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Why You Aren’t a Computer Simulation (But Elon Musk Might Be)

Recently, a New York Times article asked the question: Are we living in a computer simulation? Then adds: let’s not find out.

Why? Because if we are indeed living in a computer simulation, and the programmers of that sim find out we’re onto them, they might just pull the plug on our universe.

Unless what they’re studying is how humanity would respond to finding out we’re living in a computer simulation, in which case we’d better carry on or risk forcing those hyper-advanced geeks to reboot our universe and start over.

nerd_smoking“They’re onto us.  Delete them before they find my directory of Sonic the Hedgehog porn”

A lot of people believe this theory, or find it so plausible as to be virtually assured. Elon Musk says the chance that we are living in “base” reality is a million to one. Even everybody’s favorite science teddy bear, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, believes it’s about fifty-fifty that we’re all just figments in a futuristic virtual reality.

And honestly, the theory seems plausible enough when we look at the world around us and see merely a web of interconnected (albeit complicated) actions and reactions; a universe that could plausibly be dictated by some sufficiently advanced computer program.

Except for one major thing—a thing I can’t believe these super smart people haven’t taken into account.  A thing that isn’t in fact, in the world around us at all.

It’s this:

The idea that you are a computer simulation stops being plausible when you ask: why does that matter to me?

KC3TLGKZARVWDFLALLBPLQSUUA“Why am I worried that Andy Dick might not be a real person?”

Meaning, if you, the reader of this blog, are merely a digital figment in a futuristic simulated universe, why should you experience any internal, invisible, conscious reaction to it?

What purpose would that reaction serve?

Why, in fact, should any of us have any internal, conscious self-awareness at all?

Elon Musk might argue that the internal consciousness—the part that makes you aware of being you and not anyone else—is an essential component of the simulation.

But why? What practical purpose could that possibly serve?

The machinations that occur inside your internal consciousness don’t affect me, as another person, until they motivate you to some action. For this reason, it would be non-essential (and terribly inefficient) to program billions of computer figments with rich, internal consciousnesses when all that matters to the simulation is their resulting actions.

“Self-awareness (being, by definition, only useful to the self experiencing it, and not at all to the simulated universe at large) would be utterly superfluous.”

Think about your own experience of other people. You have no direct interface with the inner consciousness of any other single being. Your only understanding of other humans is through symbols they present to your senses—the words and actions that comprise the sum total of our experience of the rest of humanity.

Thus, if a simulacrum of humanity was created for some advanced experiment, words and actions would be all that was needed to accomplish its purpose.

There would be absolutely no reason for you, as an actor in that simulation, to experience any internal self-awareness, since that self-awareness serves no purpose to the simulation’s outcome.

Instead, you, as a simulated figment, would be to the computer what all of the rest of humanity is to you: mere bundles of words and actions responding to a complex code of environment and programming.

mp,840x830,matte,f8f8f8,t-pad,750x1000,f8f8f8Basically, high-res Donkey Kong

In short, even if some advanced civilization were to develop the capability to invest a simulated personality with self-awareness, there would be no practical reason to do so. It would be far easier (and more ethical, which we will come to in a moment) to simply rig each simulated personality to behave and speak according to that complex code of environment and programming.

Self-awareness (being, by definition, only useful to the self experiencing it, and not at all to the simulated universe at large) would be utterly superfluous.

Thus, in a simulated universe, you would not be consciously reflecting internally on what all this means to you, as a self-aware being. You would instead be a symbolic figment, like a non-player character in a video game, whose programmed actions would henceforth be nominally altered by this new input.

Since you are internally aware of this distinction, then you can feel confident that you, at least, are not a mere line of code in some hyper-advanced simulation.

Unless, of course, self-awareness is (for some reason) necessary to the simulation.

Which bring us to the ethical consideration.

Imagine a civilization advanced enough to create simulated personalities that experience self-awareness. Would not this civilization also understand the responsibility inherent in creating such a universe of beings? Certainly they would understand that the moment self-awareness is granted, a person is created.

With the insertion of consciousness, mere inert programming becomes new life.

C3PO-inicio-episodio-IV-pierna-plateadaWhy else do we care about these two?

Conclusion: since you, reading this, have self-awareness—an internal and invisible consciousness of being you and no one else—then we can logically infer from this one of two comforting assumptions:

One: that we are probably not the simulated creation of a hyper-advanced computer model, since there would be no value in creating simulated figments with conscious self-awareness. It would simply not serve the simulation in any measurable, practical way to include such a complicated and ethically problematic detail.

Or two: that even if we are computer simulations imbued, for whatever reason, with conscious self-awareness, then it stands to reason that such an advanced society would also understand the ethical responsibility of creating what is, essentially, sentient life, and would treat it as such.

Unless, of course, that society is both hyper-advanced and painstakingly sadistic, which is possible, albeit highly unlikely (despite my conviction that humanity is, at best, only accidentally good, and only sometimes). I simply don’t believe that a truly sadistic culture could survive long enough to create such advanced computer technology as would be required for self-aware digital life.

So: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, and the rest of us can breath easy knowing that either we are, in fact, “base reality” (most likely) or at least that our programmers know and respect that they’ve created a form of life deserving of preservation.

So how do the smartest minds in our universe miss this fairly obvious clue that we aren’t in grave danger of being turned off/rebooted?

Maybe it just proves that sometimes the smartest people are likely to miss the simplest truths.

Or maybe it proves that the purpose of this simulated reality is to make me believe that I’m smarter than Elon Musk and Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Both explanations seem equally likely to me.

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Why Christians Should Watch “Good Omens”. With their Teens.

goodomens

Perhaps you have heard of the new Amazon Prime series “Good Omens”, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Perhaps you are aware that thousands of Christians petitioned that the series be cancelled because, among other things, it allegedly normalizes Satanism.

Perhaps you are one of those Christians. And perhaps you are one of the people who find it hilarious that the petition was aimed at Netflix instead of Amazon Prime.

This post is for both of you. And everyone in-between.

I am a Christian who not only loved the novel “Good Omens” but watched the series and enjoyed it immensely.

Worse (or better, depending on which of the above categories you fall into) I watched it with my teen kids. And I think you should as well.

Here are the five reasons why.

1) It’s Bible fan-fiction.

Back in the eighties, when I was a kid, eschatology (the study of the End Times and the book of Revelation) was a huge fad. All of us Christians were obsessed with books like Hal Lindsey’s bestseller “The Late, Great Planet Earth”. Our youth groups showed us campy Christian horror films about the Great Tribulation. We ate up conspiracies about how the UPC code was the Mark of the Beast, and how, before too long, we’d all have one stamped onto our foreheads or wrists.

And then we grew up a little. The end times didn’t happen (yet!). And we all gave each other a sort of sheepish look and silently vowed never to speak of it again.

To the extent that, after I watched the first episode of Good Omens with my 14-year-old daughter, she said to me, “so, is that stuff actually in the Bible?”

Perhaps we’ve sort of gone too far the other way.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are atheists. And yet they clearly have at least an intellectual fascination with the Bible. It shows. They get loads of details spot-on. And this counts for something.

When the four horsemen of the apocalypse are being summoned, they are given (by a cheerfully hapless deliveryman) a sword (War), a set of scales (Famine), and a crown (Pollution/Pestilence). This is all straight out of the book of Revelation. Most Biblical neophytes probably recognize that.

horsemen

And they ride motorcycles.  Because horses.  Get it?

But when Death, the final of the four horsemen, is summoned, he is not given anything. Instead, the deliveryman offers a verbal message: “Come and see”.

This is a curious detail for the authors to include, because it will only mean something to the sort of people least likely to read/watch “Good Omens”—namely, Christians.

I looked up the relevant Bible passage. It’s in the sixth chapter of Revelation:

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ‘Come and see’. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

Why would Pratchett/Gaiman include a detail like this? A detail that most of those reading “Good Omens” wouldn’t recognize or understand?

Because originally, they were writing mostly for each other. No publisher had suggested their collaboration. It was a project between two friends, both of whom had a fascination with the Bible, despite rejecting its main premises.

They weren’t thinking about Bible references that other people would get. They just knew that they would get them.

That sort of appreciation for the Bible as source material, as rich narrative foundation, tells us something about the importance of the book. Pratchett and Gaiman exhibit an attitude that many modern atheists have lost: that it matters to read the Bible, to know it, even if you end up not believing it.

As a believer, I encourage this, and want my kids to see that it matters.

2) “Good Omens” provides an invaluable insight into an unbeliever’s perspective.

While the story may be Bible fan-fiction, it’s clearly written from a perspective that misses the fundamental message. But it does so in a way that is somewhat common. As such, it provides the thinking Christian an invaluable insight into the mindset of those who choose not to believe.

If you don’t see how this is important, I expect you wouldn’t also have seen why Jesus went to the sort of parties he did.

During one early scene in “Good Omens”, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are observing the parade of animals filling Noah’s ark. Crowley asks Aziraphale what this is about, and the angel sheepishly admits that God plans to wipe out most of humanity. The demon looks on at a group of goats, blinks, then turns back to Aziraphale. “Not the kids, too?”

Az-and-Cro-ark

It’s a bit of a joke, of course. But the point is clear: it’s the demon who has qualms about wiping out all of humanity. The angel, on the other hand, is seen as complicit in a sort of heartless, divine doomsday.

As Christians, this is a perspective on the Old Testament that we must be prepared to respond to, with respect and understanding. To our unbelieving friends, our first reply might be “I want to validate your commitment to fairness, tolerance, and mercy. Those are excellent, excellent things. If you really are curious to know why a God of both mercy and righteousness would paradoxically take such extreme courses, let’s talk.”

It’s essential for believers not to shy away from those discussions.

And how can we be prepared to have those discussions if we don’t have some idea what the unbeliever’s typical perspective (and understandable objections) might be?

“Good Omens” is like a primer on an unbeliever’s perspective of Christianity. It may not always be comfortable for the believer to read/watch, but it is extremely illuminating if your intention is to be relevant to your irreligious friends.

3) “Good Omens” serves as an allegory about humans and religion.

Whether you are a Christian or an unbeliever, I challenge you to shift your perspective on “Good Omens” by one degree: view it not as a story about angels and demons, but as an allegory about eternal, divine matters in the hands of nearsighted, fallible humans.

Once we view the story’s angels not as divine beings but as occasionally misguided and overzealous Christians, we see their flaws less as blasphemy and more as cringy real-world examples of believers taking matters into their own hands, making arrogant assumptions, trampling people as pawns, generally giving God a bad name.

Looked at from this perspective, “Good Omens” changes from a comically blasphemous farce to a razor-tongued satire. For Christians, it becomes a mirror forcing us to ask ourselves: how likely is it that I come across like John Hamm’s Gabriel-– arrogant, glib, more committed to being right than showing love?

johnHamm

“The world’s not just going to end itself.”

Further, from this perspective, the relationship between the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley (the heart of the tale) is no longer a challenge to the dichotomy of good and evil.

Instead, it’s a picture of a believer whose commitment to ultimate Good not only doesn’t preclude him from befriending the unrepentant: it actually encourages him to. To the extent that both of them are bettered by that interaction, and (arguably) the “demon” is ultimately redeemed.

Too many Christians live their lives the way the bulk of “Good Omens”’ angels do: far more committed to their culture war than to the subtle persuasion of lifestyle evangelism. Too few are willing (as Aziraphale did with Crowley) to view unbelievers as fertile ground rather than chaff for the hellfire.

4) In “Good Omens”, God wins, Satan loses

Amazingly, God never appears on-screen in the series. Instead, God is represented throughout in the form of the narrator.

What does this tell us? That from the very beginning of the story, God is in charge of everything that ultimately happens. God is not only aware of Aziraphale’s inner doubts, human compassion, and fraternization with “the other side”, God is actually cultivating and harmonizing those things, all for the ultimate good, despite what the rest of the angels and demons might have in mind about “the Great Plan”.

In short, God is the ultimate Good Guy in “Good Omens”. This is no small thing!

But of course (you might breathlessly point out) in “Good Omens”, the Good Guy isn’t actually, in point of fact, a guy at all.

God is voiced by a woman: academy award winner Frances McDormand.

Christians, before you get your choir robes all up in a knot, think for a moment about  current culture. If God, as narrator, were introduced as yet one more man—as the stereotypical booming voice from above—how might the typical modern viewer react?

Like it or not, big male voices are no longer automatically viewed with warmth and reverence. They are just as easily met with ire and suspicion.

By choosing a woman to provide God’s voice, the creators were communicating one thing: this character is a reliable narrator. This character understands the human story better than any other. In a milieu of duplicitous angels, comical demons, and questionable institutions, this character– God– is trustworthy, relatable, and ultimately, unequivocally, fortunately, in complete control.

God is not defeated in this story. On the contrary, the implication from the very first spoken words of the series is that God wins.

Satan, on the other hand?

satanOmens

Satan is represented as a monstrous beast, the creator of the anti-Christ, the author and driving force of the evil of Armageddon. We can quibble over the theology of that premise, but here’s the essential thing: Satan loses. Unequivocally. Satisfyingly. Utterly.

So just to check the scoreboard on this one: In a story written by two atheists—a story at least nominally intended to lampoon and satirize religious institution—God is represented as a reliable narrator orchestrating true, rare goodness, found in the humblest and most surprising of places, to overcome both his misguided servants and a committed demonic horde, for the purpose of redeeming the world and destroying Satan.

I don’t believe this is a story that Christians should be picketing.

Instead, this story should give us some hope that even those who don’t believe in God and the Bible have some instinctive, fundamental appreciation for God’s ultimate Great Story—the “Ineffable Plan”, as Aziraphale puts it.

I, for one, find this encouraging.

5) “Good Omens” is extremely entertaining and funny.

I saved this for last, not because it’s more or less important, but because it’s a thing that we believers should be cognizant of.

As one of my Facebook friends pointed out in response to the Christian backlash against “Good Omens”: “Why can’t we conceive that god has a sense of humor?”

Unlike Jesus, we Christians can just be a frowning bunch of sticks-in-the-mud, can’t we?

“Good Omens” is genuinely funny and entertaining. Even if it was blasphemous and demeaning to our faith (which I think is a stretch), when we militantly protest such stories, we run the risk of coming off as grim, joyless, judgmental fussbudgets.

We allow ourselves to be defined by what we oppose more than what we believe.

And that sort of thing just doesn’t win anyone to God. It only entrenches the already far-too polarized sides.

So lighten up a little. Take a joke. Further, use that joke for a moment of humble self-reflection. Crack a smile. Watch the scene in “Good Omens” when Crowley the demon runs into the church to rescue Aziraphale the angel and has to jump around like a barefoot kid on a hot beach, hissing “Ow! Ow! Holy ground!”

And stop trying not to laugh. It’s funny!

crowleyDance

Don’t be afraid to read/watch “Good Omens”. Crack a smile. You won’t go to hell if you think it’s secretly funny that Crowley’s name used to be “Crawly” because he was the snake in the Garden of Eden.

Be happy that two atheists thought enough of the Bible to read it and make their own conversation-provoking story out of it.

 

 

The Fridge of the Knowledge of Good & Evil

fridge

Let me phrase this Biblically: In the decade of the nineties, while I was not yet twenty-five years old, and was still abiding within the basement of my ancestors, it seemed right to my parents and I that I should attend a Bible college.

That lasted for exactly one semester and was but one of several of my attempts at groping my way into something resembling a career.

At the suggestion of a church friend, we found ourselves trekking to Rhode Island and a little Pentecostal compound called Zion Bible College.

It was a “faith school”, meaning you paid whatever money God “put on your heart” to pay.  During my time there, it seemed evident that God had put on most peoples’ hearts to pay about two bucks fifty, because the school was in a disastrous financial tailspin.

One of the repercussions of this was the cafeteria food. There were never seconds, and despite the food being objectively terrible (I made up my own Weird Al parody of “You Can’t Touch This” and we would often sing it in the cafeteria line: “I can’t eat this!”) on the rare occasion that seconds were allowed– on a first come, first served basis– the resulting stampede of hungry college students (myself definitely included) was both hilarious and tragic.

A sort of black market sprung up to compensate. A guy in my dorm had a mini fridge and for a nominal fee he would sell you anything from a wrapped single of American “cheese” (25¢) to a microwaved hotdog with bun ($1.25).

I got myself a job as a security guard at a hospital in nearby Providence. When my first paycheck finally came, two weeks later, I bummed a ride to McDonalds and bought three Big Macs.  And ate them.  And was full for the first time in what felt like years.

A little later I came to my senses and found a local grocery store. There, I stocked up on staples like lunch meat, cheeses, bread, condiments, chips, milk, soda. When I got back, heady with triumph, I was unpacking in my dorm and my roommate asked me, “Where are you going to put all that?”

My roommate’s name was Tom.  Tom was an affable, genuine, easy to like guy. He was looking at me with something like suspicious concern.

“I’ll stick it in the fridge down in the common room,” I said.

The common room was a basement with a sprung couch, a few old recliners, and cinder block walls covered in peeling, mint-green paint. There was a broken console TV and an antique communal fridge.

Tom just looked at me. He was a couple years older. This was not his first semester at Zion. “You can’t do that.”

“Why not? It’s for all of us to use, right?”

“All of us will use it.”

“This is a Bible college. People won’t just steal my stuff.”

I put it all in the communal fridge, in an unmarked brown paper bag.

The next morning, my milk was gone. As was the meat, the cheeses, and the sodas. The only things left were what I had kept in my dorm room.

I ate dry cereal by the handful and fumed in perfect disbelief.

This was a BIBLE COLLEGE. Not just a Christian school. People didn’t come to Zion for a side of chapel with their Business Administration degree. They came to Zion to become pastors and church leaders. Right?

Next payday, I went to the grocery store again. I bought all the same stuff. This time, back in my dorm, Tom watched bemusedly as I wrote all over the brown paper bag. Big, thick letters in black Marks-A-Lot: THOU SHALL NOT STEAL! Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit! Nor thieves, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God!

I felt good about this. I was not only righteously protecting my stuff, I was protecting the very souls of my weaker brothers from their waywardness, bringing them back by brute, shaming force onto the straight and narrow, saving them from the cursed downward spiral of perdition!

The next morning, the bag was the only thing left.

I tell this story because that experience reminded me of one essential, fundamental truth about Western religion, something I’ve tried to keep before me in the years since:  Christians can often be the very least reason to consider Christianity.

The church often seems cram-packed full of disproportionately more broken, hypocritical, deceitful, loud-mouthed, ignorant, combative, hateful, and just plain ugly-minded people than one might encounter in almost any other sphere.

And this should come as no surprise. The church attracts the people that know they’re screwed up.  People who think they have their crap together find little reason to turn to God. Thus, it might be considered a legitimate complaint for people to say of the church, “Why do I want any part in that?  Those people are a mess.”

Because it’s true.  Largely, they are.

And yet, fortunately, because they’ve turned to something bigger than them, they are also gradually less of a mess than they would have been otherwise.

That’s why my experience at Zion didn’t destroy my faith.  Because my faith isn’t in the people that carry God’s banner.  It’s in the God who insists on bestowing his banner on incredibly flawed people.

With that in mind, if I had one message for my Christian friends, it would be this: stop being surprised that everybody outside the church thinks the church is a bit of a joke– a support group for wackos, an echo-chamber of caricatures.  The awkward truth is: it sort of is.  And this is a good thing, because it means we’ve realized our failings and found the one place where we can have them addressed and remedied, over time, by the one that designed us.

And if I had one message for my non-church friends?  If you are waiting for the church to become attractive enough to join in, I’m afraid that ain’t never gonna happen.

There are churches of apparently beautiful, with-it, accomplished, successful people out there.  But I bet you can imagine the problem with that.  Those are churches of the theology of posturing, boot-straps, and self-help.  You can get that from Oprah, and she’s way better at it.

Instead of waiting for the church to get it’s act together, check out the God who’s willing to love and work with such a motley mess of half-broken, often embarrassing, sometimes even community-fridge-thieving losers.  A God who says “you don’t have to stop being a complete mess before you come to me.  You can’t do that on your own anyway.”

A God who loves people while they are still pretty damn unlovable to the rest of us.

Like the ones who hoarked down my ham and cheese, leaving nothing but a half jar of Stadium mustard, lid off, like the corpse of a murder victim.  It’s a good thing my faith wasn’t in other Christians, because I’d have tossed it then and there like a candy wrapper.

But that doesn’t mean I still don’t hold a vengeful grudge against that bunch of hypocritical, Bible-thumping nincompoops.

Maybe Justice isn’t Blind, just Nearsighted

Last spring I was riding my bike to work, a little after 8AM, rolling through Perry Square park, and passed a guy sitting on a bench with a freshly opened case of Milwaukee’s Best.

My first thought was: Milwaukee’s Best?? Including the word “Best” in your beer’s name is like wearing a “World’s Greatest Lover” tee shirt to the unemployment office: the crowd you’re advertising to isn’t interested in the claim you’re leading with.

mCCHAMPAGNEOUR CAVIAR IS “THE FRESHEST”.

But my second thought was: is this guy actually intending to sit in front of the fountain all day slowly killing an entire case of something one might loosely call beer? Is this legal? What are the sociological/economic implications of this for a town trying to revitalize itself?

I lean Libertarian, so none of those questions are exactly rhetorical. I think I was mostly wondering about the legal aspect.

It turns out that, unlike most places I’ve lived, publicly drinking one’s weight in “Best” is perfectly legal in Erie parks. This struck me as curious.

Yesterday I came across a local news story that went something like this: Erie officials table discussion of public alcohol bans. Why? Over concern that it might predominantly target the poor and homeless.

I know most of my friends—and I assume most reading this—agree that unfairly targeting the poor and homeless is generally a bad thing. Broadly speaking, I concur.

hot-dog-lady1529549117294_7000k_1920x1080_1260524099914Unless you’re targeting them with a hotdog gun.

But am I the only one whose brain, annoyingly fussy about intellectual honesty, chimes in and says: but since when do we tailor laws based on the demographics they may impact?

Just to briefly entangle you in the type of mind I live in, let’s imagine some alternate versions of the getting-legally-sloshed-in-the-park story:

Highway patrol tables discussion of speeding in school zones over concern that it might predominantly target people with driver’s licenses.

Federal Trade Commission tables discussion of unfair lending practices over concern that it might predominantly target rich white bankers.

UN tables discussion of international piracy over concern that it might predominantly target international pirates.

But then my internal woke liberal (somewhat malnourished, admittedly) jumps in to say “those comparisons don’t work because there is no equivalence between the underprivileged and those other groups. Anyone can have a driver’s license, but the poor/homeless are predominantly minorities. Rich white bankers are privileged, therefore don’t deserve special protections. And pirates are lawbreakers by default, whereas IT’S NOT A CRIME TO BE HOMELESS OR POOR.“ (My internal woke liberal screams a lot).

At which point my internal angry conservative (old, demoralized, with hilariously unkempt eyebrows) starts hyperventilating into his MAGA hat before shouting (with a lot of spit) “Thanks OBUMMER!”

2B86858100000578-0-image-m-46_1440083028031My brain is basically one folding chair away from being the Jerry Springer show.

Pushing both of them aside, with difficulty, I’m still confused. Isn’t justice supposed to be blind? Isn’t that why she is always personified as a blindfolded figure with scales? We are comfortable with the idea that the blindfold means she isn’t partial to the rich. But doesn’t that also mean that neither is she partial to anyone else? Even the poor and homeless with terrible taste in beer?

If justice is truly blind—if all people are equal under the law—then I’m curious about the legal argument that works for tabling laws that tend to impact poor minorities but that doesn’t work for laws that tend to impact old white dudes.

And peeling back the layer a bit further: I feel like if I was a poverty-level minority type, I’d be offended at the idea that a law about not getting tanked under the statue of Oliver Hazard Perry was specifically aimed at me. I think I’d be like “thanks for the low expectations, stereotyping white-guilt do-gooders!   Hows about focusing on the frat dudes stumbling through the park after an Otters game taking leaks on the war memorials? Eh? I don’t hear anybody lamenting how public alcohol bans unfairly target the forty-year-old accountants tailgating outside Erie Arena.”

Anyway, all this to say that, honestly, I don’t have any dog in the fight about park drinking. While I’m no fan of dudes spending their days publicly swilling in the park while kids splash in the fountain, neither am I a fan of meticulous regulation of what should be mere common sense. So on this issue my response is mostly a big sighing shrug.

I am mostly interested in the intellectual argument for justifying not passing a law based on the community it might impact. This seems, on the face of it, to fly directly in the face of how laws are supposed to work—that justice is blind, and not expected to contort based on demographic implications.

What think you?

3 Reasons I Don’t Wear a Bike Helmet (and 1 Reason You Should Keep Telling Me To)

miserybayI wrote a book recently called “Misery Bay” in which—spoiler alert—a character dies when he is struck by a car while riding a bike without a helmet.

This is ironic because I myself don’t usually wear a helmet while riding my bike.

I say this to communicate two things: I understand the arguments for wearing a helmet. And there are still many times when I don’t put mine on.

The following are three reasons why I don’t usually wear a bike helmet. And one reason why you should keep telling me to.

1) A little risk isn’t a bad thing

It’s been said that when humans stop being hungry they start being afraid. I expect that any objective look at Western culture would confirm this. For the most part, we’re pretty well fed. And for the most part, we’re obsessed with safety.

From the playground to the job site, “Safety First” is our driving doctrine, our singular prime directive. In fact, it’s my opinion that we’ve become so obsessed with preventing even the slightest risk and danger that fictional risk and danger have become our guilty pleasures.

Why? Because the truth is that we humans crave a little risk.

Why do kids climb trees? Why do adults parachute out of planes? Why do white suburban teens listen to gangsta rap? Why do stupid people film themselves performing the latest Internet “Challenge”?

Because some degree of danger and uncertainty is alluring. It’s hardwired into our psyche. It’s what makes us inventors, and explorers, and artists. There is no reward without risk.

tidepodAlthough, for the dumbest few, there is plenty of risk without reward.

This is why I reject the concept of “Safety First”, even when it takes the form of bicycle helmets.

I grew up riding a bike. We rode endless miles of country roads with no helmets and nobody blinked an eye. Was there some element of risk in that? Probably. In the same way that there was some risk in rope-swinging into a country pond or traversing a fallen tree over a storm-swollen creek (things that would also be verboten in today’s hissy-fit religion of worry).

Like climbing a tree, riding a bike simply wasn’t anyone’s idea of an extreme sport. It was just a slightly faster-than-walking-pace means of getting from here to there.

Which brings me to point #2:

2) I don’t do what helmet-wearers do

Like death and taxes, some things are absolutely axiomatic. Every single time the subject of bicycle helmets comes up, the nearest bicyclist tells me their horror story of the time their helmet saved their life. And every story starts something like this:

“I was with my riding group doing thirty-five through a construction site when…”

Or:

“I was mountain biking down a steep, muddy path when…”

Or:

“I was chasing a gang of bicycle ninjas through a monsoon along the hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast when…”

edgeRiding“Two hundred foot drop to jagged rocks? Good thing I’m wearing this plastic helmet!”

Look, people: I don’t ride like that.

When I’m riding, I’m not in Beast Mode. I’m in toodle-mode.

I’m not out to break any records, or test the frayed limits of human endurance, or swoop through heavy traffic like I’m being filmed for a Bond movie. I don’t go much faster than running pace. I don’t lock my shoes into my pedals as if me and my bike were some sort of steampunk man/machine hybrid.  I don’t race down mountains, jump creeks, or dodge boulders at speeds measured in hundredths of a second.

I meander. Even when I am coasting down the quarter-mile hill to Presque Isle (my favorite ride), I keep to the bike lane and thread my brakes to stay below fifteen miles an hour. Why? Because I am aware that traveling any faster on a two-wheeled vehicle with no airbags, seat belts, or crumple-zones is an unwise and foolhardy exercise.

And I can hear some of you saying, “But what about the drivers!? What if some car swerves onto the path with its evil combustion engine!?”

I’d be in the exact same danger if I was walking, wouldn’t I? And yet no one ever suggests that I wear a helmet as a pedestrian.

gohjelm“A Walking Helmet is a Good Helmet”  — DAMMIT, irony!

Why?

I’m always tempted to respond to these cycling tales of the macabre with the story of Stephen King, who was struck and nearly killed by a van while merely walking alongside a Maine road near his home. Does his story make you want to wear a helmet every time you head out for an after dinner stroll? For some of you, it actually might.

For the rest of you, nor does the fear of rogue drivers keep me from riding the bike path without a helmet. I have a handlebar mirror to watch for traffic, I avoid riding my bike on busy roads wherever possible, and I keep on high alert whenever I do ride near cars and trucks.

Riders that wear helmets, however, seem to adopt a completely different mentality.

Recently, I was driving down onto Presque Isle for a picnic, following a steady stream of 25 MPH cars deep into the peninsula, when I encountered a guy on a recumbent bike. He came up behind my Subaru decked out in riding shorts, one of those tight shirts emblazoned with logos, and his omnipresent bike helmet. He swerved through the cars, cutting the centerline and swooping back and forth across the lanes like a ferret navigating a procession of cows. He got behind my car and started dodging back and forth, first seen in the passenger mirror, then the driver’s mirror. He was right on my bumper, looking for a break in the traffic so he could squirt through ahead of me.

Suddenly it was my job to watch out for him and his reckless riding. I felt like I couldn’t so much as tap my brakes lest he plow under my rear bumper.

Riders like that? They definitely need to wear a helmet.

Me, on the bike path, toodling along at a sedate twelve-and-a-half miles per hour? Nah. I’m good.

But that brings us, finally, to:

3) The Statistics Don’t Make Your Point

There’s a man named Mikael Colville-Andersen and he’s known as Copenhagen’s bicycle ambassador. He’s given Ted talks on the subject of bicycle helmets—why he doesn’t wear one, and why he thinks the messaging around bicycle helmets is counterproductive to healthy cities. I encourage you to watch the linked video, but if you’re in a big hurry, here’s the breakdown.

1) Statistically, pedestrians and vehicle occupants have a greater likelihood of experiencing head injuries than do bicyclists.

2) Studies done in cultures where bicycle helmets are the norm have shown that incidents of vehicle/cyclist accidents have actually increased rather than diminished.  How can this possibly be? Some suggest that it’s because the helmet creates an inflated sense of safety for both the rider and nearby drivers, reducing vigilance and common sense.

3) In cities where bicycle helmet safety has been widely promoted, the result has not necessarily been more helmets; it’s been fewer cyclists.  The reason for this is simple: the inadvertent message is that bicycle riding is inherently dangerous, thus scaring commuters away from their bikes and back into their cars and buses.

Colville-Anderson even suggests that this is an intentional effect sponsored by automobile manufacturers, who view urban cycling as a threat to their industry.

Regardless of any possible conspiracy theories, however, there is a growing movement of cyclists rejecting the fear-culture of the bicycle helmet.

To put this in some perspective, however, I do own a bicycle helmet. I have worn it on occasion. I wear it when I know I will be riding near fast-moving vehicles on busier roads than my morning commute. I do it if I will be riding on unfamiliar terrain. I do it if I am in an area I don’t know very well.

tricycleI do it if I’m heading into a client-meeting with the marketing department.

But the fact is, I am a creature of routine. I don’t encounter those situations very often. In fact, I avoid them. And that’s why you won’t see me wearing my helmet most of the time.

But there’s one reason you should keep telling me to wear a helmet

And that’s simple: because you care. Thanks! Even if you’re the fat, sweaty, topless guy I passed on Grant’s Trail in St. Louis, who yelled at me from his bike “Put on a helmet!” and to whom I responded, “Put on a shirt!”—thanks for caring!

I feel about it the same way that atheist Penn Jillette feels about Christian proselytization: if you really believe that something might possibly save my life, what kind of jerk would you have to be not to share it with me? I like knowing that people care, even if I don’t agree with their concerns, so please continue to harangue me about wearing a bike helmet. I may try to explain myself, or I may not. Most cyclists are so utterly assured in their convictions that debating with them almost seems like an insult. So I’ll instead choose to just feel loved.

Even if, inwardly, I roll my eyes a little.

Why the Word “Activist” Makes me Itchy…

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“Activist”. Am I the only person who gets a little itchy at the mention of that word?

Maybe it’s because when someone calls themselves an activist, what I hear is “proud teller of other people how to live their lives.”

Honestly, am I wrong in that interpretation?

For awhile now, I’ve wondered: do we live perhaps in the preachiest, most shrilly prescriptive culture since the dawn of time?

In times past, people were lorded over by a hierarchy of often oppressive leaders.  Now, we’ve all individually taken up the mantle of lording it over each other.

Look at our bumper stickers, and Twitter rants, and Facebook memes. We loudly dictate how everyone else should vote, or raise their kids, or eat, or drive. We are very comfortable assuming a place of authority to decide for others what they should believe and think, how they should behave, and what judgments or opinions or beauty standards we’re willing to allow them to have.

And if we fail at that, if they persist in disobeying our dictates, then we are perfectly comfortable labeling them “evil” and shouting them into silence.

Of course, the activist will explain that this is all necessary, noble work. There is much change that needs to happen in the world.

I actually agree.

Which is why I will never, ever, be an activist.

It’s like this: changing the world is a bucket brigade.

We’re putting out the fires of inequity, injustice, bigotry, etc one bucket at a time. We all have an essential part in that line, carrying each bucket of water from hand to hand. That’s our duty, prosaic as it is.

How do we perform this duty?

First and foremost, we do it through the daily, thankless work of rooting out those base influences in our own hearts and minds.

Then, we do it through leading via example.

We do it through answering when asked, and doing so with respect, cemented in the context of relationship.

Nobody wants to hear it, but I think we all know it deep down: the bucket brigade of world-change is comprised of billions of single individuals tending to the change they alone can control: their own heart and mind.

So what’s an activist?

An activist is somebody who’s decided that the bucket brigade just isn’t fast enough to accomplish the change that needs to happen.

Perhaps they have the best of intentions. Perhaps their heart really is in the right place. Either way, they start hectoring the people around them to go faster. They start loudly guilt-tripping everyone else that they aren’t doing enough.

Some of the like-minded people in the bucket brigade cheer the activist on. Others just feel brow-beaten and secretly consider giving up entirely. Still others are jealous of the applause the activist is getting, so they join in.

Soon enough, more and more people decide to become activists instead of mere members of the bucket brigade.

Until today, when, thanks to the amplifying effect of social media, most of the bucket brigade has opted to become activists.

And the activists are much too busy with their chosen higher calling to waste any time on, you know, actually working in the bucket brigade.

Because let’s be perfectly honest: we cannot do both.

We can’t assume the full-time position of directing everyone else on how to live their lives while also engaging in the more-than-full-time work of actually being a better person and perfecting the change that we alone can control.

And let’s be even more honest: there’s simply no applause in being part of the bucket brigade. There are no “mic-drop” moments. There is no social glory whatsoever.

There’s just the quiet satisfaction of actually making a change, of managing well the responsibility that you alone have been given.

There’s no greatness in doing one’s small part. But there is goodness in it.

Unfortunately, greatness is what we Americans worship and desperately yearn for. Greatness is being fantastic at one corner of life at the expense of everything else, even if it results in a net loss.

Goodness, on the other hand, is balance in all things. Goodness is moderation. It’s humility, and quiet contentment, and serving your own best self rather than the shallow accolades of a superficial and fickle world.

I submit that goodness, not greatness, is what changes the world.

And this is why activists make me itch. Because they’ve abandoned their actual world-influencing duties in exchange for a hand-built throne of public hectoring.

They’ve bet all their chips on the myth of change through the loudest nagging.

So that’s why I, personally, will never tell you how to raise or teach your kids. I won’t tell you how to vote. I won’t call you evil for what you believe, or think, or whether you eat meat, or like Nickleback, or drive a hybrid.

I will just tell you to please, please, stay in the bucket brigade. Hoist your share of the water. Be true to the lifelong, world-changing work of being your own best self.

And if the day ever does come that you’ve finally perfected that work? By all means, become an activist again and tell the rest of us how to do it.

But only do it then. And good luck.

What if America doesn’t have a “problem”, but a parasite?

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Thinking out loud here.  Bear with me– this is about to get super-controversial.

Nobody has any real ideas about how to address the racists marching– and killing– in VA. I’ve asked over and over, with no truly satisfying answers.  I think it’s because we’re all doing what decent people do when confronted with the horrors in their backyard. We’re asking ourselves what we did wrong. How are we responsible?

But what if that’s the wrong question? What if “we” aren’t responsible at all? Not this time. What if the fault lies squarely, irrevocably at the feet of an inevitable, tiny, poisonous rat-core of evil humans? “Humans” in name only, completely immune to rationality, to empathy, individuals who have long since seceded from the brotherhood of humanity?

What if America doesn’t have a problem, but a parasite?

Before you suggest that I am washing our cultural hands of the evils of our past, denying our part in creating an untenable life for untold numbers of minority individuals and families, let me just say: you are absolutely right.  These are conversations that have to be had.  And they are happening, thankfully.

But what if that’s not what’s behind the racism we see in VA?  What if Charlottesville represents another kind of human depravity entirely?

What if these racists are not “misunderstood and disenfranchised” white people, but are actually irredeemably poisoned lunatics, propagating hatred to their children like a cancer subverting healthy cells?

When a body contracts a cancer, it doesn’t guilt itself for being sick. The body attacks the cancer. Or a doctor removes it surgically.

What if there is nothing for it but to take drastic measures against the poison of blatantly race-hating communities: to isolate them, identify them, and ultimately make it impossible for them to spread their virus?

It’s extremely scary ground, I know. I can imagine the endless, terrible ways such a precedent could be abused. But what if we were extremely careful and deliberate?  What if we could safeguard against the slippery slope by defining racial hatred by the most blatantly unambiguous terms: the loud and overt preaching that one skin color is superior/inferior to another, accompanied by verbal degradation, epithets, and mockery of those races. Like what we are seeing in VA.

For the sake of disambiguity, let’s call this Rabid Racism, as opposed to privilege, or unconscious prejudice, or whatever people think Trump is, or even the intellectual debate over racial differences.

What if we made Rabid Racism an outright mental illness? What if these people were institutionalized for their own good, and that of those around them?

What if their kids were rescued from their influence and put into homes with healthy, loving people who teach and exhibit sane and healthy attitudes toward diversity and other cultures?

What if by simply asking for a permit to march for “white power” they were automatically 1) denied the permit on the grounds of public safety and well-being, and 2) put on a watch-list and/or interviewed directly by psychologists to determine their fitness for public life?

What if such people were entered into an official database for employers to peruse before hiring decisions were made, particularly in education, banking, or law enforcement roles, where their poison would directly influence the lives of the people they hate?

What if their websites and online meeting places were outlawed, or at least strictly monitored, making it far harder for them to anonymously metastasize into actionable communities and hate-groups?

To be clear, I am not talking policing thought. These people are free to think whatever their ugly black hearts desire. But what if we policed everything else: their words and actions? What if we made it not merely socially unacceptable but outright illegal to preach and act on indefensible, irrational hatreds rooted in nothing more than base human evil (or actual psychoses)?

If we made racism a diagnosable mental illness (as proven by the person’s actual, incontrovertible words and actions, not mere ambiguous outside assertion), we could begin to excise the cancer. We can’t erase the sickness of hatred from individual human minds, but what if we made it much, much harder for that hatred to spread?

What if we quarantined it?

I am dissatisfied with the other answers I have found. The navel-gazing. The vigils. The “teach your children well”. Not because those things aren’t good and essential, but because most of us are already doing them, and they just aren’t enough.

They don’t address the parasite among us.

The rat-core of poison racism endures. It’s dying a slow, rabid death, but it’s far from dead. It’s cornered. And that may be why it’s erupting so viciously now, bursting to the surface like a long-festering boil.

I am bored and annoyed and frustrated with the hectoring on social media, as if a few “outraged” posts and some self-congratulating amens from the choir of our friends was going to make any difference whatsoever.

I keep asking: what do we really, actually, DO?

Maybe none of the ideas I’ve listed would work. Probably they are simply illegal, antithetical to everything we stand for as freedom-loving Americans.  I’m just spit-balling here.

But what if we don’t have a “problem”? What if we have a cancer? Do we not, at some point, have to shift our gazes from our own bellies to the actual festering parasite on our culture? It can’t be allowed to be part of us, right?

So if what I’ve proposed is impossible and anathema to a liberty-based culture (as it surely probably is), then what do we do instead?  How do we face the real ugliness directly and unambiguously?

How do we excise the cancer?

How do we remove the parasite