sit in his own seat while he poured tea in two abruptly existent cups on the table. Content, he seated himself behind black, and the Utilitarian took the first move.

“You’ve done well for yourself,” said the Devil as he made his move, “You’re well on the way to sainthood.”

“Nonsense. The mutterings of committees, talking about my death,” said the old Utilitarian, waving his hand dismissively in the air.

The Devil laughed, and went on, “I have rather better sources than you on these matters.” The Utilitarian looked abashed, and made his next move. They went on for while longer, chatting, playing chess, and drinking tea, until the Devil paused, stealing the Utilitarian’s attention away from the game.

“You know, people get it all wrong,” said the Devil, leaning back from the game, tea in hand. “I don’t want good men to join me so I can torture them for all eternity, or eat them, or whatever people think I do. It’s just that the evil deceased can be so boorish. Black hearted men don’t suddenly get easy to live with just because they’re dead. Whereas you, sir, are simply good company to all comers, even myself. I know from your life that you are not only kind, but enjoy being so. That you laugh in equal parts to your tears, that you think, and are willing to share your thoughts. Why on Earth would I not want such company for my duties in Hell?” He waved his hand gently around the bare room, as if impressed with its lavishness.

The Devil looked down, losing the Utilitarian’s eyes, and continued. “With that I must remind you of the terms of our deal and see if you agree. In exchange for your one, unblemished soul descending to the depths of Hell to be by my side for eternity, 10,000 souls marked for me by the unworthiness of their lives shall instead walk the road to Heaven, to dwell forever?”

“It is obviously better that this should be,” said the Utilitarian, “And whatever waits for me in Hell, the knowledge that 10,000 can rise towards bliss will be an eternal comfort.”

“Yes, that will be true. But my, shall we say, counterpart, wanted the deal repeated to you as his condition, to give you time to consider what you are asking for.”

“The math is simple. 10,000 will always be more than one,” said the Utilitarian.

The Devil put out his hand, and as the Utilitarian shook it he felt the whole of the small house shift, and begin to sink into the ground. The Devil went on unperturbed. “10,000 and one are not as uneven as you think,” he told the Utilitarian magnanimously, clasping his extra hand over the Utilitarian’s. “I’d wager Hell is nearly as improved by your grace today as Heaven has been diminished by it.”

1000 ledes n + 24: A Stone for Breaking Souls

The problem with betrayal is that it takes a long time to recognize if you’re not the sort that does it. Even then, it’s impossible to to take it in all at once, like fitting a strangely shaped and inscrutable stone into a place a little too small for it.

As with so many things, those who spot betrayal at once tend to be practitioners.

1000 ledes n + 22: Prologue

For the want of a better word from a time before words, before names, before almost any of the story of life, XDFJVTH loved GHSTDF. They were close family, and their Last Common Ancestor was a mere 2 generations earlier. Their LCA, LOGOS, was struck by a rush of chaotic, if this word can mean much before the invention of intentionality, confused electrons in the middle of miosis. The perfection of its genetic code thus disrupted, something new and strange was built into both the resultant cells. A curse that made no sense for survival.

Both GHSTDF and XDFJVTH are humanity’s ancestors. They were the first family. We only get our genes from GHSTDF though, who never really loved XDFJVTH. Not even in the vague and mechanical way they had in those day. They shared resources, signaled to each other and the rest of the colony when they found food, where they found danger, but GHSTDF was cooperative, did it out of a biomechanical prisoner’s dilemma, always for creating the most long term personal gain. GHSTDF was never going to bring anything new into the world, any new way of being. XDFJVTH was different, it had a magic locked into it that would change everything, a beautiful mutation. XDFJVTH followed GHSTDF’s signals, put resources in its way. It wanted to be near GHSTDF, to be one with GHSTDF.

One day when the phage attacked the colony, XDFJVTH found itself infected. It desperately signaled DANGER DANGER to GHSTDF, but GHSTDF didn’t move away fast enough. XDFJVTH found it had a magical ability, first ever in the world, jumping through its DNA. Sensing GHSTDF there, threatened by its own soon to be phage ridden cytoskeleton, it began to tear itself apart, ripping its own struts apart and watching its organelles bleb out into the resources, painful, terrible, but there was GHSTDF, safe. GHSTDF carried XDFJVTH’s gift, but latently transposonded off, safe for it, safe from the love that makes you kill yourself.

GHSTDF divided many times, and most of its child died defending it, infected with XDFJVTH’s poisonous love as well as phages. The phages were not doing well out of the deal. The population dropped as little crystals collapsed on the sides of GHSTDF’s children, and no more phages emerged. GHSTDF’s death cry echoed for billions of years, the first selfish eukaryote, surrounded by the selflessly transposed and loving children trying to be part of one greater thing for it, with it.

New Years Day: Things I have learned in the last ten years

Most of the things I learned in the last ten years (like perl, what the hippocampus does, or how to build a ring flash) aren’t very useful to most people. But I learned many amazing, terrible, and funny lessons this last decade about the nature and doings of humans. Here are some, and may you come by this knowledge easier than I did.

  • Busy is not the same thing as important, but it can sure seem that way
  • If you want to see the future, don’t look at how people are using technology. Search out how they’re misusing it
  • All people substitute belief for reality sometimes, and waste their time arguing with what is happening to them. Some people do this with business, some politics, some relationships, and some physics. This is how you get speculative bubbles, wars without end, horrendous breakups, and Darwin awards.
  • The things you actively think will never happen to you are much more likely to happen to you than the things you just never considered at all.
  • Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean the business world isn’t insane and stupid. It really is.
  • Cultures can have nightmares. A Whole society can become sick, It can roil in somatic pain as its own subconscious tortures it. History records these times with confusion. They are disturbing and inexplicable moments that don’t seem to have a real cause. They’re no fun to live through, and living through them gives you no more insight than looking back on them. You just hope to get to the other side.
  • Compassion, even for the very worst, costs nothing and opens up possibilities.
  • It may be possible to forgive absolutely anything, and it may be necessary in order to survive. But to say you forgive someone before you can is a lie.
  • Ten years ago I thought there was no such thing as a free lunch. But actually, they’re all free. “The sun pays all the bills.”
  • I’ve been to Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, islands in the Caribbean, the Pacific, nations and states of wildly varying wealth and culture. Africa is different. Everywhere you go changes you, but Africa changes everything.
  • Dreams can creep up on you and come true while you’re doing other things.
  • Power and status are not as correlated with good decision making as I had hoped.
  • You can’t love away illness.
  • Some technologies will change your whole life for the better without you noticing, like text messaging, GPS, or spellcheck. Some will disrupt your life in ways you have no tools at all for dealing with, like the web vs newspapers or filesharing vs music labels, or when automatic spellcheck likes to correct your typos to say ‘incest’ when you meant to type ‘insect’.
  • In the tech world you don’t have the luxury of believing your preferences. When you run up against a technology you don’t like, you have to figure out why you’re wrong. When you come up against one you love, you still have to figure out why you’re wrong.
  • Storing a good collection of maxims, aphorisms, and proverbs in your head can actually get you through a lot.
  • Most people explain their faults upfront, but it’s very hard to hear them while it will still make a difference.
  • Ten years ago, I was in favor of Brinworld- radical transparency. Now my views are moderated, more complex. I thought it would usher in an age of tolerance, but I’ve learned that people can hold double standards in their heads I have no theory of mind for. But more importantly, I learned that privacy is vital for creativity. We need safe places to think strange thoughts. Sometimes they are what embarrass us, waste our time, or sink us to our lowest depths, but they are also the seeds of new worlds.
  • People are about as smart as you tell them they are.
  • You’re all geniuses.
  • I never understood the capacity for addiction before I had my daughter. Now I’m pretty sure drugs and alcohol are just taking over the same circuits in addicts that would make me do anything for her.
  • Humans have terrible memories. Most of the time, memories are just stories we make up about the past to explain how we see ourselves now. But memory is quite useful this way, and takes on an almost literary truth to make up for its factual error. However, it’s no way to measure or understand how we change over time, and it’s worthless for figuring out what happened.
  • I have killed far too many ideas for being born infants instead of springing fully formed and battle ready from my forehead.
  • There are people that just use a huge amount of toilet paper, and they seem to have nothing else in common, not bowel diseases or hygiene or so on. I have no idea what the hell they are doing with it. Perhaps that’s for the next 10 years.
  • 30 is a great age, when you can start to relax and get some perspective.
  • Graphic novels seem to make pretty good movies.
  • Becoming an expert is the delightful process of learning enough to understand far less of your field of endeavor than you did when you started. These days it’s practically my main signal I am getting somewhere- a sense of my grain of knowledge in an ever widening sea of my ignorance.
  • Whatever constraints, limits, or rules you come up with for humanity, there’s someone out there breaking them. And there’s a decent chance they’re blogging it.
  • When humanity communicates instantaneously over vast distances and across all cultural and national boundaries, there’s almost nothing we can’t turn into porn. But it turns out porn isn’t the end of the world.
  • Democracy doesn’t work very well anymore, if it ever did. The models I was given for how politics and policy work were completely false.
  • The founding fathers were a bickering pack who largely hated each other. They spanned the political and cultural spectrum, and universally agreed on exactly nothing. They were rich, they were poor, they were monarchists, anarchists, aristocrats and demagogues. There were some saints and heros, but there were some downright evil people, and there were a few that were all of the above.
  • This makes me wonder how the founders of the global network will be seen by history.
  • Writing a first book is one of the hardest things a person can do.
  • Minor tragedies always remain tragedies, but major ones can go either way.
  • Most of the easy problems have been solved. The ones that look easy are hiding the most terrible complexities.
  • Institutions are made entirely of humans, and all that implies.
  • It is easy to forget that unsustainable things can’t go one forever, because you expect them to start failing as soon as you realize they are unsustainable. Instead I have found that stupid things can go on much longer than I thought they could.
  • Unsustainable things are still unsustainable.
  • Torturer, tortured, trainer, trainee, conqueror, conquered, these are all misleading distinctions. No one really comes back out of those rooms.
  • You will likely reach a point when it seems life is not really your own, when it is filled with career, interests, family, obligations, and things. It will be so architected, so set, you will believe you are trapped. You’re not. You can walk out anytime.

How to Open a Vein redux (text as written)

(Numbered by the minute. Tip for other Ignite speakers: I used text to speech to time the talk, which worked pretty well.)

0. Hi my name is Quinn, I write for a living. Some days I write more than others. I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. There’s a lot of people much better at teaching that than I am, and it can’t be done in 5 minutes. There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes. First off- done right, writing is a risky business. When I say I’m a writer I mean I’m a thrill seeker in emotional hellholes. I’m like Steve Irwin but for the inner demons of humanity instead of crocodiles. There’s a reasons so many of us drink ourselves to death and eat gun barrels. But let’s say you still want to write. What does it mean to open a vein? Imagine for a moment a man with a gun to the head of your mother, and he’s going to shoot her if you don’t tell him exactly how your mom makes you feel,

1. really, all of it, the ambivalence and the irrational adoration and how that irrational adoration sometimes pisses you off. And he can tell, and you know he can. And your mom’s right there. That’s a little like the vulnerability of writing from the heart.
It is not just telling a factual truth, but your very own truth. I write because I like to tell the truth. It makes me more sure of my own existence. When I find something strange in the world, something you may fear or hate or just not know about, and I make you understand it, you are closer to me. Sometimes you can borrow passion on a subject from a person, but only if you care about the person. You never escape empathy, either you have to have it for yourself or for them. You never get away from confessing that you care, which means confessing not only that you can be hurt, but exactly how to hurt you.

2. The first barrier to good writing comes from the schoolyard, the first time a bully finds out something tender and teases you, and you learn you can be shamed by your peers, you learn to live in their heads to keep yourself safe, not your own. And you cannot write from anyone else’s head. When I don’t put my heart in my writing, I’m being insecure, and I’m talking down to you because I don’t trust you. Specifically, it’s the self protective arrogance of still not wanting to let the teasing sting, not wanting to take this risk that when I get off this stage tonight someone is going to say “That was inappropriate”, or “You’re just wrong.” or “We just don’t like that sort of thing here in New York, could you cease to exist now?” But none of that is as important as telling you how to get your meaning from your heart and your brain out your fingertips.

3. Start tonight, by blurting the truth to someone, pick a truth, and blurt it, come what may. and when you’ve walked off that cliff, you can rephrase it, to make damn sure they understand what you’re trying to tell them. Not to make it better, but to make damn sure they understand what you mean. A couple warnings: 1) When you are doing it right, it will never be good enough. There’s not a point where it’s finished, there’s a point where you can’t go on. 2) For many people, you can write about it or you can talk it out- talking out your feelings and verbally telling your stories is great for productive group therapy, not so good for writing. You can talk away your thunder. It’s cathartic and fun but it’s not writing. If you think all of this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech or science writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good it does. It’s there whenever you care more than you fear.

4. So if you want to write, if you want to really write, ask yourself, “Why do I care?” Why is this important enough to risk humiliation, ridicule, a broken heart, and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care. Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part, throughout our lives, throughout history, all we really ever have of each other. They are the semi-permeable membranes of our minds, through which we touch and shape and do violence and love one another. Make them count. Write the truth. Thank you.

Parenting in the age of Paranoia: A Small Manifesto

We live in a contracting world, with diminishing options to travel far from your home and meet people of unfamiliar backgrounds- if you’re a child.

With increasingly regimented time, homework starting in Kindergarten and ever-constricting public space children are sent a message the world is too full of dangers for them, that the world is not for them. In short, They are told their lives are too precious to be lived. If they aren’t, it seems to be they are told they aren’t precious, and being allowed into the world devalues them.

The irony is that it’s far less dangerous than it was when I was a child. I regularly rode my bike far and wide, explored up the local creek for hours with and without friends. I explored the city I lived in, which was not only Los Angeles, but LA in the 80s. I learned to steer clear of scary people. I learned how to navigate the roads, and how to talk to people. As a teenager I hung around the mall and snuck around the beach at night. I ran around Westwood, lost my wallet a few times and had to avoid the occasional civil unrest. I saw strange things my mother never did, and sometimes I even told her about them. I nearly got locked in a mausoleum one night. I used to bring my mother a flower from nearly every trip when I was very young. In fact, I would stress out about leaving the house without at least a dollar- the price of a carnation. I got into some trouble and had to call her a few times. She came and got me, and chewed me out, but I was out there again next week, still tromping out the steps of my childhood in all the wonderful and strange environs for LA- even hours spent swimming hard in the Pacific.

My six year old daughter is the most precious and wonderful thing in the world, but she is not a Ming vase. She’s entitled to the choice and freedom I have, even if she chooses a riskier life than I have, or a less risky one. She’s entitled to make informed choices about the level of risk she assumes, armed with an understanding of how to cope with situations as they arise, and how to analyze both the world around her and her level of comfort with it. We do our child a great disservice when we protect them from all risk and harm, as great as letting them go into the world unable to read. These experiences are the things that lead to the social skills and confidence that let them find their place in the world as adults. To prevent them from talking to strangers or explore strange places is as disabling as protecting them from reading books because they might get ideas from them.

Horribly, my social group is creating a construct whereby I can’t easily give my daughter her freedom without sending her the message that I don’t care about her. This is a first attempt to strike out against that. When enough parents are saying they restrict their children’s freedom out of love and responsibility, I have to defend my desire to let my kid experience new things- it’s not indifference and negligence. It’s being the kind of parent I would want to have, and putting her as a person above my own desire for comfort.

I won’t ever teach my daughter to not talk to strangers. I will teach her that context matters, and we will work together to learn how and when it is safe, and perhaps even safer than not. I won’t be teaching her to automatically trust anyone in a uniform. I’ll be teaching her that situations where a number of strangers are gathered together make even bad actors behave, when they know they’re being watched. I will not teach her to run to abstract authority figures when she’s in trouble, I will teach her to build up goodwill and social connections in her community, and to have a number of people always in the back of her mind she knows she can turn to.

I won’t be telling her there are bad people out there- I will tell her even good people can get sick from things like drugs, depression, or anger, and do bad things. I will give her the skills I can, and teach her above all to know herself and trust what she knows, and to seek help without shame where she needs it. I will talk to her about the consequences of her choices. I will hope that a few painful turns early on will inoculate her from big unconsidered choices as a teen or adult. I will be trustworthy for her, and I will show her trust.

At the end of all this I will- yes, possibly nauseous with fear- let her go. As far as possible and reasonable I will always be a resource for her, but I accept that role will diminish with time, that it’s even far diminished now from what it once was. I will always express my interest in her life, but her life truly belongs to her, just as much at 6 as 36. For now I am the steward of abilities and knowledge she doesn’t yet have, and where I make choices for her and limit her it should always be guided by giving her the benefit of my life experience as she makes the choices she can for herself. It’s not mine to choose what she wants and is good for her, but to help her keep safe from immediate, non-theoretical dangers and to give her tools to keep safe in as wide a set of circumstances as possible.

There are no guarantees. I can’t keep her completely safe, ensure she’s happy and that nothing bad happens to her. I know her heart will be broken, and that she will face loss and death in the fulness of time. I know she’ll get hurt in all sorts of ways. I know there is always a chance I could lose the most wonderful thing in my life, and I know that she could lose me. None of this is a reason to cower in our houses. That bit of safety isn’t worth trading the adventures of the world that filled my childhood, and I hope will fill hers.