Friday, August 29, 2014


This is just a short thing to let those few readers I have know that this blog is going on a semi-hiatus. I've started school, and it's proving a little more difficult than I anticipated to get into the swing of things with it. So, I'm giving myself permission not to write for non-school related things, like this blog. I might still write some things, if I have the time and inclination, but no promises (of course, I haven't been very productive on here of late anyway, so it's not that much of a change). Once school is over, I'll consider being more productive on the blog again.

Thanks for reading, past, present, and maybe in the future.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Choosing life in the face of depression

In the wake of Robin Williams's recent death to apparent suicide, Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers wrote a beautiful piece about how he viewed Robin Williams's life and death. Let me highlight a few parts that called out to me:
Reading the various lamentations of the suicide of Robin Williams, I’m troubled by the tendency for people to take a single deed to define a man’s entire disposition towards life. There is a tendency to frame what happened as Williams losing his battle with depression. Or to take his act of suicide as his ultimate verdict on the value of his life, or of life itself. 
But it’s neither of these things. 
Monday he had a bad day with depression. A lethally bad day. 
But had he been lucky enough to survive it, he would have likely regretted it. Most survivors of suicide attempts are glad to be alive. And his judgment day after day prior, over the course of decades of struggles, was that life was worth enduring even through the blackest nights of addiction and mental illness. He transmuted his pain into enduring art. It took the form of manic, exuberant, genius, edge-of-the-seat improvisational stage comedy that exuded life more than any other comedian’s. And it took the form of painfully self-revealing dramatic performances. He played so many characters who brimmed with combustible desperation and vulnerability.
And then later in the piece he wrote:
And those are the twin things to remember about life. Nobody gets out alive. We all die. Whatever the cause. But in most places on most days, everybody gets out alive. No matter how bleak things are for us, most of us live to fight another day. And it’s the same for those struggling with depression. Most days, they win. Most days, they endure. Most days, they choose life. 
On their darkest days the simple act of breathing is an act of hope. Even when the mind and heart feel like they’re in despair, they manage to breathe. They manage to take themselves to the next moment and see what it has to offer. 
My point is that people who struggle with suicide win their lives over and over again. They choose life more often than those who never make living into a question. They survive numerous ledges that their minds push them out onto, managing over and over again not to fall. And we should appreciate what their high wire skills tell us about them and what matters to them. Each time they choose their family, their friends, their life’s cause, or even just the next day, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to continue valuing and to continue giving.
If you've read this blog, or you know me personally, you know I've battled, and still battle, against depression. In my worst periods I've been suicidal. One night when I was 19 I got off work, and realized that if I went home, I might not --probably wouldn't-- survive the night (actually, I didn't even consider it in question). I made the choice to self-admit myself into the psych ward at a local hospital. I had to choose to think that life could be worth it -- or at least, that it was worth finding out. I didn't really think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what it was. To me, it seemed like I was battling twin desires: the desire to live, and the desire to end the pain. I made the choice to live.

Some years later, in my third year at college, I made two attempts at suicide, two attempts to choose an end to the pain. In one (I don't remember which was first), I started to cut my wrist before stopping myself. In the other, I started swallowing sleeping pills and chasing them with alcohol. In both cases, as I was doing it, I thought about what my suicide would do to my friends and family, my loved ones. I thought of the pain it would cause them. In the case of the sleeping pill attempt, I remembered the clear and obvious concern on a friend's face who ran into me as I was buying the alcohol I was planning to drink with the pills. I didn't tell him what I was planning, but I still noted that concern. And that concern was instrumental in making the choice to stop swallowing pills. In the wrist cutting attempt, I actually wrote a note, addressed to my roommate, and the process of that writing reminded me of her caring. And so, I could not finish the cut once I started. 

I made the choice then to stop, but though this may sound bad, it wasn't an easy choice. This was one of the worst periods of my life, probably my worst bout of depression, and every day was a battle. The sense of despair and hopelessness was at times overwhelming, and I can say that without hyperbole. 

But now I'm glad. I'm glad that I chose to live, even with all the pain I was in. I'm glad that I'm alive now to face yet another bout of depression, one that saps my ability to concentrate on things I'd normally enjoy, like reading or playing video games. I'm not suicidal this time (another thing I'm glad for), and I'm not giving up. I'm choosing to face this, and live. 

Thank you, Dan Fincke, for your beautiful words.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More depression is depressing

Lately, I've been more depressed. It started, I think, at the end of May. It was subtle at first, and I didn't notice right away. I shouldn't be surprised that I didn't notice. Depression symptoms generally come in patterns over time. It doesn't always immediately manifest itself as some overwhelming feeling of "depressed." Sometimes there are feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair, but not always. And even when they do appear, they can be subtle, and creep up on you until suddenly they're there, and they've been there all along, like the Silence from Doctor Who.

But feelings aren't at the crux of my current symptoms. Not those feelings anyway, though I can sometimes sense them creeping up on me. I've been managing to hold them off for now. No, instead there are patterns of behavior and difficulty.

Let's just start with the pattern that I spotted first, probably because it seems to be the most important. I haven't been thinking "deep thoughts." I haven't been reading those posts on feminism and atheism that I usually enjoy reading, or reading posts on philosophy and ethics, or reading news stories that I would generally follow (the Hobby Lobby decision, for example). I haven't been taking the time to think through many issues or questions of importance.

When I try to read up on things, to examine complex posts online, I can't concentrate. It's exhausting just trying to get through a few paragraphs, and I find myself struggling to understand what I've read. This is complete and utter bullshit, because that's just not me, and yet it's happening.

So, I've caught myself avoiding such things. I didn't even notice I was doing that at first. I've been using video games in an attempt to avoid doing any mental heavy lifting. But then, I find myself not enjoying the game I'm playing, and quit after a relatively short period of time. Again, that's not like me. And since I don't want to watch anything on Netflix, because that's another thing I struggle to enjoy lately (at least I still enjoy sex), I find myself pacing, restlessly, not knowing what to do with myself.

Before this depressive stage hit, I'd been working on a project to better myself, to become a better version of me. About all I've managed to keep from that is attempts at exercise (though even that had fallen by the side for a bit). I've been exercising a little bit every day, but it's a struggle to keep going. My wife's been wonderful in helping to hold me accountable for the exercising, and without her, I think I would have given up already. Which would have made me feel worse. Unfortunately, I don't really enjoy the exercise I've been doing. It's a 30 day challenge (part of an app I'm using) though, so I don't want to quit to do something different until I've completed the 30 days. If I did, I think I'd feel worse, like a loser. However, once that 30 days is done, I'm switching to weight training at the gym. I actually enjoy lifting weights (and I hope I still do).

There's outside factors as well, things that cause stress. Worry about how we're going to manage financially with our first child on the way, worry about how this depression is going to affect my school work, some relationship issues with a friend (which have been resolved), and the like. But much of that started after these other symptoms started, so while they feed into the depression, they are not causing it.

No, the cause is once again just my brain breaking on me. As such, at my last psych appointment a few days ago, we upped the dosage on my Abilify to see if it helps alleviate symptoms. Maybe it's helping. I'm writing this after all, and this was something that I'd been avoiding as well. So this could be a good sign.

One way or another, I'll get through this. I have to keep believing that, even though it can be a struggle to maintain hope and optimism at times like these. I'll get through this.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"How am I suppose to trust anyone when I can't trust like 50% of the thoughts in my head?"

That was said to me recently by a friend, and not as a rhetorical question. I told them I needed to think about that before I could try to answer it with any amount of intelligence. This friend lives with a mental illness, like me, though not the same one. It's not really relevant to the general public what it is, just know that it's there and it can have serious effects on their thinking and emotions.

I was reminded of various things as I tried to think the question through. When I was younger, like young teen years, I didn't trust anyone. There's various reasons for that, some of it probably related to then undiagnosed depression, but that's what it boiled down to. But I wanted to trust people. I wanted someone in my life that was trustworthy so I could be close to them. Eventually, I decided that if I wanted someone trustworthy, I needed to start by being trustworthy myself. So, I set out to become a trustworthy person. I vowed to myself not to lie (barring extreme, life-threatening situations), even if it would cause me pain, or hurt someone's feelings. This doesn't mean I'm lacking in tact. I know how to keep my mouth shut, and I don't mind telling only half the truth, so long as I don't out and out lie about it. I can be evasive. For the most part, I've stuck to this principal, even more than 20 years later. I think my idea was that if I could be the trustworthy person I wanted others to be, than others would be more likely to be trustworthy in their relations with me, and that trustworthy people would find me. For the most part, it appears to have worked. I have trustworthy people in my life now, but perhaps that was just a matter of time. I don't know.

So, a question about trust reminded me of my own trust issues. Big surprise. But it doesn't seem to entirely relate. Sure, I can recommend to my friend -and anyone else- that they be the trustworthy person they want others to be (though not necessarily to take vows against lying). And I do recommend that. But that's not so easy when you have an illness that fucks with your thoughts and emotions, making it difficult to trust even yourself, and may be not be entirely helpful.

Of course, I was also reminded of some of the difficulties my own illness, depression, has caused me. In the worst of my times, I had a hard time believing that there could ever be a happy future for me. I had friends, people who cared for me, people I trusted. But my illness made it very difficult for me to see any possibility of a positive future. It would blind me to the positive things in my life, and rob me of my energy and motivation. It made suicide seem like a reasonable choice. Eventually, it was a matter of I would either die, or something had to improve. Intellectually, I was able to see the possibility of hope, and for a while, that intellectual decision had to be enough. To realize that intellectual hope, I had to take my meds and take my treatment seriously (i.e., therapy). Eventually, the intellectual hope I clung to started becoming emotional hope, something I could actually feel. I got past that particular bout of depression, and into the future.

However, my situation, again, is not entirely the same, or entirely relevant. But I was also reminded of a blogger named JT Eberhard. JT's particular illness is anorexia. Sometimes, his anorexia causes him to hallucinate when he looks in the mirror, and at times, these hallucinations will contribute to him not eating. So, I searched his blog to see if there was anything that could be helpful. The first part of this post seems relevant.
The worst part isn’t admitting that you’re crazy (that was, ironically, very liberating). The worst part is doubting everything else. It’s thinking that if I cannot rightly perceive reality with regard to mirrors, is there anything else my brain is twisting? It makes you paranoid, and it makes you question your ability to interact with the world in an acceptable way.
Sounds similar.
It occurs to me though, that all of our brains are deficient toward accurately seeing the world in one way or another. This is how illusions exist. For instance, take this image of the famous checker square illusion: 
Squares A and B are the exact same color. You can use photoshop or whatever other means you wish to confirm this.  . . . 
Virtually every human being will be unable to perceive reality correctly with regard to the two squares. None of our sensory inputs give us all the correct information, and none of our brains parse that information in a way that gives us a fully accurate view of existence. This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition 
For people like myself, like John Nash, and the other anorexics, schizophrenics, and such out there, we deal with one more way in which our minds deny us reality, but it doesn’t make us as different from everybody else as one may seem. There’s this perception that there are normal people and those who are crazy. But the line is actually not that distinct, and I suspect every normal person, when presented with an illusion like the one above, can relate to us in not seeing reality accurately. This is what it feels like to hear voices that aren’t there or to see reflections that aren’t real, the only difference is that people can become frightened of you if you are plagued by the latter illusions.
This seems a wise observation to me. To some extent, none of us can trust the thoughts in our head. Wikipedia has a whole list of ways that completely normal brains bias our thinking in ways that can lead to false beliefs, including confirmation bias, illusory correlation, etc.

So, how can we trust other people, and perhaps ourselves? As JT said, "This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition." Follow the evidence, learn about critical thinking, and practice those skills. Most people are basically decent people, so you can start with an assumption that the person is probably trustworthy, at least to a point (the same principles I'm talking about can apply even if you don't think most people are decent, and you can't bring yourself to start with an assumption of basic trustworthiness). Then, over time, and over the course of your interactions with that person, apply critical thinking to the evidence they provide, and apportion your trust accordingly. Just remember, in order for someone to demonstrate that they're trustworthy, they need to be given the opportunity to prove that they're trustworthy. This means you will need to take some risks, and put yourself out there, perhaps more than you're strictly comfortable, but they're necessary risks. Nonetheless, feel free to start small, and take your time. If the evidence matches your gut instincts most of the time, then you can start to trust your gut more as well.

At the same time, be observing yourself (if you're asking yourself questions like what my friend asked me, you're probably doing this already). A big part of critical thinking is understanding that everyone makes mistakes in cognition. Watch yourself for those, even as you're watching others. But that also means that we should be forgiving of such mistakes.

Even if you practice this for years, and get to a point where you're usually able to make accurate assessments and determine who's likely trustworthy right from the start, even if you've got this down to a science, you're going to be wrong some of the time. That's to be expected. It sucks when you're wrong about someone, when you thought you could trust them, and then it turns out you can't. It sucks when you think someone's a good person, and then it turns out that they're not. The danger here isn't so much in the being wrong, it's in coming to then doubt everything because of that mistake, to overgeneralize that negative event to other events, and assume that all of them will be bad, or that you're always going to be wrong, or that you really can't trust your judgement. Forgive yourself, and try to learn from the mistake. Then move on.

That probably won't be as easy as I make it sound (it isn't for me), but try. That's all we can do. Try.

And hope. What I said earlier about using hope to get through depression can, I think, apply to trust as well. Hope that the person is trustworthy as you put yourself out there. Hope that you can learn to trust your judgement. If you can't actually feel that hope, then just recognize on an intellectual level that some people are trustworthy, and there is a non-zero chance this person will be as well. And other people have developed the skills to trust their judgement, even people with a-typical brains, so there's a chance you can as well. Better to aim for that chance than not, I think. Hopefully (heh), your intellectual hope will eventually be realized.

Friday, June 27, 2014

How to care for introverts -- or is that everyone?

Sometimes I see things that I want to agree with, and then I realize it's not that simple. For example, an image called "How To Care For Introverts" that I spotted on Facebook. It's supposed to be a list of things that teach to, well, care for introverts. But as I read through it, my most prominent thought was "shouldn't you just treat everyone that way?"

For example, the very first item on the list is "Respect their need for privacy." How is that specific to introverts? Shouldn't everyone, even extroverts, have their need for privacy respected?

"Never embarrass them in public." That really should be a general rule, followed whenever possible. Introverts (and yes, I am one) are not special in this respect.

And it goes on like that. Rules or guidelines that just seem like they should apply to people, rather than only introverts. The only thing on the list that is close to specific to introverts is the last item, "Respect their introversion. Don't try to remake them into extraverts." Even that just needs a swap of terms to apply to damn near everyone, in a wide variety of situations.

Introverts and extroverts do have their differences, but this list is not helpful at all in capturing any of those differences.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some background for Caladrel, a drow noble ronin sword saint

A character I came up with using the Random Character Generator from Ultimate Campaign for Pathfinder. Some details are left deliberately vague, and not all of his gold from the Wealth by Level table has been spent, leaving him with 4,350 gold pieces. If anyone wants to use him, feel free, but I suggest spending some of that gold to round out his gear. He could use a bow, for example.

It's unknown why Caladrel was with the drow raiding party. He no longer remembers why. Certainly it wasn't to fight, as he was just a child. But there he was.

A drow raiding party attacked an elven village when Caladrel was young. They were beaten back, and when the elves assessed the damage, they found the young child hiding in some bushes, terrified, yet defiant. Somehow, in the confusion, he failed to follow the raiding party's retreat. He was deemed too young to be complicit in the attack, and was adopted by the weapon and armor smiths for the local militia, a young couple with no other children. Though the exact relationship wasn't determined (uncle? brother?), one of the drow men killed in the attack was clearly related to young Caladrel, and clearly was important to Caladrel. Though he remembers little of his time before the surface elves, that death still haunts him.

While growing up, he received training with the militia, and came to worship the god Gorum, god of war, when a wanderer, and cleric of Gorum, briefly joined the militia. This cleric had been exiled from his previous home for reasons unclear, but nearly everyone was suspicious of him. Everyone but Caladrel. Caladrel befriended him, and listened to him, and over the brief time the cleric was around, became a fanatical follower of Gorum.

A misunderstanding between the cleric and a local family became exacerbated by Caladrel's fury when his newfound beliefs were questioned, causing Caladrel to murder the entire family, including their child, in a fit of rage. Only the cleric knew, and helped him cover his crime up. The cleric left immediately after, leading many to suspect he was the killer. Caladrel stayed on for a full year before finally leaving. He truly regrets the murder of innocents, but nonetheless keeps it a secret.

A samurai sword saint, specializing in the katana, he became ronin when he left his home to travel. He became a mercenary and adventurer, and is known for never betraying an employer, or his comrades. He remains ever zealous in his devotion to Gorum, and some companions have remarked that it's a wonder he isn't a cleric himself.

In battle, Caladrel singles out an opponent, and seeks to eliminate that opponent as quickly and efficiently as he can, before moving on to the next. It is rare that he willingly backs down from any fight, a trait that has nearly caused his death more than once. His weapons and armor have been crafted by himself, though enchanted by others, and he cares for them as his most precious possessions, only replacing them when he feels his crafting skills have progressed enough to create even better gear (and when he has the coin to afford new enchantments).

Currently he resides in Telazar, taking on whatever jobs come his way that allow him to ply his skills of war and violence, for only in the midst of battle does he truly feel alive.

Calendrel, CR 14
Drow Noble samurai (sword saint) 13
CN Medium humanoid (elf)
Init +9; Senses: Darkvision 120'; Perception +6
AC: 27 (+8 armor, +5 Dex, +2 Natural, +2 Deflection)
HP:118 (13d10 + 26)
Fort +10  Ref +9 Will +8, +2 vs enchantment
Immune: sleep; SR 24
Weaknesses: Light Blindness
Speed: 40' (30' base, 10' enhancement)
Melee: +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana +22/+17/+12 (1d8+11, +1d10 on crit, 15-20x20), or +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana +22 (1d8 +13 +2d8, +1d10 on crit, 15-20/x20)                              
Special Attacks: Challenge 5/day, Iaijutsu Strike, Brutal Slash, Terrifying Iaijutsu, Weapon Expertise
Spell-like Abilities:
     Constant—detect magic
     At will—dancing lights, deeper darkness, faerie fire, feather fall, levitate
     1/day—divine favor, dispel magic, suggestion (DC 15)
Caladrel will pick the most dangerous looking warrior and declare his Challenge, then try and move into position for an Iaijutsu Strike, adding his Improved Vital Strike damage. If the opponent still lives after that initial attack, he'll go into a full attack routine. If he's in a situation where he can only make one attack, he'll hold his katana in two hands and use his Improved Vital Strike feat. Once his opponent is finished, he'll move onto the next, again seeking to use Iaijutsu Strike, unless circumstances would prevent that or make it unwise. He always tries to concentrate on eliminating one opponent at a time, using Power Attack only if their AC appears low.

Str 20 Dex 20 Con 14 Int 16 Wis 18 Cha 15
Base Attack +13; CMB +18; CMD 33
Feats: Improved Initiative, Weapon focus (katana), Weapon Specialization (katana), Vital Strike, Power Attack, Greater Weapon Focus (katana), Improved Vital Strike, Greater Weapon Specialization (katana), Penetrating Strike
Skills: Bluff +18, Craft (weapons) +19, Craft (armor) +19, Diplomacy +18, Knowledge +19, Sense Motive +20, Survival +20
Languages: Elven, Undercommon, Common, Draconic, Goblin
Special Qualities: Self Reliant, Without Master, Resolve, Greater Resolve, Honorable Stand, Greater Challenge, Ronin's Challenge (+3)
Combat Gear:
Other Gear: +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana, +2 mithril breastplate of moderate fortification, Ring of Protection +2, Amulet of Natural Armor +2, Belt of Physical Might +2 (Str and Con), Boots of Striding and Springing, Lenses of Darkness, Bag of Holding Type III

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A magus prepares his spells

Just a wee bit of fiction based on the RPG Pathfinder, written as an exercise in imagining spell preparation from the perspective of a magus or wizard using a spell book. More exercises in imagining game mechanics through the eyes of a character may or may not be coming. Critique is welcome.

Tizen settled down cross legged, his back against a tree. It was just after dawn, and a glance around the camp showed that the others were engaging in their morning routines to get ready for the day. Sarlan, the cleric, was facing the rising sun, holy symbol held before him as he prayed to his god, requesting his spells for the day. Shawna, a powerful psychic warrior, knelt in front of the dying embers of last night's campfire, meditating to replenish her psionic energy. Once she was done, she would begin her stretches and excercises for the more physical side of her art. And Speckle was up in the trees, watching everything, and keeping an eye out for trouble.

Tizen turned his attention to his spellbook, and opened it up in his lap. He took a deep breath, and let his vision go unfocused as he looked at the spellbook, clearing his mind as he began his own meditation to prepare his spells. The world fell away as he mentally wiped away the lingering dreams from his sleep, and prepared his mind to ready his spells. Though it seemed but a few moments to him, it was fifteen minutes later before he let his vision refocus on his spellbook. Now it was time to select his spells. First, Corrosive Touch. This would allow him to charge his hand with magical acid, that could then be delivered to an opponent with a touch, eating away at flesh and bone. He traced the runes of the spell with his finger, whispering the words that would lay the spell in his mind. The formula was complex, but then, even the simplest of spells had a complex formula, requiring great effort if one wished to truly memorize the spell and eliminate the need for a spellbook to reference each day.

He reached the end of the spell, or rather the end of preparing it. It was now mostly cast, thrumming in his mind, ready to be released. That release would come with the proper gestures and words used to finish the casting, most likely in the heat of battle, though perhaps also to dissolve a lock on some chest in a dungeon. It remained to be seen. Tizen continued selecting his spells that he would have for the day, preparing each in the same manner, taking just under an hour to finish them all. He left room in his mind for a couple more spells to be prepared, in case he came across a situation that could benefit from a specific spell he hadn't prepared (and assuming he would have at least 15 minutes to prepare such a spell).

He looked up at the camp, blinking away his concentration. The world tended to disappear for him when he prepared his spells. As usual, he was the last to finish his morning routine, and the others were quietly chatting.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A modesty meme

I saw this on Facebook recently:

It says, for those who can't see the image:
Dear Girls,
Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure. Yes you'll get attention, but mostly from pigs.
Sincerely, Real Men
It made me a little angry. "Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure." So, according to this meme, if you dress "immodestly," you're dirty, and may as well be covered in feces. Gee, isn't that just the most respectful thing you've ever heard?? Don't show too much ankle, or by golly, you may as well be covered in stinky cow poop.

All right, let's see if I can do this without more sarcasm. First off, who decides what's modest, and what's immodest? Western culture really did consider showing too much ankle to be indecent (read: immodest) at one time. Even a knee length skirt would've been considered scandalous. And right now, some Muslims believe that a woman must wear a burka in public, or it's considered immodest.  So, what standard are these so-called "Real Men" using to determine who's dressing immodestly?

But that's not the worst of it. What this meme asks us to do is place a value on women (or "Girls"; just what age bracket were they aiming for with that salutation?) based on what they are wearing, and to consider those that are dressed immodestly as less valuable. Yet the value of a woman (or anyone, for that matter) is not, or should not, be based on what they're wearing. When you devalue someone, whether based on clothes or not, you encourage feelings of disrespect for that person, which in turn makes some people think that the devalued person deserves whatever they get. That is the real "manure" behind modesty.

Respect for self (and some modesty advocates claim that modesty is about self-respect) shouldn't be based on one's wardrobe choices and completely arbitrary standards of modesty. Instead, let us base it on our character and actions. How do we treat others? Are we seeking ways to empower each other to our fullest potential? Do we strive for appropriate fairness in the way that we treat each other? And so on.

As far as clothing, just wear what makes you feel comfortable, or happy. If you want to dress in a way that makes you feel sexy, go for it. If you want to dress in a way that makes you feel powerful, go for it. You can, if you want, treat your clothing choices as an art form, as self-expression. Or you can treat them as a simple utility. Whatever it is that you think is going to be most comfortable, and help you flourish the most.

But for goodness sake, stop thinking that your respect is based on how modestly you do or don't dress.

For more on the manure of modesty (because there is more that can be said), I recommend reading Love, Joy, Feminism by Libby Anne. She's written a lot on the subject.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Thoughts on Soylent, the new food substitute

Before I get going, full disclosure: I have not been able to try the stuff, on account of money.

There was a good article at Ars Technica recently about a new product called Soylent, and it made a lot of good points. Soylent, if you're not aware, is a meal replacement product that got it's start on Kickstarter, where it rapidly blew past it's funding goal, and eventually attracted other investors as well. It's supposed to be so nutritionally complete that three shakes per day would give you all the nutrition you need in a single day. And judging by it's FDA approved nutrition label, it can do just that.

But apparently some people hate the very idea of such a product, a product that could, in theory, let you avoid regular food altogether and be perfectly healthy. Yet some object, not in a "not for me, but ok" kind of way, but in a visceral, "it shouldn't be allowed" kind of way. It's that second reaction I have a hard time understanding.

One of the things mentioned in the article is that some people have pointed out is how easy it is to simply cook something healthy up in your kitchen. Except it's not that way for many, not just for people in third world countries, but for people right here in America, a food saturated country and culture if ever there was one.

I have struggled with hunger in my life at multiple times. Times when I was poor, times when I was homeless, and times like right now, where I'm employed, my wife is employed, but somehow, I still struggle to eat enough. I've been losing weight steadily for months, but not on purpose. True, I don't like that pot belly I've got, but neither do I like losing it because I'm forced to restrict myself. Sometimes I only eat once a day, other times maybe twice. I'm rarely truly full and satisfied. I have to struggle to balance my hypoglycemia against the lack of money we have to afford simple food. A product like Soylent, which shows promise in becoming truly cheap and affordable (the makers have stated an eventual goal of $1.50 per meal), is something I would jump at as a way to afford to be healthy. And yet there are people who think it just shouldn't be allowed? I find that, honestly, a disgusting attitude that lacks in genuine appreciation and empathy for the struggles that people right here in America are going through daily.

Aside from that, there's the issue of "it's easy to cook" that I just don't find to be true. I relate to the following from the article:
As many have pointed out in past comment threads on Ars and on other sites, cooking isn’t hard at all—whipping up a wonderful pan-seared salmon with a bit of olive oil takes literally less than 10 minutes. The Internet is bursting with easy recipes that can be quickly pulled together from simple ingredients. There is no excuse, I have heard many people say, for not being able to produce a healthy and delicious meal even if you’re pressed for time. 
To quote Ben Kenobi, what they’re saying is true—from a certain point of view. Though it may not be obvious to someone who keeps a full pantry, effective and sustained cooking requires an incredibly complex long tail of supporting knowledge and skills that a lot of geeks—me included—simply don’t have. With the possible exception of baking, cooking is a decidedly analog process, relying as much on deduction, intuition, guesswork, and experience as it does on measured ingredients and conditions. This "fuzzy" process can induce anxiety and actual fear in people who have never cooked before—especially geek types. 
Here is a simple recipe for cooking ground beef. I plucked it randomly out of Google because it looked easy. But right away, it’s filled with things that either require you to already be familiar with cooking or that will send you down endless rabbit holes of additional research. The recipe’s introduction talks about how to pick fresh beef and how you may or may not want slightly fatty beef. But how do you know? What effect does that have on flavor? Is it important? Can it be quantified? How do you make an informed choice about what you want your food to taste like based on these kinds of squiggly, soft parameters? Further, there are steps in the recipe labeled as "optional." How do you know whether or not you need those steps? What are the parameters defining optional, and what effects on the outcome of the recipe will they have? 
Step one says to "film the pan with a little" oil. How much is a little? It says "film," so does "a little" in conjunction with "film" mean to ensure the entire bottom of the pan is covered in oil? If so, to what depth, exactly? Or does "a little" semantically override "film" and you really only need a few millilitres? If so, how many? 
Step two says to "warm the pan over medium to medium-high heat." Which one is it? What set of initial conditions are we attempting to achieve? "Medium" isn't a temperature, so exactly how hot should the pan be? How do we know when it’s hot enough? Should we get a thermometer and attempt to measure when the pan has reached thermal equilibrium with the burner beneath it? 
Steps three and four are even more problematic. Step three says to break the meat into "several" pieces, but then step four says to "continue breaking the ground meat into smaller and smaller pieces." Why are these two discrete steps? Is there supposed to be a delay between steps three and four? What constitutes "several" pieces? How do we know when the beef is sufficiently broken up? 
And then, worst of all, we have to "sprinkle with salt and any spices"—how much salt? Is there a preferred ratio of salt to beef? And what kind of spices? There’s a tremendous variety available—how are we supposed to know, based on this recipe, which ones to use and in what quantity?
Until recently, I worked at a group home for disabled adults, and I had to cook. Rules were that meals should be from scratch whenever possible. I hated the cooking, positively hated it, for exactly the reasons laid out here. I found it a daunting, sometimes terrifying, prospect, and my attempts to follow "simple" recipes wound up in more than one disaster of a meal, or near disaster. Yes, I can brown hamburger, but a lot of things about cooking were still, and are still, a mystery of fuzzy complexities that belong in the Abyss. I love microwave meals for their simplicity: stick in the microwave for a specified number of minutes, and bam! you got a meal. Soylent sounds as easy as a microwave meal. Just mix, and go. No time wasted (because I also hate how long cooking takes for so little return--seriously, 30 minutes to an hour for something that takes ten to eat?), and no daunting, terrifying, fuzzy instructions.

If you're sitting there thinking "but cooking is easy!" still, consider this example from the article of something else that's easy, at least for some:
To turn the problem on its head for perspective: expecting someone without experience in the kitchen to jump in and make healthy food from a recipe is a little like expecting a non-technical person to sit down and compile a complex Linux application from source. It's not exactly hard—I mean, you don't even have to write any code! You just download your tarball, make sure you have your dependencies, set the options you want, and then it's just configure, make, and make install. The computer does all the work! You just sit there and watch it cook, er, I mean, compile!
Easy, right? Actually, that went over my head, so let me consider an example from my own kind of geekery: RPGs. Make a tenth level Pathfinder character for a campaign that features dungeon crawling and political intrigue.  It's not that hard. First, roll up some initial stats, using a standard 4d6 drop the lowest one method (or, if I'm the DM, 5d6 drop the lowest two, because I like things a little powered up). Second, decide on class. Of course, to do that, you may wish to consider what kind of character you want to play, and what sort of stats you got from your initial rolls. Do you want a tough, kick-in-the-door style of character that really doesn't like all these political games? Or how about a charismatic magic user who uses charm magic to, well, charm people? What about a sneaky, manipulative type? Etc, etc. Not that hard, though you really ought to consider the sort of campaign your in, and what the other players are making for their own characters. Someone needs to be a healer after all, especially when going into the trap and monster filled dungeon, or if there's an expectation of assassination attempts as part of all the politics. Then you need to pick skills: do you want to be good at climbing and jumping? How about book learning? And don't forget to pick your feats, and to choose from an array of class abilities. Once you're done with that, you still need to consult the Wealth by Level table to determine how much and what kind of equipment you can buy for your character. Then, plug everything into your character sheet, add up your modifiers, and you're good to go.

Easy. And a lot of fun.

Unless, of course, you're not into that sort of thing. I'm not into cooking. I hate it. I have no interest in being good at it, and don't know that I ever could be good at it. The frustration and hatred I feel for the process just makes the end result seem not worth the time. So, I'm sometimes forced to do it, but I'll avoid it when I can. Some are probably thinking "but it's a challenge that you should try to overcome! it's good to overcome challenges!" Sure it is, but why is this particular challenge one that anyone should be required to overcome if it isn't necessary? And with the advent of things like Soylent, it might not be necessary. That's a good thing.

There are more things in the source article that I really hope you'll take a look at, and consider carefully if you're still having doubts. For my perspective, anything that has the potential to be cheap, very healthy, and not a time waster, is something we should embrace. At least on behalf of those who can benefit from food that's cheap, very healthy, and not a time waster. I intend to be watching the prices on this, and if it drops enough, I'm grabbing some.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thoughts on free speech

There's at least a couple of different components to consider in looking at the concept of "free speech." There's the legal, political component, as mentioned in the First Amendment to America's Constitution. And there's the ethical and moral component. How does free speech apply in private lives and personal spaces, places that the government isn't a part of (ideally)?

I cannot speak to what America's Founding Father's specifically intended with the First Amendment, nor am I a lawyer who's up on the Supreme Court decisions regarding free speech. So, let me first say what I think a legal right to free speech, as it relates to the government, should be all about, and then I'll get to the ethical component in our private lives.

Any government that is meant to be a government for the benefit of the people, rather than the benefit of the government itself, should support a legal right to free speech. Governments are creations of humans, and as such will make mistakes in policy from time to time. A good government (by which I mean both an effective government, and one with the best interests of it's citizens in mind) would be willing to admit when mistakes have happened, and seek to correct them if possible. Free speech allows the citizens to criticize the government, to say when it thinks the government is wrong. It allows the citizens to lobby for change, and to express discontent with the way the government is doing things.

On the other hand, if the government only cares about it's own power, such as a tyrannical government, then free speech is something to suppress. The more citizens are allowed to criticize and express discontent, the more that discontent is likely to spread. When discontent spreads, there's a greater likelihood of revolts starting. That's not something a tyrant wants. A tyranny needs to control what is said, and when it's said, as much as possible if it wants to retain power.

That's what legal rights to free speech are about at a base level: power. In a government where the power is supposed to, in principle, rest with the people, then free speech is a means to keep the power in the hands of those people. In a tyranny, limiting speech, or even controlling speech, is a means to keep power in the hands of the government.

Now, when considering free speech in our personal lives, we need to consider speech in our home, in our emails, on our Facebook walls, on blog post comments, etc. Pretty much anywhere that isn't strictly a case of speaking in relation to the government, really. However, we don't need to necessarily consider them all separately. It should be possible to come to a general understanding of free speech that can be applied to the specifics of each of these different areas. And let me point out, I'm not speaking legally at this point, but ethically.

People should be free to express their opinions, generally speaking, but not if that opinion expressing is going to cause actual harm to others. Note that I said harm, not hurt. It can be difficult if not impossible to avoid occasionally hurting people, and at times may even be necessary for the long term benefit of the one being hurt. For example, if someone is being lazy, and you tell them such, they may be hurt or offended, but if telling them that gets them up and doing positive things, then it was a good thing that you told them. Of course, there are often ways that we can say even hurtful things in less hurtful ways, in an effort to achieve the good benefits we aim for, while minimizing the hurt or offense.

Being free to express our opinions gives benefits similar to those that we get when free to express opinions on the government. We can criticize each other in ways that allow an opportunity to change course, if needed, or perhaps for the other to argue why the criticism is unwarranted. This is, ideally, beneficial to the person being criticized -- or, if unwarranted, to the criticizer when it's explained to them why the criticism is unwarranted.

Now, sometimes I've seen people get called out on the use of certain language on people's blogs, or on personal Facebook pages. All to often, those who are called out will fall back on the "I have free speech" argument. But do you? If you're on privately controlled internet space, can you claim the right to say whatever you want, without consequences, such as blocking or banning?

No, I don't think you can. For one thing, there's the harm issue. Much of what people want to say under the guise of free speech is actually abusive or harassing, such as death threats, rape threats, abusive insults (constantly calling someone a cunt is going to be abusive), and so on. Free speech is important, yes, even in our personal lives, however, it's importance comes from the ability to freely exchange ideas and criticisms in a manner that allows for people to actually consider those ideas and criticisms, with an eye toward improvement for everyone involved. Calling someone names, hurling insults, being abusive, harassing people, etc does not fall under the umbrella of idea exchange and criticism with an eye toward improvement.

Sure, you could claim that name calling and insult hurling are forms of criticism, but they don't function to improve anyone involved. They do function to get people angry, which generally doesn't help them take in the criticism in a constructive manner. They also function to silence people, to make them reluctant to speak up when they see something they disagree with. And if they aren't speaking up when they disagree, then how is anyone going to be able to respond to that disagreement, and argue that they're wrong? Or, on the flip side, what if this insulted and reluctant to speak up person is actually right, but doesn't speak up because of the verbal insults they received in the past? Then those they would disagree with go on their merry way, being wrong. Do you want to be wrong, when you could be right?

But let me back up for a bit, and look some more at the idea of personal spaces, such as homes, blogs, or Facebook pages, and consider if limits can be placed there, even if the speech being limited would be constructive. Legally speaking, the law of America recognizes that the right to free speech is referencing citizens relationship to the government, and not the relationships of citizens to other, non-government related, citizens. But again, I'm not speaking to the legality issues right now, but to ethical and moral issues.

When we're in a person's home, that person has the right to limit the behavior that can occur within that home. This might mean no smoking in the house, or drinking, or drugs, etc. If we violate those standards, they are well within their rights to revoke our invitation. Personal Facebook pages, blogs, and other such sites are analogous to our homes. They're a private space that we have a right to control, including the right to limit people's speech to the non-abusive, non-harassing, non-hateful kind. Those who aren't willing to abide by such rules can certainly have their invitation (implied or otherwise) revoked by means of blocking or banning. Doing this helps to ensure that there is a safe space for people to talk about what might be difficult, triggering subjects, such as discussions of abuse. It also creates a space that is more conducive to constructive criticism that can actually spark some thought.

It may be that there are also limits to the control that one can exert over their personal space, but that's a subject for a different post.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On trust

I was asked recently whether I thought it was possible to completely trust someone in a relationship not to willfully harm you. But of course, we have to know what we mean by "trust" if we're going to answer that question.

It seems to me that "trust" is a question of knowledge. Can we know that someone we're in a relationship with, a partner, will avoid causing us harm? Some may claim that unless we can know with absolute certainty that a partner (or friend, or family member, etc) will not cause us harm, then we cannot trust them. That's a tall order. For there to be such a guarantee, a person would need to have perfect knowledge-- to be omniscient. This is not possible, even conceptually.

Any being that would claim to be omniscient could be mistaken. There could be something that the being didn't know, and didn't realize it didn't know, or even realize that there was something to know at all. As such, this being would think it was omniscient, without being omniscient. It would be mistaken.

So are we doomed to never trusting anyone, simply because there is no perfect knowledge? I don't think so. There are many things that we can claim to know, even though we might be wrong. I know that I'm sitting in front of my computer, on a chair, typing these words. It's possible that I'm simply dreaming, or hallucinating, or trapped in the Matrix, but while the possibility of any of these is non-zero, that doesn't mean that I must claim that I do not have knowledge that I'm sitting in a chair typing these words.

Knowledge simply doesn't need to be at a level of 100% to be considered knowledge. If it did, we could not ever claim knowledge of anything, not even scientific claims that have mountains of evidence. For example, I know that the speed of light is the maximum speed of anything in the universe. Every piece of evidence acquired to date about the properties of light, matter, space, and time, point to the speed of  light as the maximum speed attainable in the universe. But even that is not 100% certain. Not that long ago a group of scientists thought they had found faster-than-light neutrinos. Had that panned out, decades of physics research might have been brought into question as scientists tried to square all the evidence of the past with this new evidence (it turned out to be an equipment error, by the way). If we find ourselves in a situation where our knowledge is only 99.99999999% certain (such as the speed of light), we don't have to declare that a mere belief, or that we don't really know the speed of light. We do know. We must be cognizant of the fact that our knowledge could be proven wrong if new evidence comes to light (and is confirmed), but we can still say that we know with a high confidence level, such a high confidence level that it's as close to 100% as we can get. (Hat tip to Dan Fincke for the argument that I borrowed from for this part)

Trust is like that. Sure, we can never know with 100% certainty that a particular person in a relationship with us won't hurt us, or even harm us at some point. We can't even know with 100% certainty that they won't willfully hurt us. But we can take all the evidence of character that we've ever obtained or witnessed about that person, and rationally assess that they are trustworthy, and will not willfully hurt us, and especially won't harm us. 

Let me give an example. I've known my wife for roughly eight years. In all that time, I've never been apprised of a situation, or seen evidence of a situation, that would suggest that she isn't worthy of trust. What I have seen is her doing things like asking if she can share something private with others before she does, and, if I say no, I've seen her refraining from sharing it. I've seen her not take opportunities to dig at me in hurtful ways, even when she was angry or upset, even though she has tons of ammunition at her disposal. I've seen her tell me whenever she had a crush on someone, and she's never hesitated to tell me how those crushes are developing when asked. I can say without hesitation that I trust her completely.

Yes, there's technically an outside chance that I could discover she's betrayed my trust. But frankly, I think I'd have a better chance at winning the lottery jackpot. We can, and ideally should, make the effort to apportion our beliefs to the available evidence, but when that evidence accumulates, at some point we can say that we know, and in relationships, that we trust.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Things I've learned from past relationships

Like many, I've been in multiple romantic relationships in the past. And one thing I've noticed is that each one has taught me something, or (in at least one case) provided a significant reminder of lessons that I knew, but evidently had "forgotten." I want to explore some of those experiences. 

J. was my first romantic relationship. It was a very long distance one, as she lived in California, while I lived in Minnesota. In fact, we met online, and never got the chance to meet in person. I'm not going to bother arguing right now whether there can be any real feeling in a long distance relationship. My experience tells me it can be very real. 

We would talk for hours on the phone. And from those conversations I learned to open up to someone else in a way I had never done before. I learned to share fears and desires and dreams. I learned I could find support in the words and caring of another. Most importantly (perhaps), I learned to let myself love. Over time, the feelings changed. We were only together, romantically anyway, for a little over six months if I remember right. But we stayed in touch for a long time as friends, still having conversations that lasted for hours.

My second one would last, off and on, for years. My relationship with K. was also long distance, and also involved many a long conversation on the phone (though she was able to come and visit me once during that time). All the lessons I learned from J. would be reiterated, but more than that I started coming to accept myself more and more while I was with her. I learned that I didn't always have to pretend to laugh, for example. It used to be that when I found something amusing, I would force a laugh in order to try and let the other person know that yes, it was funny. But the laugh wasn't natural for me. It was rare in those days for me to genuinely laugh. My most natural response was to simply let amusement show in my voice or words, and maybe to have a small, mostly silent laugh. To please others, I would force myself to laugh. It always felt . . . tense. She taught me it was ok to do what came naturally. With her, I started learning to accept my own fantasies as just one part of me, and to be more of myself. She also made damn sure I treated her with respect.

A. overlapped my time with K. Obviously, I was open with A. that I was in a relationship with K. A. would be my first long-term, in person relationship. I wish I could say it was a great time. I lost my virginity to her, so that was cool. But after a while, the relationship devolved into fighting and fucking. I had an opportunity once to end it, and to my shame, let it continue in part because I wanted sex. When she finally ended it, I was relieved. I walked away from that relationship understanding that no relationship in the future could be just about the sex. There had better be something more if it was going to be worth pursuing or continuing.

My next relationship was with the woman who is now my wife, but first I want to talk about the one that happened while I was engaged. I had been friends with E., and eventually we tried dating for a while. She was a submissive to me in the bedroom, in the BDSM sense, but I fucked up and tried taking that into areas that I shouldn't have gone. I didn't communicate what I wanted, made assumptions about what she wanted, and generally acted like a bloody asshole. Eventually, I'm glad to say she had enough and called me on it. We broke that relationship off, but remain friends. What did I learn? Communicate. Don't make assumptions. Don't be an asshole. Sadly, I already knew all that, but apparently needed a reminder. I don't regret that the relationship ended (I see where she's at now, and I'm very happy for her; truthfully, I don't think we would've been compatible in the long run even had I done everything right), but I do regret my part in how it ended. I have very few regrets in life, but that is one.

And now, for my wife. All total, I think we've been together somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 years (she remembers better than I do). This August we'll celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. From her, I finally learned genuine laughter. I've probably had more true laughter with her in the past several years than I had in all my years before. I think that tone to our relationship was set from the first night that we met, when I chased her around our mutual friend's apartment with a head of broccoli. Every lesson that I've learned in the past has been reiterated through my relationship with her, and strengthened. Right from the start of us dating, we made sure it wasn't just about sex, that we had other interests we could share. We've been open with each other, communicating, sharing, and being ourselves. No matter what, she's had my back, and supported me in my endeavors, and I have tried to do the same for her. Some days, just having her around can make my day better.

So those are a few of the things I've learned from past romantic relationships. What have you learned?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What I mean when I say I want a secular government

I think some people misunderstand what I and many other atheists mean when we say that we want a secular government. Some people think that means that we want a specifically atheistic government, one that sets atheist ideas at the top, and relegates religion to second tier, or no tier at all. That is not accurate, so let me explain what I mean when I say that I want a secular government.

A secular government, in my view, is not an atheistic government. Instead, you might call it an agnostic government. It's a government that basically says "There are many proposed answers to the questions of gods and the afterlife, and what these answers would mean for humanity. This government takes no stand on any of those proposals. It may be that humans are reincarnated, or are rewarded or punished in a Heaven or Hell, or there may be nothing after this life. It may be there is one god, many gods, or no gods. This government makes no claims to knowledge or belief regarding any of these possibilities. Instead, this government must focus only on what it can know in this life, and deal with things as they come at us in this life, without regard to any possibilities or implications for gods or afterlifes. Thus, all religions will get equal treatment under the laws of this government, with no endorsement of any one above the others, whether explicit or implicit."

On the surface, such a stance may seem to favor atheism, but I don't think it does. For example, I'm anti-death penalty, and part of that stems directly from my lack of belief in an afterlife. I think it's unconscionable to deliberately and willfully end the life of another (without their consent), when doing so means a genuine, complete end to their existence and experience of this, or any other, world. I think I would have an easier time accepting capital punishment if I believed in some form of an afterlife, as that would mean death wasn't the end of experience. A deliberately agnostic government, on the other hand, can take no recourse to either an atheistic argument against capital punishment, nor to a theistic argument for or against the death penalty. It would be forced to deal only with what is right in front of it, and thus would have to give some other rationale for or against the use of the death penalty.

All policies and laws would be similarly limited in the potential reasons used to justify them. An agnostic government would be able to give equal treatment to a diverse panoply of religions and worldviews, in a way that a theocratic or specifically atheistic government would have trouble doing. Want to display a monument to your religion or worldview on public property? Fine, but equal time and space will be granted to other groups wishing the same thing, or no time and space will be granted to any group. Want to start government meetings with an invocation from your religion? Maybe, but again, equal time and opportunity must be granted to other groups wishing to do so, or no time is granted to any group. And by the way, in such a situation, what's wrong with a simple minute of silence? Each person can pray if they wish, or simply take that time to collect their thoughts. Hell, check your email on your phone or tablet if you want.

An agnostic government doesn't care if Little Johnny brings a Bible to school to read in his free time, so long as he's not disrupting class. The atheist can bring some other book to school to read in his free time, the Muslim can bring the Koran, whatever. So long as no one is attempting to disrupt class to proselytize for their point of view, no problem. Prayer in school? Again, as long as you aren't disrupting anything or demanding special privileges, you can pray to your heart's content.

The key here is that no one religion or religious view is treated better or worse by the government, and that people are generally left alone to practice their faith as they see fit, so long as they aren't harming others. And if anyone looks at that sentence and thinks it's a bad idea, then can you tell everyone why you think some particular religious group should be privileged above others, or perhaps treated worse? Can you tell us all in terms that will convince those who aren't a member of your own particular group? Saying something like "if we don't make God part of our government he'll punish us" isn't especially compelling to anyone who doesn't worship your particular god.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Further thoughts on the ethics of suicide

A friend was kind enough to buy me "Stay:  A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It," by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Having taken the time to read it, I wanted to ponder some of Hecht's arguments against suicide, and perhaps give a few thoughts of my own. I'm not going to even attempt to hit on all the arguments presented in the book. This should be read more as what thoughts the reading inspired in me, rather than a proper review of Hecht's writing, and should also be read as a companion piece to my first post on the ethics of suicide.

Argument from Community

We are connected to each other, and it causes suffering of others when we choose to kill ourselves. We leave behind others who have to try and process the fact that someone they cared about has killed themselves, that the suicide was suffering to such a degree that they considered death to be a viable choice. This causes suffering that no one should have to go through. If it's unethical to cause unnecessary suffering in life, it is also unethical to cause unnecessary suffering by choosing death. I do find this compelling. One problem I see, however, at least from a psychological perspective, is that when someone is in that state, it can frequently be difficult for them to truly see that people care about them. How do you persuade someone to hold on, to keep living, if they believe that they are socially alone, that they have no community to speak of?

Argument from Influencing Others to Commit Suicide

In part because of our connection to each other, when we commit suicide it has a documented effect such that it can influence others to commit suicide as well (which Hecht goes into detail on). In Hecht's view, this makes it a form of delayed murder. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to call it "murder," but I think I can still see an argument for a degree of responsibility. Although, that brings up an interesting question: to what extent can we be blamed, or praised, for the actions that others undertake through our influence? When I was suicidal in the past, I tried to keep it firmly planted in my mind that regardless of what forces I thought were pushing me, the ultimate decision would always be mine, and mine alone. I couldn't blame anyone else for it. I hesitate to make this comparison, but to some extent, this seems like blaming the victim of rape for the influence their actions had on their rapist. Yet, it seems to me that a rapist is completely responsible for his or her own actions, and there is no blame that can be assigned to the victim. So can you truly be blamed for your suicide influencing others to commit suicide? I find myself uncertain.

Argument from Future Self

People change. Depression waxes and wanes, as do suicidal thoughts. Our future self may not be the suffering individual that is currently considering suicide, so long as that future self is given a chance to live. By committing suicide, we deprive that future self of any future possibility of happiness, satisfaction, or any other good thing that may come. Me being me at this moment, I have to say that I'm very glad none of my "past selves" have succeeded in committing suicide, so this is an attractive bit of reasoning.

Hope. It's an extremely difficult thing to cultivate at times, and especially difficult to cultivate when in the midst of depression. The worse the depression, the harder it is to find any sense of hope. But we know that even some of the worst depression has better days, days that aren't quite as bad as the others. This fact alone can serve to give hope that there will be better days down the road. It may take time, and we may need help (in the form of therapy, and/or meds), but we can get there. If we kill ourselves on a bad day, then we deny all the good, or at least better, days to come.

Suicide used to be called "self-murder," before the days when it gained it's own word. I think that's an apt way of looking at it. It's murder of oneself (even if it isn't delayed murder of others), and murder of the self that could have been. For whatever reason it is wrong to murder another, it is then wrong to murder oneself. Even if we say that one of the reasons it's wrong to murder is that it denies the right of the other to make a choice, or actively goes against their choice, suicide is still wrong. Do we actually have the right to deny our future self the right to make a choice, any choice? The right to try and flourish?

In "Stay," Hecht quotes John Stuart Mill as discussing the possibility of someone selling themselves into slavery, which he considers as a null and void contract from the beginning (p177-178):

The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person's voluntary acts, is consideration for liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he forgoes any future use of it, beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favor, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.

If we cannot sell ourselves into slavery because it denies us our very liberty to choose, then we surely cannot be justified in suicide, which not only denies the ability to choose, but the ability to change our mind.

One more point. Though I would never wish on anyone the suffering that can lead one to contemplate suicide, and indeed would wish for the very opposite, given that people do experience such suffering, I would like to point out the silver lining in the rather dark cloud. If we can learn to get out of depression and past suffering, or even to just find better days within the depression and suffering, then we can become stronger. We can take the lessons we learn, and use them to be stronger in the face of our own suffering. And as we become stronger, we will find that the better days are even better, and, going back to the theme of hope, we just may come out the other side a stronger person who suffers less.

At least, that's how it's been for me.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I hate days like this

I hate days like this.

You know how a song can get stuck in your head? That's what this is like: negative, depressive thoughts going round and round in my head. Sometimes I can find a distraction, something that makes them abate, at least temporarily. Sometimes I can't. 

On days like this, it can be like I'm barely here at all. Like I'm on autopilot. It's days like this that I'm reminded I still have depression, no matter how well I sometimes appear to be doing.

I fucking hate days like this.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thinking out loud on the question of identity

What makes me "me"? What makes a person who they are? If you cause a truly significant change in someone, have you in some sense killed one person to create another?

Lately I've been remembering the works of one Jack L. Chalker, an author from a couple decades back who wrote a great deal of science fiction and fantasy that tended to involve people being transformed. Sometimes physically, such that they weren't even the same species anymore. Sometimes mentally, from some extreme brainwashing. And it has me wondering what it is that makes someone who they are.

Let me give you an example. In Chalker's Dancing Gods series, one of the main characters is a man named Joe. Joe was a truck driver whisked away to a fantasy world by a powerful wizard who needed a hero (wow, it sounds utterly ridiculous when I put it that way-- I swear it's a good series. Not great, but good.). Once in this fantasy world, the first thing that happens to Joe is the wizard calls in a favor from a demon to give Joe his dream body, which apparently was 6'6", with incredible muscles. He became the epitome of the barbarian warrior image.

Throughout the series (though I haven't been able to track down the last book), Joe gets temporarily turned into a cow (but retains his consciousness), then temporarily into a wood nymph (where he gradually loses his consciousness), then regains his original body, but at the age of 20, and eventually back to the wood nymph, but retaining his consciousness this time. He wasn't too happy about that.

And Chalker is hardly the only person to write such things (though he wrote about transformation a lot!). The popular Doctor Who series on the BBC is another example that deals with the issue of transformation, and identity. If you're not familiar with that series, the main character is an alien called The Doctor. He travels through time and space having adventures and saving people, and picking up strays along the way. When he is about to die, he can instead choose to regenerate, which completely changes his appearance, and his personality. That latter part is key. Is the Doctor who walks away from these regenerations the same as the one who went into them? Is he still the same person?

Many personality traits are still there, and seem to be key components to the Doctor's personality. Curiosity, a sense of adventure, a desire to help. One version said that there were two words he could never ignore: "help me." That trait seems common throughout, at least in the modern version of the series (which is a continuation of a series from a few decades back). But some versions have been more fun loving, or dorky, or angry, or dark. In other words, different in mind as well as body. As a result, when number 10 (David Tennant was the actor) knew that his time was coming to an end, he stated to a friend of his "I can still die. If I'm killed before regeneration, then I'm dead. Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away... and I'm dead."

So what makes a person. . . them? How much change can we undergo before we are no longer the same, and could say that the previous person is dead? In the past, when I was what? 12? I don't recall exactly, but I was young, and I realized that the person I was then, at that moment, would someday not exist. He would change, into I didn't know what, and had no way of accurately predicting or controlling. This terrified me on an existential level. I think, trying to look back at it, that I felt like I would die in some way so that someone new could live. Kinda like the Doctor, now that I think about it.

And yet, I don't feel that way now. I look back on very significant changes that I've undergone in my life, but I can still find certain consistent threads running through my life. A love of logic or reason, an interest in right and wrong, a love of reading, an interest in science. There's also been the depression as a persistent thread, at least since puberty, shaping my experience of life, even as I've come to see my depression not as me, but rather just as an illness. Are these consistent threads enough to claim a persistent identity of "Nathan"? Enough to say that all previous versions of me are still me, fundamentally?

I'm not entirely sure. I think so. But I haven't worked out why, and could be wrong.

There is an idea (which I first encountered in a post by Dan Fincke, but can't find the link now) that we are the complete, sum-total of all of our experiences, minor or major, and including our unique biological circumstances as well. So we aren't just memories, but also bodies, and everything involved in that. Under such a view, it really doesn't make sense to consider who we would have been had something different happened, because that person would then not be us at all. Similar, but not us. One consequence of this would seem to be that maybe we are constantly dying, only to be reborn in the same instant.

At this stage, I have no firm conclusions. Right now, I don't see these questions as having a great deal of immediate impact to our lives. But who knows? Maybe the technology to fundamentally alter personality or body is right around the corner, in which case these questions will have an impact.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why I find philosophy valuable

I was nineteen when I first discovered "formal" philosophy, in the form of Plato's Dialogues. I'd been talking to a woman online (had a bit of a fling of sorts), and she mentioned that she could rave for hours about Plato. I got curious, and went to the library. I started reading some Plato, and fell in love. The style that Plato wrote in was that of dialogues, discussions between various people on matters they found important in the realm of philosophy (usually between Socrates and one or more compatriots), and I just loved it. But more than the style, I loved the questions of ethics that were being dealt with. Issues of justice, friendship, duty, etc.

These were questions that I had thought about in my own, undisciplined, way for years. What does it mean to be ethical or moral? What does it mean to live a good life? It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that in the realm of human interaction, there is no more important question than these.

Many people seem to think that the answers to these questions are easy, simple. I have never found them such. I suspect that one major reason people think them to be easy questions is that religious traditions purport to provide the answers, packaged neat and tidy and ready to go. Got a question? Check with your clergy, no thinking required. Tradition has the answer.

But tradition is often wrong. Take women's rights. For most of human history since the development of agriculture, women have been under the heel of one patriarchal society or another, a position reinforced by tradition and custom, as well as the law. Now, through the hard work of philosophy, most of us (at least in America and other western countries; the Middle East has a ways to go yet) recognize that those traditions were mistaken and wrong. True, there are people fighting to retain what's left of those oppressive traditions, but those of us who have concluded those traditions are wrong have come a long way in lifting women up from under that heel (with a long way yet to go, unfortunately). Tradition can be a positive thing, but not when it's allowed to cause or contribute to stagnation.

And yes, I meant it when I said philosophy is what got us to where we are, on this, and other political battles. Before any political fight to remove oppression and grant rights can get started, one must first engage the question of whether those rights should be granted in the first place. Are women the equal of men? Should a woman's place be in the home, having and raising children, or does she have the right to choose another life? Is "separate but equal" a meaningful phrase, or is it a contradiction? These are all philosophical, ethical questions of right and wrong.

But perhaps it would help if I brought it closer to home. Is it ok to lie to my wife when she asks if I like her new dress (assuming I don't)? Which is more important: soothing potentially hurt feelings, or telling the truth? You cannot tell me that this and similar questions have not crossed the minds of many a husband/wife throughout history. The question of white lies is something that even children end up facing at some point. And it's a philosophical question of ethics, regarding the value of truth, and when, if ever, it's ok to lie.

Some people consider philosophy to be "mental masturbation," something undertaken only for the pleasure of the philosopher, with no greater purpose to it. And the philosopher, of course, is some out of touch with the real world old white man sitting in his ivory tower, writing dense crap that no one reads or cares about. And I can see how some people could have that impression. However, I see philosophy all around us.

Is gut instinct or intuition a good reason to believe something? How about faith? Or should we only believe things that we have evidence for? These are questions of epistemology, or philosophy of knowledge, and what constitutes knowledge. They're questions that should be important to anyone who considers, for example, the question of whether a God exists to be important. They're questions that should be considered important to anyone who's ever served or will serve on a jury (for example, you have a gut instinct that a witness is lying, but no other evidence to back it up: what role can or should that instinct play in your deliberations?).

Does life have a meaning? If so, where does that meaning come from? What does it even mean for life to have meaning? If life has no meaning, is it worth living for other reasons? Can there be meaning in a universe as vast and ancient as ours, where we are but specks of carbon dust in the long run? These sorts of existential questions may be unimportant to some, but for others they can be matters of life or death. Many a suicidal person has struggled with these very questions when seeking to decide if they're going to live, or going to die.

In recent years we've seen many arguments about the role of government in health care. Should it have a role at all, and if so, what kind of role, and how big of a role? This is not just a political question. It's also a philosophical question about whether society in general should or should not provide for the health care of it's members, or whether individuals are responsible for procuring health care on their own. Frankly, politics and philosophy have a lot of overlap in my opinion. People talk about government not legislating morality, yet then turn around and demand certain rights from the government. When talking about rights, we are talking about morality. It then becomes not if the government should legislate on moral matters, but rather to what extent. And morality is one of the various realms that philosophy deals with. Indeed, society as we know it would not exist without the philosophy of politics and law.

At some point in our life, unless we die extremely young, we will all be faced with philosophical questions. We can't help it. Now, we can always just take whatever answer first pops into our mind when confronted with such questions, but many, many questions simply aren't that easy, and deserve us actually giving the questions time and effort to think them through. Not everyone needs to be a philosophy Ph.D. by any means. Even if that could somehow be practical, it's not strictly necessary. But we should take the time to listen to and consider the things that philosophy Ph.D's, who have spent years studying and considering these everyday philosophical concerns, are saying to us, just as we listen to and consider the things that our medical Ph.D's, i.e., doctors, are telling us. It doesn't matter if you always agree with them, but do take the time to think.

And if a philosophy Ph.D. isn't available, you can still think for yourself, and take the time to question. Frankly, I'd be surprised if it doesn't enrich your life.

Philosophy is everywhere. Accept it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A few thoughts on impending fatherhood

If you're friends with me on Facebook, you may have recently noticed a post by me stating that my wife is pregnant. I'm going to be a father for the first time. And it still hasn't sunk in yet, not completely anyway. Part of me doesn't entirely believe it. Another part of me thinks it's crazy. Me? A father? Preposterous. But it's true. Barring some horrible mishap, I will be a father by early November of this year.

What can this mean for me? For the life I have with my wife and her other S.O. (significant other)? I'm sure if you're a parent you already have some idea of what this will mean for us. At least, I hope you do! But I have to figure out what it means for us, and me, specifically, beyond just the usual generalizations that can apply to any new potential parents. Here's a few thoughts I've had, in no particular order.

-- I'm going to have to give up sleeping pills, at least for a while. I can't be having myself unable to respond to a 3am crying baby because I'm drugged up for sleep. This is an unfortunate truth, as getting proper sleep has been a big part of dealing with my current episode of depression. It's amazing what benefit there is to not being constantly tired. Somehow, I'll have to adjust. The meditation I've started doing might actually help here.

-- I should probably start paying more attention to politics at a local level than I currently do, especially as it relates to education. I still don't know for sure if I want to pursue home schooling, or if I simply want to supplement the schooling that public school would give. Part of this will depend, I think, on the state of education here in Rochester, MN when that time actually arrives. I do know that I intend to support and teach our child about things like critical thinking, healthy skepticism, respect for others, importance of bodily autonomy, philosophy, and other values that I have. My goal in all of that is to teach our child how to think, not necessarily what to think. I may hope that any child of mine turns out to be a secular humanist, but I'm not going to try and force it.

-- We intend to test for any genetic disorders that can be tested for. I honestly don't know what I'll do, or want to do, if they come back positive. But I know for sure that I'd like time to process it first, rather than being shocked by it when the child is born. I know that I hope there's nothing, that our child is healthy, and won't have to deal with the hassles that come from having developmental disabilities.

-- The other day I had a horrible thought. I realized that someday our child will die. This nearly made me sick, having this hit me, and the child isn't even here yet. I don't recall what I was thinking about before that thought came to me, but I do know it was somehow related to death. At any rate, this may be the hardest thing that I will have to deal with: the knowledge that they will die. I already have trouble dealing with the idea of death.

-- Given that both I and my wife have had to deal with depression, it's an unfortunate likelihood that any child of ours will end up having to deal with depression as well. I intend to try and teach them strategies and thought patterns that will hopefully minimize the effects of depression, but let's face it: that hasn't made me immune to it, and won't make the child immune.

These are just a few of the thoughts that have crossed my mind. I'm sure there will be others over time. I find myself happy and scared at the same time as I attempt to process the idea that I will be a father relatively soon. Here's hoping it all turns out well.

Monday, April 7, 2014

On slowly applying empowerment ethics to my life

Recently I came to provisionally accept that Dan Fincke's system of empowerment ethics is the way to go for living a good, ethical life. I say provisionally because it's still possible that I could find a system that holds together even better than empowerment ethics, that maybe finds a weakness in the argument for empowerment ethics, and so I would have to reconsider my acceptance. But for now, I've been unable to spot a weakness in empowerment ethics, and it seems to hold together really well. So in this post I'm going to examine what attempts I'm making to apply this to my own life, and ways that I could probably stand to apply it that I'm not yet doing.

First off though, let me point out two issues that make it more difficult for me than it needs to be for me to apply empowerment ethics to my life. To start, there's the depression. Though I've made great strides in dealing with my current bout of depression, it's still an issue. It isn't gone, and I don't know if it ever will be gone. In some form or another, I will probably have to deal with depression for the rest of my life. And depression is a motivation sapper.

Second, I'm lazy. Motivating myself to do something that looks like work or effort (unless it's something I really enjoy) is difficult. Sometimes it seems impossible (and depression, for me, makes it worse). I've been this way my entire life, but I think I'm finally motivated to do something about it (too bad it's not as easy as saying "I don't want to be lazy anymore"). So to start, I'm working on improving my helping around the house. For example, I'm the guy in this house who's supposed to scoop the cat litter, and in the past I'd just let it go for far longer than I should have, and by the time I got to it, I just needed to dump out the litter and start over. Well, I've been turning it into a habit now to scoop it either when I get home from work, or, if I don't work, when I feed the cats in the evening. How?

A lovely little app for Android called "Habit Streak Plan." I didn't mention this to anyone before because I wanted to be sure that it would work for me. And it has. How it works is that I set up habits in the app that I want to develop, along with a question to be asked each day that I answer either yes I did it the previous day, or not (it always asks about the previous day). So for the litter scooping, the title is "Cat Litter," and the question is "Did you scoop the cat litter?" Simple.

I went with this app because it provides a daily reminder about the habits I'm trying to develop, and in the past I've found that habits, once formed, are very powerful in keeping me doing things. Unfortunately, laziness is partly a habit, and I don't know an easy trick for breaking it. The cat litter isn't the only habit I'm using the app to help develop. I'm also working on doing physical therapy stretches for my back, using flash cards via the program Mnemosyne to study the feats for the Pathfinder roleplaying game (if I find something else I want to study that flash cards would be helpful with, I'll add it, but for now it's just Pathfinder), and writing. I enjoy writing, and the thought processes it forces me into, but I wasn't being very good about keeping it up, so this app has been very helpful in making me write at least a little every day.

So far, it's just those four items in my habit developing app. But it's a start. It's a way for me to combat one of my biggest character flaws (in my opinion), something that has consistently kept me from being the best that I can be. Anyone with other suggestions for beating laziness, let me know!

For the most part, all of that is just battling with a weakness. I'm still working on ideas for actually improving in areas that I'm strong in. The writing does that, sure. Unfortunately, some of my ideas for improving, for empowering myself and others, are currently unfeasible. For example, I really think that if I could go back to school, I could improve my thinking, and my writing, and probably other areas as well. On the thinking aspect, I've thought of taking online courses with Dan Fincke (a man I greatly respect, obviously) which are cheaper than college, and would speak straight to my interests in philosophy. Sadly, at this time I simply can't afford them (even at discounted rates).

So, I have to look to other ways (open to suggestions here). One thing I haven't started yet, but that I'm seriously considering, is beginning a secular mindfulness meditation practice. This is a form of meditation that actually has scientific data backing up it's benefits, and I can see lots of ways that learning to be mindful, focused, and more self-aware would be beneficial. Anything that helps my depression is of course great, and there's evidence it can do that. But simply being able to concentrate better would be of massive benefit in damn near anything I do.

I'm also considering getting back into the gym to work out. Work will reimburse me for my gym membership, so I can afford it, and I don't think I need to reiterate the benefits of a fit(ter) body. I may not be willing to go full bore on eating healthy (it's more expensive, and frankly, I hate cooking and find all the healthy eating I've been taught about to be very boring sounding), but there are still things that could be done.

So far, I'm only talking about things that directly impact me. But empowerment ethics recognizes that we can't be truly powerful without empowering others. So how the hell can I work on that? Well, at first glance, it should be easy. I work with developmentally disabled adults as a career, and a huge part of what my company strives to do is empower our clients! Which is great. Unfortunately, I'm burnt out on some major aspects of my work, and simply have no idea how to deal with that. It's the only job I've ever had where I didn't feel like I was just there to make a buck for the higher ups, but it's also a high stress job. I used to have the energy and motivation for it, but lately . . . well. If I can get that back somehow, maybe I can really find ways to empower my clients. I'd like to.

I'd like to think that I could use my writing to empower some of you, my dear readers, but I'm not quite arrogant enough to think that's something I can consistently, and deliberately, do at my current level of ability. Maybe someday, as my skill grows through practice, and I find things to say that could be empowering.

Still, I've noticed something, something surprising. Since provisionally accepting the argument for empowerment ethics, I've been more motivated. I've been motivated to improve, and be better than I have been. I've even noticed that lately when I envy someone's skill, instead of being a discouragement, it's acting as additional motivation. That's kinda weird, but good. And for that productive desire to be better, that motivation to be better, not just for myself but also those around me, I'm grateful.

This process may be slow, but I'm glad I'm undertaking it.