The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 30 Apr 2022

Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering

Freddie DeBoer has an article this week titled “Mental illness doesn't make you special”. Usually Freddie and I are in close agreement and this article is not an exception. I think many of M. DeBoer's points are accurate. But his subtitle is “Why do neurodiversity activists claim suffering is beautiful?” Although I am not a neurodiversity activist and I will not claim that suffering is beautiful, that subtitle stung, because I saw a little bit of myself in the question. I would like to cut off a small piece of that question and answer it.

This is from Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren (1945):

'No, I don't suffer from freckles,' said Pippi.

Then the lady understood, but she took one look at Pippi and burst out, 'But, my dear child, your whole face is covered with freckles!'

'I know that,' said Pippi, 'but I don't suffer from them. I love them.'

I suffer from attention deficit disorder. Like Pippi Longstocking suffers from freckles.

M. DeBoer says:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr: people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around them.

For me the ADD really is a part of my identity — not my persona, which is what I present to the world, but my innermost self, the way I am actually am. I would be a different person without it. I might be a better person, or a happier or more successful one (I don't know) but I'd definitely be someone different.

And it's really not all bad. I understand that for many people ADD is a really major problem with no upsides. For me it's a major problem with upsides. And after living with it for fifty years, I've found ways to mitigate the problems and to accept the ones I haven't been able to mitigate.

I learned long ago never to buy nice gloves because I will inevitably leave them somewhere, perhaps on a store counter, or perhaps in the pocket of a different jacket. In the winter I only wear the cheapest and most disposable work gloves or garden gloves. They work better than nothing, and I can buy six pairs at a time, so that when I need gloves there's a chance I will find a pair in the pocket of the jacket I'm wearing, and if I lose a pair I can pick up another from the stack by the front door.

I used to constantly miss appointments. “Why don't you get a calendar?” people would say, but then I would have to remember the calendar, remember to check the calendar, and not lose the calendar, all seemingly impossible for me. The arrival of smartphones improved my life in so many ways. Now I do carry my calendar everywhere and I miss fewer appointments.

(Why could I learn to carry a smartphone and not a calendar? For one thing, the smartphone is smaller and fits in my pocket. For another, I really do carry it literally everywhere, which I wouldn't do with a calendar. I don't have to remember to check it because it makes a little noise when I have an appointment. It has my phone and my email and my messages in it. It has the books and magazines I'm reading. It has a calculator in it and a notepad. I used to try to carry all that crap separately and every day I would find that I wanted one that I had left at home that day. No longer.)

There are bigger downsides to ADD, like the weeks when I can't focus on work, or when I get distracted by some awesome new thing and don't do the things I should be doing, or how I lost interest in projects and don't always finish them, blah blah blah. I am not going to complain about any of that, it is just part of being me and I like who I am pretty well. Everyone has problems and mine are less severe than many.

And some of the upsides are just great. When it's working, the focus and intensity I get from the ADD are powerful. Not just useful, but fun. When I'm deep into a blog post or a math paper the intense focus brings me real joy. I love being smart and when the ADD is working well it makes me a lot smarter. I don't suffer from freckles, I love them.

When I was around seventeen I took a Real Analysis class at Columbia University. Toward the end of the year the final was coming up. One Saturday morning I sat down at the dining room table, with my class notes, proving every theorem that we had proved in class, starting from page 1. When I couldn't prove it on my own I would consult the notes or the textbook. By dinner time I had finished going through the semester and was ready to take the final. I got an A.

Until I got to college I didn't understand how people could spend hours a day “studying”. When I got there I found out. When my first-year hallmates were “studying” they were looking out the window, playing with their pencils, talking to their roommates, all sorts of stuff that wasn't studying. When I needed to study I would hide somewhere and study. I think the ability to focus on just one thing for a few hours at a time is a great gift that ADD has given me.

I sometimes imagine that the Devil offers me a deal: I will give up the ADD in return for a million dollars. I would have to think very, very carefully before taking that deal and I don't know whether I would say yes.

But if the Devil came and offered to cure my depression, and the price was my right arm? That question is easy. I would say “sounds great, but what's the catch?”

Depression is not something with upsides and downsides. It is a terrible illness, the blight of my life, the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It is neither an adorable character trait nor an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment. It is a severe chronic illness, one that is often fatal. In a good year it is kept in check by medical treatment but it is always lurking in the background and might reappear any morning. It is like the Joker: perhaps today he is locked away in Arkham, but I am not safe, I am never safe, I am always wondering if this is the day he will escape and show up at my door to maim or kill me.

I won't write in detail about how I've suffered from depression in my life. It's not something I want to revisit and it's not something my readers would find interesting. You wouldn't be inspired by my brave resolve in the face of adversity. It would be like watching a movie about someone with a chronic bowel disorder who shits his pants every day until he dies. There's no happy ending. It's not heroic. It's sad, humiliating, and boring.

DeBoer says:

This is what it’s actually like to have a mental illness: no desire to justify or celebrate or honor the disease, only the desire to be rid of it.

I agree 100%. This is what it is like to have a mental illness. In two words: it sucks.

And this is why I find it so very irritating that there is no term for my so-called ⸢attention deficit disorder⸣ that does not have the word “disorder” baked into it. I know what a disorder is, and my ADD isn't one. I want a word for this part of my brain chemistry that does not presume, axiomatically, that it is an illness. Why does any deviation from the standard have to be a disorder? Why do we medicalize human variation?

I understand that for some people it really is a disorder, that they have no desire to justify or celebrate or honor their attention deficit. For those people the term “attention deficit disorder” might be a good one. Not for me. I have a weird thing in my brain that makes it work differently from the way most other people's brains do. In many ways it works less well. I lose hats and miss doctor appointments. But that is not a mental illness. Most people aren't as good at math as I am; that's not a mental illness either. People have different brains.

Things can be problems in two different ways. Some variations from human standard are intrinsic problems. These might be illnesses. But many problems are extrinsic. Homosexual orientation used to be considered a mental illness. But you're queer your main problem is that other people treat you like crap. They hate you and they're allowed to tell you how much they hate you. They tell you you're not allowed to love or marry or have sex or bring up children. It sucks! But “I'm unhappy because people treat me like crap” is not a mental illness! The correct fix for this extrinsic problem isn't “stop being queer”, it's “stop treating queer people like crap!”

DeBoer says:

Today’s activists never seem to consider that there is something between terrible stigma and witless celebration, that we are not in fact bound to either ignore mental illness or treat it as an identity.

I agree somewhat, but that doesn't mean that the stigma isn't a real issue. With mental illnesses many of the problems are intrinsic, and are deep and hard to solve. But some of the problems of mental illness are extrinsic, caused by stigma and should be addressed. Mentally ill people will still be mentally ill, but at least they wouldn't be stigmatized. Mentally ill people are unhappy because they're mentally ill. But they are also unhappy because people treat them like crap.

Many of the downsides of ADD would be less troublesome for everyone, if our world was a little more accepting of difference, a little more willing to accommodate people who were stamped in a slightly different shape that the other cogs in the machine. In Pippi Longstocking world, why do people suffer from freckles? Not because of the freckles themselves, but only because other people tell them that their freckles are ugly and unlovable. Nobody has to suffer from freckles, if people would just stop being assholes about freckles.

ADD is a bigger problem than freckles. Some of its problems are intrinsic. It definitely contributes to making me unreliable. I don't think it is a delightful quirk that I am constantly losing gloves (and hats and jackets and bags and keys and wallets and everything else). People depending on me to do work timely are sometimes justifiably angry or disappointed when I don't. I'll accept responsibility for that. I've worked my whole life to try to do better.

But when the world has been willing to let me what I can do in the way that I can do it, the results have been pretty good. When the world has insisted that I do things the way ⸢everyone else⸣ does them, it hasn't always gone so well. And if you examine the “everyone else” there it starts to look threadbare because almost everyone is divergent in one way or another, and almost everyone needs some accommodation or other. There is no such thing as “the way everyone else does”. I can do some fine things that many other people can't.

I don't think “neurodivergent” is a very good term for how I'm different, not least because it's vague. But at least it doesn't frame my unusual and wonderful brain as a “disorder”.

Returning to Freddie DeBoer's article:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr: people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around them.

Some people do have it worse than others. I'm lucky. But that doesn't change the fact that some of those attentional difficulties are more like freckles: a character trait, perhaps even one that someone might find adorable, that other people are being assholes about. Isn't it fair to ask whether some of the extrinsic problems, the stigma, could be ameliorated if society were a little more flexible and a little more accommodating of individual differences, and would stop labeling every difference as a disorder?

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Sun, 17 Apr 2022

Let's go find out!

I just went through an extensive job search, maybe the most strenuous of my life. I hadn't meant to! I wrote a blog post asking where I should apply for Haskell jobs, and I thought three or four people would send suggestions. Instead I was contacted by around fifty people, many of whom ran Haskell-related companies and invited me to apply, after it hit #1 on Hacker News. So I ran with it.

I had written:

At some point I'll need another job. I would really like it to be Haskell programming…

One question that came up in several interviews was “why do you want to learn Haskell?” I had a lot of trouble with this question, and often rambled about the answer to some other question instead. A couple of times I started by saying “well, I've been interested in Haskell for about twenty years…” (does not answer the question) and then I'd go on about how I got interested in Haskell in the first place (also does not answer the question).

Sometimes this did touch on some deeper reasons. By the time I learned Haskell I had been programming in SML for a while, and it was apparent that SML had some major problems. When I encountered Haskell around 1998 it seemed that Haskell at least had a story for how these problems might be fixed.

But why did I get interested in SML? I'm not sure how I encountered it but by that time I had been programming for ten or fifteen years and it appeared that strong type systems were eventually going to lead to big improvements. Programming is still pretty crappy, but it is way better than it was when I started.One reason is that languages are much better. I'm interested in programming and in how to make it less crappy.

But none of this really answers the question. Yes, I've wanted to know more for decades. But the question is why do I want to learn Haskell? Sometimes these kinds of questions do have a straightforward answer. For example, “I think it will be a good career move”. That was not the answer in this case. Nor “I think it will pay me a lot of money” or “I'm interested in smart contracts and a lot of smart contract work is done in Haskell”.

I'm remembering something written I think by Douglas Hofstadter (but possibly Daniel Dennett? John Haugeland?) where you have a person (or AI program) playing chess, and you ask them “Why did you move the knight to e4?” The chess player answers “To attack the bishop on g5.”

“Why did you want to attack the bishop on g5?”

“That bishop is impeding development of my kingside pieces, and if I could get rid of it I could develop a kingside attack.”

“Why do you want to develop a kingside attack?”

“Uhh… if it is effective enough it could force the other player to resign.”

“But why do you want to force the other player to resign?”

“Because that's how you win a game of chess, dummy.”

“Why do you want to win the game?”


You can imagine this continuing yet further, but eventually it will reach a terminal point at which the answer to “Why do you want to…” is the exasperated cry “I just do!” (Or the first person turns five years old and grows out of the why-why-why phase.)

I wonder if the computer also feels exasperation at this kind of questioning? But it has an out; it can terminate the questions by replying “Because that's what I was programmed to do”. Anyway when people asked why I wanted to learn Haskell, I felt that exasperation. Sometimes I tried using the phrase “it's a terminal goal”, but I was never sure that my meaning was clear. Even at the end of the interviewing process I didn't have a good answer ready, and was still stammering out answers like “I just wanna know!”

(I realize now that “because that's what I was programmed to do” sometimes works for non-artifical intelligences also. When Katara was small she asked me why I loved her, and I answered “because that's how I'm made.”)

Now that the job hunt is all over, I think I've thought of a better reply to “why do you want to learn Haskell, anyway?” that might be easier to understand and which I like because it seems like such a good way to explain myself to strangers. The new answer is:

I'm the kind of person who gets on a bus and takes it to the last stop, just to see where it goes.

This is excellent! It not only explains me to other people, it helps explain me to myself. Of course I knew this about myself before but putting it into a little motto like that makes it easier to understand, remember, and reason from. It's useful to understand why you do the things you do and why you want the things you want, and this motto helps me by compacting a lot of information about myself into a pithy summary.

One thing I like about the motto is that it is not just metaphorically true. It's a good metaphor for the Haskell thing. I am still riding the Haskell bus to see where it ends up. But also, I do literally get on buses just to find out where they go.

In Haifa about twenty years ago, I got on a bus to see where it would go. I rode for a while, looking out the window, seeing and thinking many things. When I saw something that looked like a big open-air market I got out to see what it was about. It was a big open-air market, not like anything I had seen before. It was just the kind of thing I wanted to see when I visited a foreign country, but wouldn't have known to ask. Sometimes “what can I see that we don't have where I come from” works, but often the things you don't have at home are so ordinary where you are that your host doesn't think to show them to you. At the Haifa market, I remember seeing fresh dates for the first time. (In the U.S. they are always dried.) I bought some; they were pretty good even though they looked like giant cockroaches.

Another wondeful example of something I wanted to see but didn't know about until I got to it was Reg Hartt's Cineforum. Reg Hartt is a movie enthusiast in Toronto who runs a private movie theatre in his living room. Walking around Toronto one day I saw a poster advertising one of his shows, featuring Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons that had been banned for being too racist, and the post was clearly the call of fate. Of course I'm going to attend a cartoon show in some stranger's living room in Toronto. Hartt handed me a beer on the way in and began a long, meandering rant about the history of these cartoons. One guy in the audience interrupted “just start the show” and Hartt shot back “This is the show!” Reg Hartt is my hero.

In Lisbon I was walking around at random and happened on the train station, so I went in and got on the first train I saw and took it to the end of the line, which turned out to be in Cascais. I looked around, had lunch, and spent time feeding a packet of sugar to some ants. It was a good day.

In Philadelphia I often take the #42 bus, which runs west on Walnut Street from downtown to where I live. The #9 bus runs along the same route part of the way, but before it gets to my neighborhood it turns right and goes somewhere else called Andorra. After a few years of wondering what Andorra was like I got on the #9 bus to find out. It's way out at the city limits, in far Roxborough. Similarly I once took the #34 trolley to the end of the line to see where it went. There was a restaurant there called Bubba's Bar-B-Que, which was pretty good. Since then it has become a Jamaican restaurant which is also pretty good. I have also taken the #42 itself to the end of the line to learn where it turns around.

I once drove the car to Stenton Avenue and drove the whole length of Stenton Avenue, because I kept hearing about Stenton Avenue but didn't know where it was or what was on it.

I used to take SEPTA, the Philadelphia commuter rail, to Trenton, because that was the cheapest way to get to New York. Along the way the train would pass through a station called Andalusia but it would never stop there. The conductor would come through the train asking if anyone wanted to debark at Andalusia but nobody ever did. And nobody was ever waiting on the Andalusia platform, so the train had no reason to stop. I wondered for years what was in Andalusia. Once I got a car, I drove there to see what there was. It was a neighborhood, and I climbed down to the (no longer used) SEPTA station to poke around. Going in the other direction on SEPTA I have visited Marcus Hook and Wilmington just to see what they were like.

One especially successful trip was a few years ago when I decided to drive to Indianapolis. When I told people I was taking a road trip to Indianapolis they would ask “why, what is in Indianapolis?” I answered that I didn't know, and I was going there to find out. And when I did get there I found out that Indianapolis is really cool! I enjoyed walking around their central square which has a very cool monument and also a bronze statue of America's greatest president, William Henry Harrison. I had planned to stay in Indianapolis longer, but while I was eating breakfast I learned that the Indiana state fair was taking place about fifteen minutes south, and I had never been to a state fair, so I went to see that. I saw many things, including an exhibition of antique tractors and a demonstration of veterinary surgery, and I ate chocolate-covered bacon on a stick. After I got back from Indianapolis I had an answer to the question “why, what is in Indianapolis?” The answer was: The Indiana State Fair. (I have a blog post I haven't finished about all the other stuff I saw on that trip, and maybe someday I will finish it.)

On another road trip I decided to drive in a loop around Chesapeake Bay, just to see what there was to see. I started in New Castle which is noteworthy for being the center of the only U.S. state border that is a circular arc. I ate Smith Island cake. I drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge which was awesome, totally awesome, and stopped in the middle for an hour to look around. I made stops in towns called Onancock and Bivalve just for the names. I blundered into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, another place I would never have planned to visit but I'm glad I visited. I took the Oxford-Bellevue ferry which has been running between Oxford and Bellevue since 1683. I'm not much for souvenirs, but my Oxford-Bellvue Ferry t-shirt is a prized possession.

When I was a small child my parents had a British Monopoly board and I was fascinated by the place names. When I got my first toy octopus I named it Fenchurch after Fenchurch Street Station. And when I visited London I took the Underground to the Fenchurch Street stop one night to see what was there. It turned out that near Fenchurch Street is a building that is made inside-out. It has all the fire stairs and HVAC ducts on the outside so that the inside can be a huge and spacious atrium. I had had no idea this building even existed and I probably wouldn't have found out if I hadn't decided to visit Fenchurch Street for no particular reason other than to see what was there.

In Vienna I couldn't sleep, went out for a walk at midnight, and discovered the bicycle vending machines. So I rented a bicycle and biked around Vienna and ran across the wacky Hunderwasserhaus which I had not heard of before. Amazing! In Cleveland I went for a long walk by the river past a lot of cement factories and things like that, but eventually came out at the West Side Market. Then I went into a café and asked if there was a movie theatre around. They said there wasn't but they sometimes projected movies on the wall and would I like to see one? And that's how I saw Indiscreet with Gloria Swanson. I was in Cleveland again a few years ago and wandering around at night I happened across the Little Kings Lounge. The outside of the Little Kings Lounge frightened me but I eventually decided that spending the rest of my life wondering what it was like inside would be worse than anything that was likely to happen if I did go in. The inside was much less scary than the outside. There was a bar and a pool table. I drank apple-flavored Crown Royal. They had a sign announcing their proud compliance with the Cleveland indoor smoking ban, the most sarcastic sign I've ever seen.

In Taichung I spent a lot of time at the science museum, but I also spent a lot of time walking to and from the science museum through some very ordinary neighborhoods, and time walking around at random at night. The Taichung night market I had been to fifteen years before was kind of tired out, but going in a different direction I stumbled into a new, fresher night market. In Hong Kong I was leafing through my guidebook, saw a picture of the fish market on Cheung Chau, and decided I had to go see it. I took the ferry to Cheung Chau with no idea what I would find or where I would stay, and spent the weekend there, one of the greatest weekends of my life. I did find the fish market, and watched a woman cutting the heads off of live fish with a scissors. Spaulding Gray talks about searching for a “perfect moment” and how he couldn't leave Cambodia because he hadn't yet had his perfect moment. My first night on Cheung Chau I sat outside, eating Chinese fish dinner and drinking Negro Modelo, watching the fishing boats come into the harbor at sunset, and I had my perfect moment.

A few months back I wrote about going to the Pennsylvania-Delaware-Maryland border to see what it was like. You can read about that if you want. A few years back I biked out to Hog Island, supposedly the namesake of the hoagie, to find out what was there. It turned out there is a fort, and that people go there with folding chairs to fish in the Delaware River. On the way I got to bike over the George C. Platt Bridge, look out over South Phildelphia (looked good, smelled bad) and pick up a German army-style motorcycle helmet someone had abandoned in the roadway. Some years later I found out that George Platt was buried in a cemetery that was on the way to my piano lesson, so I stopped in to visit his grave. Most interesting result of that trip: Holy Cross cemetery numbers their zones and will tell you which zone someone is in, but it doesn't help much because the zones are not arranged in order.

I was on a cruise to Alaska and the boat stopped in Skagway for a few hours before turning around. I walked around Skagway for a while but there was not much to see; I thought it was a dumpy tourist trap and I walked back to the harbor. There was a “water taxi” to Haines so I went to Haines to see what was in Haines. The water taxi trip was lovely, I looked out at the fjords and the bald eagles. Haines was charming and pretty. In Haines I enjoyed the Alaska summer weather, saw the elementary school, bought an immersion heater at a hardware store, and ate spoon bread at The Bamboo Room restaurant. Then I took the water taxi back again. Years later when I returned to Skagway, this time with Lorrie, I already knew what to do. We went directly to the next dock over to get on the water taxi and get some spoon bread.

Sometimes I do have a destination in mind. When I was in Paris my hosts asked me if there was anything I wanted to see and I said I would like to visit the Promenade Plantée, which I had read about once in some magazine. My hosts had not heard of the Promenade Plantée but I did get myself there and walked the whole thing. (We have something like it in Philadelphia now but it's not as good, yet.) What did I see? A lot of plants, French people, and a view of Paris apartment buildings that is different from the one I would have gotten from street level. Sometimes I do tourist stuff: I spent hours at the Sagrada Família, the Giant's Causeway, and the Holy Sepulchre, all super-interesting. But when I go somewhere my main activity is: walk around at random and see what there is. In Barcelona I also happened across September 11th Street, in Belfast I accidentally attended the East Belfast Lantern Festival, and in Jerusalem I stopped in an internet café where each keyboard was labeled in four different scripts. (Hebrew, Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic.)

Today a friend showed me this funny picture:

Street signs at an
intersection.  The top one says we are at HASKELL ST.  Attached just
above this is a smaller sign that says DEAD END.

Maybe so! But as the kind of person who gets on a bus and takes it to the last stop, just to see where it goes, I'm fully prepared for the possibility that the last stop is a dead end. That's okay. As my twenty-year-old self was fond of saying “to travel is better than to arrive”. The point of the journey is the journey, not the destination.

[ Addendum 20220422: I think I heard about the Promenade Plantée from this Boston Globe article from 2002. ]

[ Addendum 20220422: Apparently I need to get back to Haines because there is a hammer museum I should visit. ]

[ Addendum 20220426: A reader asked for details of my claim that “SML had some major problems”, so I wrote it up: What was wrong with SML? ]

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Tue, 18 Jan 2022

Mike Wazowski's prevenge

I started to write an addendum to last week's article about how Mike Wazowski is not scary:

I have to admit that if Mike Wazowski popped out of my closet one night, I would scream like a little boy.

And then I remembered something I haven't thought of for a long, long time.

My parents owned a copy of this poster, originally by an artist named Karl Smith:

This is a print of an old Scottish
prayer done up as an illuminated manuscript.  The text is in
old-fashioned black letters with a red capital letter at the start of
each word.  Around the text is scrollwork in sea-green, and a number
of monsters and fanciful beasts in red, blue, black, and yellow.  The
poem reads “From Ghoulies And Ghosties Long Leggitie Beasties And
Things That Go Bump In The Night Good Lord Deliver Us”.

When I was a small child, maybe three or four, I was terrified of the creature standing by the word “Night”:

Closeup of one of the assorted
monsters.  This creature has a round blue body with two eyes, a lage
flat nose, and a mouth that goes up at one corner and down at the
other.  It has yellow legs and a fishlike tail, and appears to be
wearing red high-heeled shoes.  Red hands (or hands wearing red
gloves) are attached to the sides of its head/body where the ears
might be.  There are two yellow horns or anntennae on top of its

One night after bedtime I was dangling my leg over the edge of the bed and something very much like this creature popped right up through the floor and growled at me to get back in bed. I didn't scream, but it scared the crap out of me.

I no longer remember why I was so frightened by this one creature in particular, rather than say the snail-bodied flamingo or the dimetrodon with the head of Shaggy Rogers. And while are obviously a lot of differences between this person and Mike Wazowski (most obviously, the wrong number of eyes) there are also some important similarities. If Mike himself had popped out of the floor I would probably have been similarly terrified.

So, Mike, if you're reading this, please know that I accept your non-scariness not as a truly held belief, but only as a conceit of the movie.

[ If any of my Gentle Readers knows anything more about Karl Smith or this poster in particular, I would be very interested to hear it. ]

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Fri, 31 Dec 2021

Horrible insurance kerfuffle gone good

I doubt this story will be of interest to anyone but me, but it's the best thing that happened to me this month.

Back in October I bought a new house and arranged a homeowners’ insurance policy for it. The main purpose of such a policy is that if your house is destroyed by fire or some other calamity, the homeowners’ insurance people will arrange to build you a new house in the same place. If you have a mortgage, the lienholder will require a policy as a condition of the mortgage, but it's a good idea to have one even if you aren't required to. Usually the rebuild-the-house coverage is bundled with theft insurance, in case your house is robbed, and personal injury insurance, in case someone slips on your sidewalk.

I called the company that had brokered the policy for my previous house, and they assigned me to Brenda Wyman. Brenda presented me with one option: Company S. I said I was surprised at how high Company S's premium was. Brenda told me that Company S had by far the lowest premium. I asked if she had called the company that provided the insurance for my previous house. She said she had. I asked how much their quote was for. She told me, and the number was indeed larger than the quote from Company S. At this point I was tired of trying to extract information from Brenda and let it drop.

The insurance coverage is contingent on the insurer doing an inspection of the house to make sure it is not a hazard and is not about to fall down. Company S did their inspection in mid-November, but didn't notify me of the results until December. On December 6, they sent Brenda a letter: they had found seven things wrong with the house. I had until January 7 to fix them or they would cancel my insurance.

I was upset by this. Some of the seven things were minor, but two were not. The company wanted major roof work done. I was already in negotiations with roofers, but it might take me more than 31 days to select the roofer, sign the contract, and schedule and complete the work. There were major holidays coming up: roofers wouldn't work on Christmas. Roofing work is contingent on dry weather and I don't control the weather. Company S also demanded that I tear up and repour the cement in the alley that adjoins the house.

I could think of three ways to proceed:

  1. Attempt to schedule the work and get it all done by January 7
  2. Attempt to negotiate with Company S to get an extension, should it be impossible to complete all the work by January 7
  3. Arrange a new insurance policy with a different company

I started work on (1) and (2) and made a to-do item to proceed with (3) in a week depending on how things looked.

For (2) I immediately wrote back to Brenda to point out that the demands were unreasonable and might be impossible to satisfy. Was there any flexibility in the date? I also asked if there was a way to contact Company S directly.

Brenda's reply was reassuring. She claimed that Company S wouldn't require that all work be completed by January 7. It was enough for them, she said, that forward progress was being made, and if I had signed contracts by January 7 that would satisfy them.

Nevertheless I contacted Company S's customer service number, hoping to get something in writing. The customer service guy was brief and to the point: they didn't care that the holidays were coming up. They didn't care that I had only been given a few weeks to fix major items. They wouldn't give me an extension. But I could write to the inspections department and see if they said anything different.

I emailed the inspections department to see what they said, laying out the situation in detail: I had already addressed two of the seven items; I had verbal agreements to get three more finished by January 7, and I was working on the two major items. But I couldn't be certain the work would be complete by January 7 and if they insisted, I would have to obtain coverage elsewhere. The inspections department had promised to reply in 24 to 48 business hours.

Meanwhile I continued to talk to contractors about the major plumbing, cement, and roofing work that Company S had demanded.

I had emailed the inspections department midday Wednesday December 8 and been expecting a reply later that week. I didn't hear back from them until late Tuesday the 14th. At first I was only somewhat irritated, but then I realized: they had only promised a response in 24 to 48 business hours. There are only 40 business hours in a week, and they had replied 36 business hours after receiving my message, well before their promised deadline. That was even more irritating than when I thought they had replied late.

But at least their reply was brief, clear and direct:

We are unable to offer an extension. Please place the insured home with another carrier by 1/07/22.

I reported to Brenda:

I talked to Company S about this, to see if there was any leeway on the deadline. They told me there wasn't and suggested I should get different insurance.

Please hook me up with someone else.

Brenda continued to insist that Company S would give me an extension:

When I discussed with Company S, they advised me that as long as you are making progress with this and show contracts they could extend it. I would need this information to contact them with it.

I was not going to trust Brenda's say-so when I had it from the horse's mouth that the situation was the exact opposite. What if I proceeded with Brenda's plan, provided the documentation she suggested, and then on January 7, Company S refused to give me the hoped-for extension that they had already told me they would refuse to give me? Even Brenda had only said “they could extend it”, not “they would extend it”.

I said:

That's the opposite of what they told me. I got email yesterday from Company S that says:

We are unable to offer an extension. Please place the insured home with another carrier by 1/07/22.

If it's sufficient for me to be making progress and show contracts, I want it in writing from them this week.

Brenda did not seem to appreciate the situation, that on one hand I had a vague, secondhand suggestion that I could maybe get an extension, and on the other hand I had a clear commitment directly from Company S to cancel my policy on January 7.

Brenda talked to Company S again but did not get any actual commitments. Her contact said:

Hello Brenda, you can have the insured call customer service to discuss the issues.

The best way to resolve this is to email photos of any corrections made to the inspections inbox for review…

I reminded Brenda that I had already spoken to customer service and they had told me they would not negotiate, and that I similarly had a written reply from their inspections group saying the same thing. I also pointed out:

I emailed them at 1PM on Wednesday Dec 8th and didn't hear back until the following Monday. That is not an effective way to communicate when the situation is changing day-to-day as it is here.

Brenda and I were also having some difficulty communicating, it seemed:

You can send me the things you have right now and I can contact them and see what can be done.

I understand your frustration with this, but when it comes to what they are wanting I am also stuck trying to resolve it for you but I do have to present the proof of repairs for them to even consider.

I made one more attempt to communicate with Brenda. I summarized the progress I had made and when work was scheduled.

I told them all this in the email I sent their inspections department last week, and their reply was “we are unable to offer an extension. Please place the insured home with another carrier by 1/07/22.”

So that is what I am asking you to do.

To me that seems clear, direct, and unambiguous. But not to Brenda, who said:

If you can change those verbal agreements to actually written up agreement on their letterhead that would show you are doing it but can’t be done til after 1/7. Especially since you put a deposit down with the cement person.

Definitely send me the pictures of the trees trimmed and vines removed.

Brenda wanted me to contact the barely-literate cement guy and have him write up the agreement on “letterhead” (that he surely didn't have), and for what? To send to Company S, which had already told me twice that they didn't want it.

That seemed to be the end of that road. I hate repeating myself and I wasn't going to ask Brenda a third time. If Brenda wouldn't find me another insurer, I would find one without her. My first couple of tries didn't bear fruit but the third one did. The new agent (not Brenda or anyone who works for Brenda's company) told me:

  1. Brenda had arranged too much insurance for me; I was paying to have the Company S agree to spend up to $X to rebuild my house, but rebuilding the house couldn't possibly cost more than $⅔X.

  2. Most homeowners’ insurance companies would have given me a six-month grace period to make the necessary repairs. Company S was notoriously inflexible.

The new guy was able to arrange new coverage for me with an insurance premium 15% lower than the one Brenda had gotten me. I notified Company S the next day that I was ending my coverage and wanted a refund. (To their credit, this was completely painless, and the refund check arrived timely.)

I didn't bother to inform Brenda. Maybe I'll hear from her again, maybe I won't. She has all the information she needs to figure out what happened, if she cares to.

Okay, why have I written down this long story? Because it made me really happy. It is a distillation of my growth as an adult.

Faced with a difficult and complicated situation, I was able to deal with it constructively and timely. I didn't crawl under the covers. I didn't procrastinate. I didn't take the superficially easy way out, of crossing my fingers, hoping that Brenda was right and that I wouldn't get screwed on January 7.

I pursued a three-prong approach. I'm bad at long-term planning, good at short-term improvising, and the key to being a successful improviser is to leave as many options open for as long as you can. I did that this time. When Brenda wouldn't help me find new insurance, I found it myself. But if I hadn't found new insurance, maybe it would have turned out Brenda was right and I could get an extension. Or even if Brenda had been wrong, maybe I could have completed the repairs by January 7. There were a lot of ways this could have gone, a lot of ways it could have turned out okay, and I pushed everything forward in parallel until I found a way through.

I executed my plans timely. The whole business was over in less than two weeks: I got the inspection warning from Company S on December 6, and canceled their policy effective the 17th. There's a decent chance that, even had I not been able to get a new insurance policy, I would have been able to complete the repairs before the deadline; two of the seven items had been taken care of and four more scheduled on or before January 7. The cement guy demolished the old alley on December 21 and poured the new one on the 23rd. (The roof stuff is going to be more complicated and once I got my new insurance with the six-month grace period I stopped worrying about it.)

And I didn't lose my temper. I didn't insult Brenda or the innocent Company S customer service rep. I wasn't sarcastic. I didn't whine.

I solved an adult problem like an adult! I was grinning about this for several days around December 17–20. This is the sort of thing that only a middle-aged person can get excited about, but I like middle age, which has been really good for me in so many ways. I wonder, what would my 22-year old self have thought about this story? Would he have been surprised? Amazed? Astounded? (Horrified?) I don't think he would have forseen this degree of competence.

Happy new year, readers. May the coming twelve months be better for you than the previous.

[ Addendum: The insurance agent's name is not actually ‘Brenda Wyman’. Absolutely nothing in this post has any connection with any real person with that name. ]

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Sat, 30 May 2020

Addendum: optical illusion

[ Previously ]

John Gleeson points out that my optical illusion (below left) appears to be a variation on the classic Poggendorff illusion (below right):

A circle, with the
center marked.  A shortest-distance path is drawn in blue between two
blue points on the same radius, and in red between two red points on different
radii.  The blue path goes straight from one blue point to the other.
The red path goes from one point straight to the origin,
then straight to the other point. A narrow gray rectangle,
with a black line proceeding from the upper left to disappear behind
it, and parallel red and blue lines emerging from behind it to
continue to the lower right.  It appears that if the black line were
extended it would coincide with the blue one, but a second version of
the diagram, where the gray rectangle has been rendered
semitransparent, reveals that the blak line actually coincides with
the red one. By Fibonacci. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Fri, 29 May 2020

An optical illusion?

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about a topological counterexample, which included this illustration:

A circle, with the
center marked.  A shortest-distance path is drawn in blue between two
blue points on the same radius, and in red between two red points on different
radii.  The blue path goes straight from one blue point to the other.
The red path goes from one point straight to the origin,
then straight to the other point.

Since then, every time I have looked at this illustration, I have noticed that the blue segment is drawn wrong. It is intended to be a portion of a radius, so if I extend it toward the center of the circle it ought to intersect the center point. But clearly, the slope is too high and the extension passes significantly below the center.

Or so it appears. I have checked the original SVG, using Inkscape to extend the blue segment: the extension passes through the center of the circle. I have also checked the rendered version of the illustration, by holding a straightedge up to the screen. The segment is pointing in the correct direction.

So I know it's right, but still I'm jarred every time I see it, because to me it looks so clearly wrong.

[ Addendum 20200530: John Gleeson has pointed out the similarity to the Poggendorff illusion. ]

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Fri, 06 Jul 2018

In which, to my surprise, I find myself belonging to a group

My employer ZipRecruiter had a giant crisis at last month, of a scale that I have never seen at this company, and indeed, have never seen at any well-run company before. A great many of us, all the way up to the CTO, made a heroic effort for a month and got it sorted out.

It reminded me a bit of when Toph was three days old and I got a call from the hospital to bring her into the emergency room immediately. She had jaundice, which is not unusual in newborn babies. It is easy to treat, but if untreated it can cause permanent brain damage. So Toph and I went to the hospital, where she underwent the treatment, which was to have very bright lights shined directly on her skin for thirty-six hours. (Strange but true!)

The nurses in the hospital told me they had everything under control, and they would take care of Toph while I went home, but I did not go. I wanted to be sure that Toph was fed immediately and that her diapers were changed timely. The nurses have other people to take care of, and there was no reason to make her wait to eat and sleep when I could be there tending to her. It was not as if I had something else to do that I felt was more important. So I stayed in the room with Toph until it was time for us to go home, feeding her and taking care of her and just being with her.

It could have been a very stressful time, but I don't remember it that way. I remember it as a calm and happy time. Toph was in no real danger. The path forward was clear. I had my job, to help Toph get better, and I was able to do it undistracted. The hospital (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia) was wonderful, and gave me all the support I needed to do my job. When I got there they showed me the closet where the bedding was and the other closet where the snacks were and told me to help myself. They gave me the number to call at mealtimes to order meals to be sent up to my room. They had wi-fi so I could work quietly when Toph was asleep. Everything went smoothly, Toph got better, and we went home.

This was something like that. It wasn't calm; it was alarming and disquieting. But not in an entirely bad way; it was also exciting and engaging. It was hard work, but it was work I enjoyed and that I felt was worth doing. I love working and programming and thinking about things, and doing that extra-intensely for a few weeks was fun. Stressful, but fun.

And I was not alone. So many of the people I work with are so good at their jobs. I had all the support I needed. I could focus on my part of the work and feel confident that the other parts I was ignoring were being handled by competent and reasonable people who were at least as dedicated as I was. The higher-up management was coordinating things from the top, connecting technical and business concerns, and I felt secure that the overall design of the new system would make sense even if I couldn't always understand why. I didn't want to think about business concerns, I wanted someone else to do it for me and tell me what to do, and they did. Other teams working on different components that my components would interface with would deliver what they promised and it would work.

And the other programmers in my group were outstanding. We were scattered all over the globe, but handed off tasks to one another without any mishaps. I would come into work in the morning and the guys in Europe would be getting ready to go to bed and would tell me what they were up to and the other east-coasters and I could help pick up where they left off. The earth turned and the west-coasters appeared and as the end of the day came I would tell them what I had done and they could continue with it.

I am almost pathologically averse to belonging to groups. It makes me uncomfortable and even in groups that I have been associated with for years I feel out of place and like my membership is only provisional and temporary. I always want to go my own way and if everyone around me is going the same way I am suspicious and contrarian. When other people feel group loyalty I wonder what is wrong with them.

The up-side of this is that I am more willing than most people to cross group boundaries. People in a close-knit community often read all the same books and know all the same techniques for solving problems. This means that when a problem comes along that one of them can't solve, none of the rest can solve it either. I am sometimes the person who can find the solution because I have spent time in a different tribe and I know different things. This is a role I enjoy.

Higher-Order Perl exemplifies this. To write Higher-Order Perl I visited functional programming communities and tried to learn techniques that those communities understood that people outside those communities could use. Then I came back to the Perl community with the loot I had gathered.

But it's not all good. I have sometimes been able to make my non-belonging work out well. But it is not a choice; it's the way I am made, and I can't control it. When I am asked to be part of a team, I immediately become wary and wonder what the scam is. I can be loyal to people personally, but I have hardly any group loyalty. Sometimes this can lead to ugly situations.

But in fixing this crisis I felt proud to be part of the team. It is a really good team and I think it says something good about me that I can work well with the rest of them. And I felt proud to be part of this company, which is so functional, so well-run, so full of kind and talented people. Have I ever had this feeling before? If I have it was a long, long time ago.

G.H. Hardy once wrote that when he found himself forced to listen to pompous people, he would console himself by thinking:

Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.

Well, I was at ZipRecruiter during the great crisis of June 2018 and I was able to do my part and to collaborate with those people on equal terms, and that is something to be proud of.

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Sat, 29 Nov 2014

Impostor syndrome

I don't have impostor syndrome about programming, advanced mathematics, or public speaking. I cheerfully stand up in rooms full of professional programmers and authoritatively tell them what I think they should do.

However, when I put up shelves in the bathroom back in May, I was a psychological mess. For every little thing that went wrong—and there were quite a lot—I got all stressed out and wondered why I dared to perform this task. The outcome was good, but I had a lot of stress getting there.

I put in one plexiglass shelf, for which I had bought heavy-duty wall anchors in case the kids leaned on it, and two metal shelves higher up, which came with their own screws and anchors.

Here's a partial list of things that worried me:

  1. The two upper shelves came with a paper template that I held up to the wall to mark where the holes should be drilled. What if the two shelves were slightly different and their templates were different and I needed to use both templates on the wall instead of using the same template twice?
  2. When I putting the heavy-duty wall anchors into the drywall, big divots of plaster fell out of the wall around the anchors.
  3. Then I filled in the holes with filler, and got filler in the screw holes in the wall anchors, and stressed about this. What if the filler in the sockets somehow prevented the screws from going into the anchors or caused some other unforeseeable problem?
  4. The filler looked sloppy and I worried that it would look absurdly ugly to everyone who came into the bathroom. (The shelf would have hidden the ugly screw job from a normal view, except that it was made of plexiglass, so the filled holes were visible through it.)
  5. I didn't know how big to drill the holes for the smaller wall anchors and stressed about it, examining the wall anchor packaging for some hint. There was none.
  6. I wanted to insert the wall anchors into the holes with my rubber mallet. Where the hell is it? Then I stressed about using a claw hammer instead and maybe squishing the anchors, and spent a while looking for a piece of wood or something to soften the hammer blows. Eventually I gave up looking, wondering if I was dooming the project.
  7. I guessed how big to make the hole for the anchor, and was wrong; my hole was too small. I didn't realize this until I had the first anchor halfway in. Then I stressed that I might ruin it when I pulled it back out of the wall.
  8. Then I stressed about the size of the holes again when I drilled larger holes. What if I make the hole too big, and then have to fill all the holes and re-measure and re-drill the whole thing?
  9. The anchors didn't go into two of the holes. I needed to yank them back out, then redrill the holes, with the outer end a little messy, or the anchors wouldn't go all the way into the holes. Again I worried about spoiling the anchors.
  10. When I drilled the holes, sometimes the drill suddenly went all the way into the wall and the rotating chuck left a circular scar on the paint.
  11. Also, two of the holes didn't drill easily; I had to lean on the drill really hard to get it to go through. For a while I was concerned that there was some undrillable metal thing in the wall just where I wanted my hole, and I would have to fill in all the holes and remeasure and redrill the whole thing.
  12. Even though I had marked the wall for the lower shelf by holding the shelf against the wall and then poking a pencil through the actual holes, when time came to put the bolts in place, I found that the two holes were slightly too far apart. Somehow this worked itself out.

On review, I see that several of these worries could have been completely avoided if I had had a supply of extra wall anchors.

Stuff that could have worried me but (rightly or wrongly) didn't:

  1. I knew enough to go to the store to buy wall anchors and screws for the bottom shelf, which did not come with its own hardware. There are a lot of different kinds of anchors, and I did not worry too much that I was getting the wrong thing.

  2. I was concerned (although not worried) that the screws holding the bottom shelf to the wall might stress the plastic too much and cause it to crack, either immediately or over time. Obvious solution: insert washers between the screw heads and the shelf. I went to the hardware store to get nylon washers; they didn't have any. So I got thin metal washers instead. I did not worry about this; I was sure (perhaps wrongly) that metal washers would do the job.

  3. When I asked the hardware people for plastic washers, they looked totally blank. “Plastic... washers?” they asked, as if this were a heretofore unimaginable combination. I could have felt like an idiot, but instead I felt, correctly I think, that they were idiots.

  4. For some reason, I was not even slightly worried about properly leveling the marks for the holes. I used a spirit level, which I consider pretty fancy.

  5. I was careful not to over-tighten the screws holding the plexiglass shelf in place, so as to avoid cracking them, but I was at no time afraid that I would somehow crack them anyway.

[Added in July: I have reread this article for the first time. I can report that all the worries I had about whether the shelves would look good have come to nothing; they all look just fine and I had forgotten all the things I was afraid would look bad. But I really do need to buy a couple of boxes of plastic wall anchors so I can stop worrying about spoiling the four I have.]

[The shelves look crooked in the picture, but that is because I am holding the camera crooked; in real life they look great.]

[ A later visit to a better hardware store confirmed that plastic washers do exist, and I did not hallucinate them. The rubber mallet still has not come to light.]

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Tue, 24 Sep 2013

In which I revisit the pastimes of my misspent youth
Last weekend I was at a flea market and saw an HP-15C calculator for $10. The HP-15C was the last pocket calculator I owned, some time before pocket calculators became ridiculous. It was a really nice calculator when I got it in 1986, one of my most prized possessions.

I lost my original one somewhere along the way, and also the spare I had bought from a friend against the day when I lost the original, and I was glad to get another one, even though I didn't have any idea what I was going to do with it. My phone has a perfectly serviceable scientific calculator in it, a very HP-ish one called RealCalc. (It's nice, you should check it out.) The 15C was sufficiently popular that someone actually brought it back a couple of years ago, in a new and improved version, with the same interface but 21st-century technology, and I thought hard about getting one, but decided I couldn't justify spending that much money on something so useless, even if it was charming. Finding a cheap replacement was a delightful surprise.

Then on Friday night I was sitting around thinking about which numbers n are such that !!10n^2+9!! is a perfect square, and I couldn't think of any examples except for 0, 2, and 4. Normally I would just run and ask the computer, which would take about two minutes to write the program and one second to run it. But I was out in the courtyard, it was a really nice evening, my favorite time of the year, the fading light was beautiful, and I wasn't going to squander it by going inside to brute-force some number problem.

But I did have the HP-15C in my pocket, and the HP-15C is programmable, by mid-1980s programmable calculator standards. That is to say, it is just barely programmable, but just barely is all you need to implement linear search for solutions of !!10n^2+9 = m^2!!. So I wrote the program and discovered, to my surprise, that I still remember many of the fussy details of how to program an HP-15C. For example, the SST button single-steps through the listing, in program mode, but single-steps the execution in run mode. And instead of using the special test 5 to see if the x and y registers are equal you might as well subtract them and use the x=0 test; it uses the same amount of program memory and you won't have to flip the calculator over to remember what test 5 is. And the x2 and INT() operations are on the blue shift key.

Here's the program:

        001 - 42,21,11      Label A:  (subroutine)
        002 -    43 11        x²
        003 -        1
        004 -        0        10
        005 -       20        multiply
        006 -        9        9
        007 -       40        add
        008 -       36        enter (dup)
        009 -       11        √
        010 -       36        enter (dup)
        011 -    43 44        x ← int(x) 
        012 -       30        subtract
        013 -    43 20        unless x=0:
        014 -       31          STOP
        015 -    43 32        return from subroutine
        016 - 42,21,12      Label B:
        017 -       40        +
        018 -    45  0        load register 0
        019 -    32 11        call A
        020 -        2        2
        021 - 44,40, 0        add to register 0
        022 -    22 12        goto B
I see now that when I tested !!\sqrt{10n^2+9}!! for integrality, I did it the wrong way. My method used four steps:
        010 -       36   -- enter (dup)
        011 -    43 44   -- x ← INT(x)
        012 -       30   -- subtract
        013 -    43 20   -- unless x=0: …
but it would have been better to just test the fractional part of the value for zeroness:
                 42 44   -- x ← FRAC(x)
                 43 20   -- unless x=0: …
Saving two instructions might not seem like a big deal, but it takes the calculator a significant amount of time to execute two instructions. The original program takes 55.2 seconds to find n=80; with the shorter code, it takes only 49.2 seconds, a 10% improvement. And when your debugging tool can only display a single line of numeric operation codes, you really want to keep the program as simple as you can.

Besides, stuff should be done right. That's why it's called "right".

But I kind of wish I had that part of my brain back. Who knows what useful thing I would be able to remember if I wasn't wasting my precious few brain cells remembering that the back-step key ("BST") is on the blue shift, and that "42,21,12" is the code for "subroutine B starts here".

Anyway, the program worked, once I had debugged it, and in short order (by 1986 standards) produced the solutions n=18, 80, 154, which was enough to get my phone to search the OEIS and find the rest of the sequence. The OEIS entry mentioned that the solutions have the generating function


and when I saw that !!38x^3!! in the denominator, I laughed, really loudly. My new neighbor was in her back yard, which adjoins the courtyard, and heard me, and said that if I was going to laugh like that I had to explain what was so funny. I said “Do you really want to know?” and she said yes, but I think she was mistaken.

[ Addendum 20200204: Had I been doing this in the 1980s, I would have had to go into the house to check the OEIS, but I have wistfully gotten rid of my useless hardback copy, because these days I can do it from the courtyard on my phone. ]

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Sat, 18 Sep 2010

The coming singularity
A Wikipedia user asked on the Wikipedia reference desk page:

You know the idea that eventually we'll be able to download our brains/personalities to computer, to achieve physical immortality?
There is a big trouble with this version of the immortality thing that people rarely mention. You go to the scanning and uploading center one day and write them a check. They scan and upload your brain, and say "All done, time to go home!"

"That's it?" you say. "I don't feel any different."

"Well, of course not. You're no different. But the uploaded version is immortal."

Then you go home and grow old, and every once in a while you get an email:

	From: Mark Dominus (Immortal version) <>
	Subject: Wish you were here
 	Having a great time here in paradise! Haven't aged a day.
Or maybe one like this:

	From: Mark Dominus (Immortal version) <>
	Subject: Guess what I just did?

	Today I had sex with Arthur C. Clarke while swimming in a
	giant hot-fudge sundae. It was totally awesome! Too bad you
	couldn't be here. I know exactly how much you would
	have enjoyed it.

	Sorry to hear you're sick.  Hope the chemo works out.
Then you die, and some computer program somewhere simulates the immortal version of you having a little ritual observance to mark your passing.

Sometimes the proponents of this scheme try to conceal this enormous drawback by suggesting that they obliterate the original version of you immediately after the upload. Consider carefully whether you believe this will improve the outcome.

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Thu, 08 May 2008

The Origin of Consciousness

One of my favorite books is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton University. Nearly everyone seems to agree that this is either a work of profound genius, or of profound crackpottery, and also that they aren't sure which it is. Jaynes' theory, as nearly as I can summarize the book, is something like this:

Human consciousness (which Jaynes describes and defines in considerable detail) is a relatively recent development, dating back at most only about 3,000 years or so.

That is the shocking part of the theory. Most people probably imagine consciousness arising much, much earlier, perhaps before language. Jaynes disagrees. In his theory, language, and in particular its mediation of thought through the use of metaphors, is an essential prerequisite for consciousness. And his date for the development of consciousness means that human consciousness would postdate several other important developments, such as metalworking, large-scale agriculture, complex hierarchical social structures, and even writing. Jaynes thinks that the development of consciousness is a historical event and is attested to by written history. He tries to examine the historical record to find evidence not only of preconscious culture, but of the tremendous upheavals that both caused and were the result of the arrival of consciousness.

If preconscious humans farmed, built temples and granaries, and kept records, they must have had some sort of organizing behavior that sufficed in place of consciousness. Jaynes believes that prior to the development of consciousness, humans had a very different mentality. When you or I need to make a decision, we construct a mental narrative, in which we imagine ourselves trying several courses of action, and attempt to predict the possible consequences. Jaynes claims that Bronze Age humans did not do this. What then?

Instead, says Jaynes, the two halves of the brain were less well-integrated in preconscious humans than they are today. The preconscious mentality was "bicameral", with the two halves of the brain operating more independently, and sometimes at odds with each other. The left hemisphere, as today, was usually dominant. Faced with a difficult decision, preconscious human would wait, possibly undergoing (and perhaps even encouraging) an increasingly agitated physical state, until they heard the voice of a god directing them what to do. These hallucinated voices were generated by the right hemisphere of the brain, and projected internally into the left hemisphere.

For example, when the Iliad says that the goddess Athena spoke to Achilles, and commanded and physically restrained him from killing Agamemnon, it is not fabulating: Achilles' right brain hallucinated the voice of the Goddess and restrained him.

In Jaynes' view, there is a large amount of varied literary, anthropological, and neurological evidence supporting this admittedly bizarre hypothesis. For example, he compares the language used in the Biblical Book of Amos (bicameral) with that in Ecclesiastes (conscious). He finds many examples of records from the right period of history bewailing the loss of the guidance of the gods, the stilling of their voices, and the measures that people took, involving seers and prophets, to try to bring the guiding voices back.

Jaynes speculates that mental states such as schizophrenia, which are frequently accompanied by irresistible auditorily hallucinated commands, may be throwbacks to the older, "bicameral" mental state.

Whether you find the theory amazingly brilliant or amazingly stupid, I urge to to withhold judgment until you have read the book. It is a fat book, and there is a mass of fascinating detail. As I implied, it's either a work of profound genius or of profound crackpottery, and I'm not sure which. (Yaakov Sloman tells me that the response to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was similarly ambivalent when it was new. I think the consensus is now on the genius side.) Either way, it is quite fascinating. There needs to be some theory to account for the historical development of consciousness, and as far as I know, this is the only one on offer.

Anyway, I did not mean to get into this in so much detail. The reason I brought this up is that because of my continuing interest in Jaynes' theory, and how it is viewed by later scholars, I am reading Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination by Daniel B. Smith. I am not very far into it yet, but Smith has many interesting things to say about auditory hallucinations, their relationship to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other matters.

On page 37 Smith mentions a paper, which as he says, has a wonderful title: "Involuntary Masturbation as a Manifestation of Stroke-Related Alien Hand Syndrome". Isn't that just awesome? It gets you coming and going, like a one-two punch. First there's the involuntary masturbation, and while you're still reeling from that it follows up with "alien hand syndrome".

To save you the trouble of reading the paper, I will summarize. The patient is a 72-year-old male. He has lesions in his right frontal lobe. He is experiencing "alien hand syndrome", where his hand seems to be under someone else's control, grabbing objects, like the TV remote control, or grabbing pieces of chicken off his plate and feeding them to him, when what he wanted to do was feed himself with the fork in his right hand. "During his hospital stay, the patient expressed frustration and dismay when he realized that he was masturbating publicly and with his inability to voluntarily release his grasp of objects in the left hand."

Reaction time tests of his hands revealed that when the left hand was under his conscious control, it suffered from a reaction time delay, but when it was under the alien's control, it didn't.

Whee, freaky.

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Sun, 24 Jun 2007

Do you dream in color?
People have occasionally asked me whether I dreamt in color or on black-and-white, by which I suppose they meant grayscale. This question was strange to me the first time I heard it, because up to then it had not occurred to me that anyone did not dream in color. I still find it strange, and I had to do a Google search to verify that there really are people who claim not to dream in color.

One time, when I replied that I did dream in color, my interlocutor asked me if I was sure: perhaps I dreamt in black and white, but only remembered it as being in color later.

I am sure I dream in color, because on more than one occasion I have had discussions in dreams about colors of objects. I can't remember any examples right now, but it was something like this: "Give me the red apple." "Okay, here." "That is not the red apple, that is the green apple!" And then I looked and saw that the apple I had thought was red was really green.

One could still argue that I wasn't really dreaming in color, that it only seemed like that, or something. It's a delicate philosophical point. One could also argue that I didn't have any dream at all, I only thought I did after I woke up. I suppose the only refutations of such an argument either appeal to neurology or involve a swift kick in the pants.

And then suppose I have a dream in which I take LSD and have marvelous hallucinations. Did I really have hallucinations? Or did I only dream them? If I dream that I kill someone, we agree that it wasn't real, that a dream murder is not a real murder; it is only in your head. But hallucinations, by definition, are only in your head even when they are real, so don't dream hallucinations have as much claim to reality as waking hallucinations?

One might argue that dreamt LSD hallucinations are likely to be qualitatively very different from real LSD hallucinations—less like real LSD hallucinations, say, and more like, well, dreams. But this only refutes the claim that the dream hallucinations were LSD hallucinations. And nobody was going to claim that they were LSD hallucinations anyway, since no actual LSD was involved. So this doesn't address the right question.

Stickier versions of the same problem are possible. For example, suppose I give Bill a little piece of paper and tell him it is impregnated with LSD. It is not, but because of the placebo effect, Bill believes himself to be having an LSD trip and reports hallucinations. There was no LSD involved, so the hallucinations were only imaginary. But even real hallucinations are only imaginary. Are we really justified in saying that Bill is mistaken, that he did not actually hallucinate, but only imagined that he did? That seems like a very difficult position to defend.

I seem to have wandered from the main point, which is that I had another dream last night that supports my contention that I dream in color. I was showing my friend Peter some little homunculi that had been made long ago from colored pipe cleaners, shiny paper, and sequins by my grandmother's friend Kay Seiler. Originally there had been ten of these, but in the dream I had only five. When my grandmother had died, my sister and I had split the set, taking five each. In place of the five originals I was missing, I had five copies, which were identifiable as such because they were in grayscale. Presumably my sister had grayscale copies of the originals I retained. I explained this to Peter, drawing his attention to the five full-color homunculi and the five grayscale ones.

So yes, barring philosophical arguments that I think deserve a kick in the pants, I am sure that I dream in color.

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