Category Archives: Philosophy

why I won’t fly

I don’t fly. Since the TSA put its latest set of security-theater rules in effect, I just can’t do it (or ask my family to) in good conscience.

It comes down to this: I know too many people who would be traumatized by the kind of treatment the TSA has made mandatory. I can think of too many cases where either the backscatter machines or the invasive patdowns would cause lasting damage, the kind no flight is worth:

You get the idea. Privacy is important. For some people, it’s vitally important. And it’s relevant, because I have not committed a crime. Getting on an airplane is not probable cause to believe I will.

Yes, I realize that not all these cases apply to me. I also know that my family won’t necessarily be subjected to the backscatter or the patdown. The point—and to me it’s the only important point—is that no one deserves to be treated this way, and I refuse to support a system that does so.

Each time I choose not to fly, I’ll send a letter to the airline I would have used, the airports I would have gone through, and the TSA to let them know why. I hope that eventually they’ll see reason and do away with these crazy searches. Until then, I won’t fly.

For reasons to stay angry, follow the ongoing news on Reddit’s Flying With Dignity group or get a stream of images from The Daily Patdown.

the 42nd monkey

Lee shared a thoughtful and entertaining Cracked article* by David Wong about the Monkeysphere. In short, the idea is that we can maintain less than 150 relationships (our monkeys**), so there’s no way for us to care about everyone.

Lee also shared a Derek Sivers article that hits right in the gut. As Lee pointed out, reading the two together makes it obvious that the abuses Derek talked about came from people working outside their Monkeysphere. They ended up shouting at their email, not realizing there was a person on the other end.

After reading them both, I had to ask myself: Why do I think I’m different? I do try to treat people with respect, even when “people” are an abstraction so far removed from my life that I need complex software*** to remind me how to treat them well. I also interact with lots of people over the course of the day, far more than the ~150 my Monkeysphere would allow me to care about.

First I thought there might be some notable difference between in-Monkeysphere people and out-of-Monkeysphere people. Maybe I just follow a set of rules about interacting with people (see also: enlightened self-interest), without really feeling it on the inside. Then I read a tweet from Dave Masten:

“My dad’s leukemia just took a turn for the worse. Sad.”

That hit me in the gut, too. And then I figured it out. They *are* in my Monkeysphere. All of them. Sara and Valerie are in there. Dave’s in there. You’re in there, dear reader, even if I don’t know you at all. They’re the 42nd monkey.

Here’s how it seems to work, based on whole minutes of self-examination: one of my monkeys**** is an abstract monkey. Programmers might call it a variable, mathematicians might call it an equivalence class, and politicians might call it a constituent.  When I interact with someone who isn’t in my Monkeysphere, that person becomes the 42nd Monkey for that interaction, even if it’s only a few seconds. When the time comes to deal with someone else, they become the 42nd Monkey instead.

The 42nd Monkey suffered a loss. The 42nd Monkey is working toward a deadline. She slept badly last night, and she’s just trying to wake up. He’s glad it’s Friday. She doesn’t have a lot of time, but she’s willing to talk. He wonders if all this trouble is worth it. She hopes she’ll meet someone nice tonight. He’s awkward at parties. The 42nd Monkey, in short, is a real human being.

The 42nd Monkey isn’t so different from the other monkeys in my sphere, so I try to treat him with the same respect. More importantly, I realize I’m probably outside of the 42nd Monkey’s monkeysphere, so I give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s not yelling at me to make me feel bad; it’s because her child is crying. He’s honking at my car, not its driver.

Why does this matter? Because I don’t agree with David Wong’s conclusion that “it’s also impossible for them to care about you.” (Emphasis his.) I can be your 42nd Monkey just as you are mine. It might only be for 5 seconds, but if that’s the time you’re spending with me then that’s all it takes.

* I know! Can you believe it? Not a phrase I’d ever imagine writing.
** Yes, humans aren’t monkeys, and most of the images in the Cracked article aren’t monkeys either. Step back and embrace the wider point here.
*** A digression, but here’s an example from right now: My phone is told by my calendar application to remind me when someone I’ve never met is scheduled to call, so I’ll know not to send that call to voicemail, which I ordinarily would do because their caller ID isn’t in my address book.
**** There’s probably more than one monkey, but for now let’s assume it’s one monkey. (In a vacuum[4].) That way I can name it, instead of saying “Monkeys 42 through 42 + n, where n < 108″ each time.

clearing the plate so we may fill it

Brad makes an excellent point:

There is an incredible amount of value in a clean slate and an empty inbox every day. Instead of burning up hours on an endless stream of interesting (but ultimately useless) content, I am faced with a blank page and a free block of time to write, code, design, create and explore on a much more frequent basis.

I suffer from a plague of options. It used to be sufficient just to weed out the ones I wasn’t capable of pursuing. Then I filtered out those I found uninteresting. Now it’s gotten to the point where I have to choose between Awesome Opportunity A and Amazing Situation B, and it’s hard work.

For instance, I stopped being a GeekDad last month. I hadn’t been writing much for them anyway, but declaring it over meant that I could unsubscribe from mailing lists, close my “story ideas” file, clear the Moo Cards out of my wallet, and generally stop worrying so much about missing (self-imposed) deadlines. I was a little sad to lose the opportunity, but I was overjoyed at this new clear space in my life. My inbox actually reached zero!

I’ve also decided not to worry so much about the kinds of opportunities I’m offered. When I have a dozen choices for college, any one of which will give me the opportunity to learn what I need, it doesn’t matter so much if one of them doesn’t turn out. (Mind you, MIT would have been impressive. It’s just that wherever I end up will be just as useful.)

Instead, I’m creating more. Note that I didn’t say starting more projects, because that way lies madness. The focus now is working, not starting. Completion, not ideas. If you know me at all, you know how difficult that can be.

HOWTO: cast a protest vote in California

Ted shared an article in Reason this morning: Not Voting and Proud. While I totally understand that “abstain” is just as valid a choice as any on the ballot, I think that Brian Doherty, the article’s author, makes a few missteps:

He sets up a false dichotomy between voting and otherwise helping out in the community. “So, this November 2, do the right thing for America: go to work and do a good job. Clean up some garbage on your street. Help a neighbor out.” The assumption is that I can’t do both. Yes, voting took some time. (For some people, it takes hours.) But I picked up trash yesterday, I’m going to work and do a good job today, and I’ll help a neighbor out tomorrow. Voting didn’t impede my ability to do any of those.

He invokes the paradox of an individual choice in collective action. “As the 2000 election showed, it’s not only effectively mathematically impossible that one vote could matter: it is politically impossible as well.” Doherty even hangs a lampshade over the obvious resolution:  “No American is responsible for the voting behavior of our countrymen; so don’t worry for a moment about what would happen ‘if everyone thought that way’.” There are better descriptions of how this paradox resolves, but I’ll invoke some examples: I picked up some garbage even though lots of people both litter and pick up garbage. I work even though my coworkers would take up some of the slack if I didn’t. I’ll help my neighbor even though there are a few other volunteers who plan to do the same. Why? Because each of us has been asked to make the decision for ourselves, so I make that decision as thoughtfully as I can.

He contradicts himself just by writing the article. “If you did control thousands of votes, the math might make it worth voting. But you don’t.” Ah, but how many people read Reason, and specifically how many like-minded people will be swayed by this particular article? The sheer fact that the article takes a tone of encouragement (“Don’t throw away your life; throw away your vote”) should discount the statement about “the math.” As another example, Ted recently asked friends to vote a certain way, “Assuming you vote. Which I don’t.” So it’s important enough to influence others, but not to actually state your preference when asked? I call shenanigans.

I posit that there is a way to vote in protest against voting, specifically in California. Using the ballot I cast this morning as an example, here’s how you could have cast a protest vote:

  1. Register to vote and/or get a provisional ballot (if you changed your mind at the last minute).
  2. Vote for any candidates or propositions that pass your “matters” test. (May be none of them, but I remind you there are Libertarian candidates on there, and local races often come down to a few votes’ difference.)
  3. Vote “no” on all propositions. (For those unfamiliar with CA propositions, that means “No, you may not change the law, change the Constitution, sell bonds, or whatever else you’re asking me about.”)
  4. Leave all other candidates blank, or fill in the write-in bubble and write “PROTEST” in the space provided.
  5. Give your ballot to the nice lady at the ballot box.

As extra credit for super-vote-protesters, you could also:

  • Attend the next city council / school board / mayoral meeting and participate in the process.
  • Next time around, attend the debates and ask really really hard questions. If you doubt this is possible, talk to Eric Bidwell.
  • Run for a seat on the city council / school board / congress and start disassembling government from the inside. (I’m sure Ron Paul would love the company.)

That said, your choice is your own. If that choice is to abstain from voting, I won’t harangue you further. I have more important things to do anyway. ;)