Reasons to vote this November 7

We typically think of the presidential election years (2016, 2020) as the big ones, with the in-between congressional races (2014, 2018) as the midterm or “off” years. The odd-numbered years, like this year, get so little attention that it’s easy to forget we have an election at all.

For the most part, there are no senators, representatives, or governors up for election in 2017. Turnout is going to be abysmally low. So why should we care?

Several reasons …

1. Turnout is going to be abysmally low.

I don’t have numbers on this, but I doubt I need research to convince you that not many of your fellow citizens will be heading to the polls in a month. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also an opportunity. The fewer people that vote, the more each individual vote counts. If turnout is, say, half of what it was in 2016, your vote literally counts twice as much.

Usually, ×2 power-ups are the kind of thing you only find in video games. Here’s one in real life. Why not grab it?

But more importantly …

2. Local stuff matters.

City council members. Local judges. County taxes. And, in many cases, statewide issues as well. (My state, Ohio, has two issues to vote on, conveniently numbered Issue 1 and Issue 2.) This stuff matters for your community, and again, your vote counts much more (compared to national votes) because there are far fewer voters.

And beyond that — local issues don’t just matter for their own sake, they also have a sort of “trickle-up” effect on national matters. Ever hear the saying, “All politics is local”? Senators and presidents get their power from the little people, and their advisers — if they’re smart — pay attention to which way the wind is blowing. Votes don’t just make decisions, they also send messages.

Speaking of which …

3. Votes matter even when you know you’ll lose.

Say you’re a left-leaning voter in a deep-red county. (A completely hypothetical scenario, in no way associated with my own life. Ahem.) Often, you can be almost certain that you’ll lose, even before you cast your vote. So what’s the point?

Think of it this way. Let’s say you’re dissuaded from going to vote whenever you expect to lose by 20 percentage points or more. (I know there’s not a specific number, we’re just talking roughly.) You go to vote if you think you might lose by 15 percentage points, because you figure there’s a chance; but not if you expect to lose by 25 points.

Well, everyone’s threshold is different. Some people are more optimistic (or dutiful, or whatever) and will go vote if they expect to lose by 30 points or less; others will only go if it’s fairly close, say, 10 points or less. Again, speaking very loosely.

Here’s the thing, though. You, Mr. 20-pointer, get to that 20-point expectation largely because of people like Miss 30-pointer, who voted last time when the odds were even more grim. And, in turn, your vote helps encourage Mrs. 10-pointer, who votes only when things look rosy. So again — it’s not just about making this particular decision. It’s about sending a message to other voters. It’s about blazing a trail.

Besides, don’t forget …

4. You get to feel smug and superior.

And really, isn’t that what democracy is all about?

You can learn about the candidates and issues at Ballotpedia, in your state and local news, and lots of other places. You can verify your registration, find your polling place, and get other info at Can I Vote.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 7, 2017.

Wait — what’s that you say? Your main reason for voting is to spite President Trump? Trust me on this …

5. Voting in local elections will annoy Trump.

Partly because it’s a chance to oppose his vision for the country, even in a small way. But mostly because local elections aren’t really about him at all — and the idea of millions of Americans casting ballots that aren’t stamped with his name, has to drive him absolutely crazy.

Do it for civic pride, or do it for spite. Best of all, do it for both. Just, y’know. Get it done.

Unless you’re not American. Then you can, I dunno, do whatever it is non-Americans do on a Tuesday afternoon. Cricket, I guess?


Can you really be a Vulcan?

Mr. Spock prides himself on thinking logically. When someone is being “highly illogical,” he isn’t afraid to let them know. He’s half Vulcan — Vulcans being an entire race of logical thinkers.

Lots of humans try to do the same, and often feel they’ve succeeded. “Just think about this logically,” you’ll hear someone say, implying that they know how to do this, whereas others do not. A lot of people seem to believe that “thinking logically” is something fairly well-defined, that you can just decide to do, if you’re smart enough to know how.

I’m pretty sure it’s not that simple.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge believer in logic. I firmly believe that logic (along with its children, math and science and engineering) is one of the greatest things we’ve ever come up with, as a species. It’s worthy of deep study and careful practice. Certainly you can think more logically or less logically, and you should generally shoot for the first one.

But logic has its limits. And if you believe that logical thinking is a sort of binary state that you can flip on or off, then you’re being, well, highly illogical. Logic is a strange, subtle, slippery creature, and even if you can get hold of it firmly (good luck, btw) there are some doors it simply can’t open.

Let’s look at some of the difficulties.

Logic is only as good as its inputs — and logic can’t choose your inputs for you.

In a comment a few days ago, blog reader Anthony Lee Collins pointed out that logic only works well if you use it “starting with things that are true.” In other words: Garbage in, garbage out. This is a subtler point than you might think, because logic takes various kinds of inputs. Some input is raw sensory data (e.g., something you saw with your own eyes). Other input isn’t direct from the senses, but consists of conclusions you’ve made from earlier thoughts (e.g., he’s sneezing so he’s probably allergic to something). Some definitions are spelled out fairly clearly in your brain (e.g., a kilogram is a thousand grams), while others are implicit, axiomatic (e.g., it’s possible to define the concept of “a number” formally, but almost nobody does, or should).

The description I’m giving is vastly oversimplified, but already we see how much of a mess our input is. To put it mildly, we can never 100% trust our senses, or our prior conclusions, or our definitions of terms, whether implicit or explicit. What’s more, we can’t even quantify the degree to which we trust these things, and making the attempt would take an enormous amount of time.

Beyond all that, we can’t even use logic to decide which inputs to use, at least not in an absolute sense. Yes, I can use some logical criteria to decide, say, which news reports or which people I trust more or less. But how did I decide those criteria? Did I use logic there, too? Then that logical process must have had inputs … and so on. You see the problem. You go down far enough, sooner or later you’ll hit a gooey blob of intuition. This necessarily happens, to some extent, even in the most rigorous of formal mathematical proofs (because you can’t build a castle on air). How much more does it happen in our ordinary thinking?

All this difficulty, and we haven’t even gotten to the actual “logic” part yet.

Logic can’t choose your goals or values for you.

Logic and science deal in facts, in building up basic data into more complex and (hopefully) more useful data. Logic can tell you something like: “If you vaccinate these 1,000 people against this disease, there is a 99% chance that at least 975 of them will survive.” What it can’t tell you is whether or not to care about people living or dying. This is what philosopher David Hume famously called the is-ought problem: No matter how much “is” data you have (objective facts), there is no purely logical way to jump into the world of what you “should” do (subjective values). At some level, this must always rely on intuition.

People try to get around this in various ways. Christians can say “God commands us to do this.” Okay — but even if you believe in God, why obey him? Because he’s supremely good and wise? Okay — but why go along with what’s supremely good and wise? (If that sounds silly, that’s your intuition talking.) Conversely, atheists might conceivably say that, according to the theory of evolution, the only purpose of life is to reproduce and improve. But in fact the theory of evolution says no such thing. Like all scientific theories, it is purely descriptive; it says that, over time, trillions of organisms have reproduced, and this is the mechanism by which species “improve” (however you define that). It does not and cannot advise you on whether to pursue this goal yourself. All other value systems have the same difficulty.

What logic can do — and what it does very well, in fact — is define subgoals and lesser values as a consequence of your ultimate, foundational values. For instance, logic can’t tell you that you should value life, as a standalone statement. But it can tell you (more or less) that if you value life, then vaccination aligns with your values, based on the data we have.

And even if you have good input data and clearly defined goals …

Logic is expensive.

Thinking logically takes time and energy. It simply isn’t possible to think with precise logic about every decision you make. You have to intuit most of your life, in fact. Another complication: Some decisions (e.g., choosing a new car) may permit you to take weeks or months to think it over at your leisure, whereas other decisions (e.g., whether to brake for that brownish blur that’s suddenly racing across the road) may allow you less than a second.

Okay, you say, that’s not so bad: Come up with a logical system for when to spend more time on logic, and when to spend less (or none). Okay, but … what method do I use to create such a system? How do I evaluate its success? How do I apply it in everyday life? How and when do I make changes to the method? Again, intuition will soak into all these areas.

And finally …

Logic is really, really hard.

What if we could somehow live in an “ideal” world, with good inputs, clear goals, and infinite time for thinking? Logic is still incredibly difficult, especially if you happen to be human. Even the most basic of statements is fraught with possible errors. Take this example:

It is likely to rain, therefore I will take an umbrella.

If someone asked me, I’d say that statement is logical enough, by ordinary human standards. But if we’re really serious about thinking logically, there are a million things to consider before we’d pronounce it solid. Things like:

  • How likely is it to rain?
  • What probability of rain is the threshold for deciding to take an umbrella?
  • When is the rain likely to come? (Is there a fixed time? A fixed window of time? A probability distribution? If so, how is it defined?)
  • Am I also likely to be outside at the time it’s going to rain? How likely?
  • Will the umbrella protect me from getting wet? How likely is it to do so?
  • What level of wetness is acceptable? Is the umbrella likely to meet that standard?
  • How difficult will it be to get the umbrella? Is it right nearby, or do I need to search for it? How difficult does umbrella-getting need to be before I decide I’d rather get wet? How do I measure difficulty?
  • Will the umbrella work? If it doesn’t, what will I do?

And on, and on, and on. And really, even the objections above are generous and oversimplified, because the original statement doesn’t even pretend to follow any sort of truly formal logic.

Again, you might say my questions about the umbrella are silly — but again, that’s your intuition talking. Part of the job of intuition is to bypass the staggering complexity of rigorous logic and produce something that’s good enough. Intuition is necessary. Intuition is what gets us through the day.

There are even more limits and qualifications and things to consider when you talk about logical thinking. You could write hundreds of books on the subject, and people have. My point is simply that logic — even though it’s really, really great — is also woefully inadequate when standing on its own, just as intuition is woefully inadequate on its own. They’re complementary, and if we’re smart, we’ll recognize that, and we’ll understand that “thinking logically” just means “thinking somewhat more logically than usual” — and, for the most part, that’s a good thing.

Maybe, like Mr. Spock, we’re all half-human after all.

Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful

The Buckleys, pumpkinized. Has science gone too far??

The bumper sticker

A couple hours ago I came across this bumper sticker, presumably owned by a disgruntled liberal:

I’ll treat your President with the same respect that you treated mine.

You hear this sort of thing fairly often. It always strikes me as dumb and kind of depressing.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m also a liberal, also dismayed by how Obama was treated, also unhappy that we’ve elected a man who is childish, self-centered, incompetent, ignorant, crude, petty, dangerous, and frequently vile. But here’s the thing. This bumper sticker is supposed to be anti-Trump, yet it’s embracing the very core of Trump’s philosophy: You hurt me, I hurt you back.

So you think your opponents acted childishly. Fine. But if you think the solution is to be childish right back, then I hope you’re not a kindergarten teacher. We’ve gotta have some adults in the room, because if we’re all children, well … we know how that one ends.

Even the language is silly. “Your President,” as opposed to my President. Every time I hear someone say “Not my President,” I want to bop them on the chin with a rolled-up copy of the Twelfth Amendment. He was elected legitimately — even if he didn’t get a majority, even if Russia interfered. (Collusion is a somewhat different matter, but we’ll wait and see what Mueller finds.) The point is, the biggest thing holding Trump’s chaos in check — apart from his own remarkable incompetence — is the counterbalance of the legislative and judicial branches (enshrined in Articles I and III), plus the voice of the American people, which is protected by the Bill of Rights. If Trump’s not your President, then you don’t respect the Constitution, and the Constitution is exactly what will carry us through this gargantuan quagmire. Even saying “Not my President” in a nonliteral way is, I think, somewhat harmful.

Besides — if he’s not your President, then what the hell are you so upset about?

One final thought. It occurred to me that the bumper sticker might just as easily be a few years old, owned by a conservative who was bitter about how W was treated, and angry about Obama. There’s no year on the sticker, nothing to indicate age. Which side of the aisle is this person really on? There’s no way to tell.

That, in itself, should say something about this cycle of political venom we’re in.

Various & sundry

  • Still reading that Superintelligence book. It’s still good, although he occasionally strays into some territory that seems oddly speculative, even by AI standards. Right now I think the biggest struggle is simply getting people to have this conversation. It’s like a bus with seven billion people is driving full-throttle toward a cliff and nobody knows it, and whenever you bring it up, everyone’s like “What are you talking about? We’ve never gone over a cliff before so I’m sure it won’t happen now.” (To be fair, there are like eighteen other cliffs on the horizon besides this one, parts of the bus are already on fire, and nobody’s quite sure where the steering wheel is.)
  • I’m collaborating with Esteemed Herr Author Benjamin Trube on a project he came up with, a Babylon 5 podcast. My prior podcast experience has been limited to, um, not listening to them, so this is something quite different for me. Basically, we watch a new B5 episode every two weeks or so, then record ourselves talking about it for an hour. We’ve recorded two episodes so far but haven’t inflicted anything on the interwebs yet. More as it develops.
  • I’ve started working on a Buffy webcomic. As with the B5 podcast, nothing is online yet, but I’ve created seven strips so far, and a “library” of files to make a bunch more. I need another project like I need a black hole in my head, so I’m not going to self-impose any deadlines right now. If and when I get a decent-sized backlog, I may start posting them once a week. If I lose interest, I’ll just post the ones I’ve created already. So far, though, it’s been a lot of fun to work on.
  • Evan is crawling, crawling, crawling everywhere. We babyproofed our kitchen so hard last weekend. Babies can be a pain sometimes, but man, that little guy is friggin’ amazing.
  • Betsy, if you’re reading this, I love you! 😀 (If you’re not reading this, I still love you, but you’ll have to hear about it some other way. That can probably be arranged.)
  • A lot of stuff in the news — hurricanes, the Las Vegas shooting, Trump’s assorted stupidities, twelve million other things. I follow it all pretty closely and I think about it a lot, but I typically don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said in twelve million other places already. If you’re interested in my take on a particular topic, though, you’re welcome to leave a comment. In the meantime, I support the ACLU, try to figure it all out, and hope for the best.
  • Haven’t seen Star Trek: Discovery yet. Kinda burned out on Trek, but who knows?
  • New movie called Annihilation coming out next year. Trailer looks pretty sweet. Even sweeter: It stars Natalie Portman (one my favorite actors), and is written and directed by Alex Garland, who also wrote and directed Ex Machina (one of my favorite movies).
  • I’m planning to return to Crane Girl once I finish a smaller, family project, which should be done by Christmas.
  • A bit of a lull in the editing at the moment. Freelance work tends to be feast-and-famine. Lately the famines have been shorter, which is nice. I’ve been using the break to get some other things done.
  • Betsy and I have been going to church more regularly over the past couple months. Although I’m agnostic, attending church is enlightening and useful in a number of ways. I tend to think that nonbelievers should spend at least a little time in church, for the same reason that believers should spend at least a little time listening to atheists.
  • We switched to a cheaper trash service, which allowed us to add the savings to our monthly Doctors Without Borders donation. Calling them to increase our auto-payment amount makes me a special kind of happy.
  • I have a ton of ideas for other blog posts floating around in my cerebrum, but time always seems to be tight. I’m not sure that time actually is tight, but it always seems that way. I do want to write at some point about what “logical thinking” really means, and why it’s so hard, and what its limits are. Although logic and science are two of humanity’s supreme achievements, I think we “rational” types often get an inflated idea of what logic is capable of, and we sometimes undervalue intuition. But more on that later (hopefully).
  • Happy Thursday!

What’s the difference between … ? (round 3)

rock & stone

These refer to basically the same physical thing, but they have different connotations.

rock tends to be rough or unrefined, while a stone tends to be smooth or polished; you throw rocks but skip stones. Rock is in its natural state, while stone has been worked in some way; you visit rock cliffs and the Rocky Mountains, but stone temples and the Rosetta Stone. A cut and polished diamond is a (gem)stone, never a rock (except sometimes in slang). And if it’s really big, it tends to be a rock; think of the Rock of Gibraltar or Ayers Rock or the third rock from the sun. If it’s small, it tends to be a stone; think of kidney stones (or maybe don’t).

Side note: Be careful. “We will rock you” and “We will stone you” mean two very different things.

sermon & homily

These two are often used interchangeably. The Catholic Church and some other Christian churches do seem to make a distinction: A homily is a commentary on Scripture, typically short, while a sermon can be on any topic, and is typically longer, perhaps more formal. Protestants tend to just use sermon for everything.

blond & blonde

Sometimes subtle distinctions help us convey precise meaning. And sometimes, they just piss you off. Blond vs. blonde is firmly in the latter camp, for two reasons. First of all, there’s simply no reason to make a distinction (in spoken language they sound identical and nobody gets confused). And second, nobody can agree on what the distinction should be.

Some people say that, when used as an adjective (e.g., blond hair), it should be blond for men and blonde for women. Others say the adjective should be blond for both men and women. The situation is similar for use as a noun (he’s a blond, she’s a blonde) except that many readers interpret the noun as a woman regardless of spelling.

The upshot is that you’re screwed no matter what, so don’t worry about it too much. (Except for copyeditors, of course, who worry about everything; they should consult their style guides.)

ignite & combust & burn

Ignite means to set something on fire. Once it’s on fire, it’s burning. Typically burn and combust are used to mean the same thing. Some sources say that burning implies a flame, whereas combustion may or may not produce flame, but I’d say that burn is often used in non-fiery situations as well (e.g., chemical burns, radiation burns, burning calories). So I’d say that the biggest difference between combust and burn is that combust sounds more science-y. If anyone knows of a clearer distinction, you’re welcome to leave a comment.

erotica & pornography

Erotica is art that tries, among other aims, to excite sexual arousal. Pornography tries to excite sexual arousal as its sole aim, and it is rarely artistic.

film & movie

Pretty much the same, except that film is 30% fancier.

America & the United States

America comes from Amerigo Vespucci, an early European explorer who wrote about his travels in the “New World.” In its broadest sense, the term refers to the Americas, that is, the continents of North and South America. Anyone living anywhere from Argentina to Canada can rightfully call themselves American.

The United States of America is just that: a nation comprising many states, all of which are in the Americas (specifically, North America). But “the United States of America” is a mouthful, so it gets shortened in a number of ways: the United States, the US, the USA, or simply America.

It’s that last one that’s problematic, because now we have some ambiguity. A bigger problem arises when we ask what to call the residents of the United States of America. Nobody’s going to say we’re “United States of Americans,” and “United Statesians” just sounds dumb. Other alternatives exist, but they all seem odd because nobody uses them, and nobody uses them because they seem odd. Americans we remain.

web & internet

The internet is the global network of computers that’s been around since about the 1970s. The web (short for World Wide Web, which is what “www” stands for) is the subset of the internet that comprises websites and web pages like this one. The web has been around since 1991, when it was created by Tim Berners-Lee.

What else does the internet do besides host websites? Email, filesharing, VoIP, Usenet newsgroups, and a zillion other things.

dentist & orthodontist

An orthodontist is a special type of dentist who has done additional intensive study in, well, orthodontics. Orthodontics deals with problems of alignment in the teeth and jaw. One example of orthodontics would be getting braces. General dentists can do some orthodontic work as well, but it’s not their specialty.


Life without baby: Uggh I have to do laundry again.

Life with baby: Oh thank goodness, he’s asleep, I can finally do some laundry in peace.