Category Archives: Saturday Edition



This is a picture of me meeting Felicia Day on Monday during her book-signing tour. I don’t usually do crazy things of this nature, but Felicia is probably my single favorite Person From The Internet, so driving the 230 miles to Beaverton to spend a few seconds in the same room with her so she could personally scrawl her signature on my copy of her memoir (which is funny and adorkable and you should totally read it) seemed like a perfectly sane idea at the time.

Besides, my brother lives in Tigard, also in the Portland metro area, so I was able to make a weekend visit of it rather than just doing a five hundred mile round trip in one day.

I adore Felicia Day, so this meeting was the most nervous I’ve been in a long time. I had a bunch of things I’d thought about saying, like “I love your work” “I absolutely adore you” or “You’re my single favorite Person From the Internet, thanks for being awesome.” But I was also afraid of coming off like a creep, because that was a real possibility and it would have sucked. So I ended up not saying much and not really connecting. I even answered a pro forma “How are you?” with my standard “I’ll live,” which was met for the only time since I’ve started using it with what seemed like genuine concern and alarm.

Felicia Day is awesome, and I sort of feel like an ass. Failure Mode of Clever indeed. I don’t know whether to hope that incident made me stand out, or to hope she met enough other people that day that even my remarkable beard didn’t make the incident memorable.

So that was fun.

On the inadequacy of a crude utilitarian morality

It is not especially uncommon to hear Humanists  espouse a crude form of Utilitarianism: “Maximize happiness; minimize suffering,” and on the surface this seems sensible. We like happiness, in both ourselves and others, and we dislike suffering just as broadly.

There are, however, a number of problems in implementation that render the idea virtually useless. The most important of these are quantification and aggregation.

It is an open question whether emotional states like “happiness” and “suffering” are quantifiable and consequently whether “utility” is.  Certainly no current scientific technique has the ability to unequivocally quantify these things. We can start scanning brains and having people fill out surveys, but at the end of the day, none of that is conclusive. People lie on surveys, and there are large differences in individual brain structure.

At most we could hope to discover (as, in fact, we have) some crude insights about human nature. What’s likely to make us happy, what’s likely to make us suffer, but as valuable as these insights might well be they don’t begin to make individual utility quantifiable much less comparable.

Comparability is a problem specifically to aggregation. How do we weigh one person’s happiness against another person’s suffering? If we can’t do that, how can we aggregate their individual utilities if making one person happier requires that another suffer? Can we rely on that never being the case?

Which brings us to a final problem. Are these goals even compatible? Can we maximize happiness while simultaneously minimizing suffering, or do we have to accept some exchange of happiness against suffering to make this problem tractable? If so, what exchange should we accept?

Or is this whole idea unworkable?

Why privileged people get confused about privilege.

“Privilege” is one of the most important words to learn when learning to look at the world in a social justice framework, whether as a feminist, as an anti-racist, or whatever. This is in part because the social justice use of the word is actually a little odd if that’s not the world you’re from.

In this sense, “Privilege” refers to any unearned systemic advantage one group of people has over another. What makes this odd is that the advantage is often something privileged people think everyone should have and that it shouldn’t be impossible for everyone to have. Like being treated decently by strangers and fairly by the justice system.

The way I think most SWMs (Straight White Male; you can pronounce it “swim” if you like) learned the word is our parents telling us they would take away our “privileges” if we were naughty.

So the definition that gave us was “A thing I want but am not entitled to.” Which, to be clear, for most of us probably doesn’t actually include our black friends and neighbors getting shot by police or our female friends and neighbors being terrorized by other men.

In its original use, “privilege” referred to matters of formal law where the law was different for one person (say, a king) than for anyone else. Thus a word derived from “private law.” Over time, it was applied to aristocrats and plutocrats to describe the things their positions gave them that others didn’t have.

Consequently, here’s what privilege means to a typical SWM:
1) A thing I want but am not entitled to.
2) The non-monetary advantages the rich enjoy over the poor.
3) The advantages the aristocracy enjoy over the common people.

And so when you say we “have privilege,” that’s weird and confusing, because we don’t on the whole actually want other people to be treated like crap (and generally don’t get what we want) and most of us aren’t rich or aristocrats.

Our systemic advantages are a thing we have trouble seeing and don’t tend to think about, so “not getting shot today” doesn’t generally show up in the list of things I want beside “finally getting my car fixed.”

A lot of social justice advocates seem to think this confusion is feigned, and it probably is in some cases, but a lot of it is also genuine. and perfectly understandable. I’d even suggest that there may be value in finding another way to talk about these things.


In Computer Science there is a machine. It was first envisioned by Alan Turing in 1936 and it bears his name. It’s more powerful than any computer that has ever been made or will ever be made, despite running on a magnetic tape. How is this possible?

Well, it isn’t. Not strictly speaking. You can’t build a Turing Machine because Turing Machines need something that doesn’t exist. They need infinity. In fact, they need two infinities. A Turing Machine’s incredible power relies on an infinite length of tape and an unlimited amount of time.

And yet, Turing Machines are useful. They’re the conceptual basis for modern computer systems, because what’s true of a machine with an infinite length of tape and an infinite amount of time is often also true of a machine with a large amount of memory and a fast microprocessor.

Nor is Computer Science the only science with such a machine. Physics has the Carnot Heat Engine. Devised by Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot in 1824, it doesn’t require any infinities, but it does violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

As with the Turing Machine, the Carnot engine is useful despite its physical impossibility. It defines the boundaries of what is possible for a heat engine.

These conceptual models of simple and useful but impossible things show up in many disciplines. Even Economics has its equivalent. You may have heard of it: the Free Market.

You’ll often hear pundits, and even economists who should know better, talking about “The Free Market” as if that were a thing that actually existed in the real world, but a Free Market isn’t the same thing as a Private sector, and it’s not some utopian anarchy. It’s an impossible machine.

A conventional description of a Free Market describes a marketplace entirely free of coercion or fraud. Free Markets can do wonderful things in theory, and they’re a useful approximation for a real market in many situations.

Of course, real markets aren’t free. Real markets have coercion and fraud, things not considered by the simplistic Free Market model, and these things are unavoidable.

The only effective tool against coercion and fraud is, oddly, coercion. Specifically coercion of the sort practiced by governments. With the power of government, we can remove bad actors from the market and compensate for the subtler imperfections of real markets (what are called market failures.) Ultimately, it’s only with extensive government intervention that a market can approach the impossible perfection of a Free Market and summon Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.