tarot, fool

There once was a bioengineered war virus from nantucket

Interested in things that are FREE?*,**



Well, I have good news for you! Part 7 of my novel is now online: http://nano2009.omer.bar-or.org/read/2009/11/07



Or, you can start at the beginning: http://nano2009.omer.bar-or.org/read



* "FREE" here does not mean in terms of cost, but as per the acronym, "Full of Ridiculous (yet Employable) Expletives."



** Some restrictions may apply.


tarot, fool

Updates are like a bunny rabbit

Hello there!



So, here's a thing that you might like if you exist (some other qualifications may apply) : I'm taking part in National Novel Writing Month again. Unfortunately, LiveJournal isn't capable of letting me do what I want this time, so I built my own site. It is here:



http://nano2009.omer.bar-or.org/



A few notes of interest:



  1. This novel is not only from me, but also contains art from Mike McLeod, who is an artist and is the subject of thousands of statues that have not yet been sculpted. If you go for nothing else, you should go for the chance to be closer to him.

  2. This novel is being written specifically for the Internet. As such, it's using all sorts of fun technology that's not available to a normal novel. If you have ideas or anything you'd like to contribute to this project, we are beyond excited for that. In fact, I even created a section of the website specifically for people like you! http://nano2009.omer.bar-or.org/contribute/info

  3. As with the last novel, posts will appear a few days after I write them, both to give me time to make corrections, and to let Mike do his wonderful magic.

  4. In case remembering to visit another website is a pain (and you don't use an RSS reader), I'll post here with a link to every new section of the novel. That way, if you're friends with me, you'll see a small daily post from me filled with bountiful treasure.



A note of uninterest:



  1. In 1992, there was a person named Jimmy.

tarot, fool

Thoughts on Gay Marriage

This is part of a debate that is taking place about gay marriage; in earlier parts of the debate, the claim was made several times that "marriage is a social construct." But beyond that, nothing is needed from that debate to understand this argument. Those with the proper permissions can see the debate here.

(Also note that I am not a political scientist, and my ignorance on the subject is probably apparent, but I think that my argument does not depend on an understanding of the intricacies of the United States legal system.)

I'm actually going to put myself on a limb here and disagree that marriage is a social construct, or at least that marriage is just a social construct. It makes sense to talk about at least two kinds of marriage (Wikipedia defines three, of which I'll lump two together).

Marriage as a social agreement between two people is vacuously a social construct. This is also the form of marriage that has some basis, at least historically, in religion. But, the marriage being discussed in "gay marriage" is not social marriage. It's not a question of whether two people are allowed to view themselves or have other people view them as married, at least not at the surface.

The question being debated is about legality, about what rights long-term monogamous gay couples are given, both by the government and by other institutions. Married couples are given special rights: lower taxes, shared medical benefits from employers, &c. In some states, and in some cases, these rights are given not only to married couples, but also to couples forming other legal unions (most notably a "civil union" between gay couples). But, that is by no means a universal policy.

Perhaps the distinction between legal and social marriage is problematic. (In fact, I think that it is not made in most debates on the topic.) After all, the legal system and the social system are not mutually exclusive, as laws (arguably) attempt to optimize social welfare for some subset of the population. In fact, one might argue that social and legal versions of marriage share the same goals: e.g., to make reproduction as easy as possible or to create strong social ties between disparate families.

I would argue, however, that the importance of the distinction between social and legal marriage is in the stated goal of equality (under law) in the United States legal system. Social systems make no such claim. In fact, in social systems, people are often encouraged to act in their own self-interest, so much so that the predominant models in game theory (e.g., Nash Equilibrium) assume that all players always act in their own perceived self-interest, and one of the goals of game theorists is to design gaming mechanisms that lead to socially optimal results under the assumption that all agents act selfishly. Thus, the social system does not strive for equality, while the legal system (in the United States) does. And, one of the goals of a legal system is to impose mechanisms that optimize social welfare on a selfish population.

We can see the attempt of the legal system to impose equality on marriage while preserving the social benefits of heterosexual couples: a civil union is legally equivalent to a marriage (at least in some states, like California), but allows those who value the term "marriage" highly and want it to continue making some claim on the sexes of its participants to keep their term.

This dichotomy between the two forms of marriage is used problematically, though, in the arguments of those against gay marriage. Protect Marriage (the name of the pro-Proposition-8 group in California), for example, makes two claims: a) civil unions are legally equivalent to marriage in California such that any couple in the former will have the same legal rights as those in the latter, and b) allowing gay couples to marry would have fundamental consequences to our way of life. One example of (b), among many, given by Protect Marriage is of adoption agencies in Massachusetts that closed down so as not to be required by law to let gay couples adopt. (See this Protect Marriage video for these arguments/examples being made.)

The implicit claim here is that the first argument references legal marriage, while the second references social marriage. If this implicit claim is not made, we have a contradiction: civil unions are equal to marriage, but if we replace civil unions with marriage, there will be dramatic results, which suggests that they are not equal.

But, just because an adoption agency isn't part of the government doesn't mean that it deals with the social meaning of marriage. We can see this fact, again, using the Protect Marriage argument. The argument is that the changing of a legal institution (allowing homosexual people to take on the legal status of "married") would affect whether or not the adoption agency can decline gay couples from adopting children. Thus, it must be that the definition that the adoption agency uses is the legal definition, as the social definition would not have changed if Proposition 8 had failed.

This same argument will apply to any example of claim (b). In every case, the only issue being argued is a legal issue, so if changing the a legal definition has social effects, then there must exist a legal inequality between the two terms, which violates claim (a).

Thus, unless there is a mistake in my reasoning, people against gay marriage have one of three unhappy choices to make:

  • marriage and civil unions should be identical legally, including the implications to the social world (like for adoption agencies).

  • marriage and civil unions should not be identical, which means that the United States's legal system either does not have legal equality as a goal, or this goal is less important than some others.

  • civil unions should not even exist, which is similar in meaning to (b).



The first option is unfortunate because it means that, really, there is no debate. If marriages and civil unions should be synonymous, then nobody should have an objection to replacing one synonymous term ("marriage") with another ("civil union"), or vice versa. Perhaps the optimal solution, in this case, would be to use the term "civil union" to refer to an institution of legal rights (for any couple) and leave "marriage" to be a social phenomenon, the precise meaning of which people and organizations will choose over time.

The later two options are unfortunate because they suggest that, in order to claim that gay marriage should not exist, people must argue that legal equality is not as important as other rights/issues, and that sounds (to me) like it would be a pretty unpopular argument in such a pro-equality climate, as we can see by the frequency with which those against gay marriage claim that this is not an issue of inequality.

That's it. Feel free to agree/disagree with me here or on the original debate. Clearly, with so many people against gay marriage, either there is a flaw in my reasoning or the choices I gave above are not as unhappy as I think.
tarot, fool

NaNo 2007: Nov. 26 (final)

Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.

Note 2: this is the final section of the novel. Thanks for reading, and I hope that you have enjoyed it!

The novel continues here.

He thought, I can't believe I'm making this up!, but in thinking about thinking, he instantly brought the whole magic of creativity to a halt, and could only mutter, after a long pause punctuated by Toff's curious glances in his direction, "Yeah... That's as far as I've gotten so far with it... But, I thought... that you might want to take part."

Toff, luckily, was ecstatic. She shrieked, "Of course! That sounds awesome!" Then, in a (slightly) calmer tone, she began flying through ideas, like characters named for Aristotle, Boole, Leibniz, and so forth, or cards that give you pieces of information (like "not Wednesday" or "not Wednesday implies not ice cream"), and your goal is to derive something using those facts, or something like Taboo, with teams, a time limit, and one person trying to have her team derive something given a some fun-forcing restrictions. And on and on her ideas went.

Orr smiled and nodded at them, thinking many were good, many impossible, and others nonsensical, but mostly happy to watch Toff so beside herself with excitement, and he wondered if he had perhaps accidentally landed upon a successful idea. But, even as he thought it, and the bubbling heat of ego rushed up through him, he pushed hard to tear it back down, to remain only someone trying to enjoy himself with friends, desperate only for good experiences. And, on thinking this, he pushed away his self-consciousness and began theorizing about how to implement or supplement Toff's ideas, and the two were quickly immersed into the same endless world of a newly begun project.

And, they reached Columbia without even realizing that they had walked instead of taking the subway.

---

Two days later, Orr, for the first time since he began attending, looked behind him in his logic class just before the class began. He spotted Toff instantly and smiled at her. Tom had grown his hair out, was wearing the scruffy beginnings of a beard, and kept his head low, so it took Orr until after the class began to spot him. But, as soon as he did, he couldn't keep his eyes off of his old friend. He missed most of the lecture (which was about Bertrand Russell, the present king of France, and definite descriptions), turning as often as he could to glimpse Tom's altered state.

Tom had hair to the bottom of his ears; he no longer wore glasses; his face had grown more slender, almost gaunt, and he had worn so many holes into the parts of the long sweatshirt he was wearing that Orr wondered if it protected him at all from the cold. On his tenth glance, Orr noticed that Tom's hair also looked different; it looked wiry and fragile. Two glances later, he noticed that Tom's eyes were now different colors, though he couldn't tell which from the distance, and that there were dark lines under Tom's eyes. And, another five glances after that, he saw a small cut on Tom's right cheek.

By now, class was coming to an end, and Orr finally settled into his seat and looked at the professor, who shot him a frown, intending (he feared) that his negligence would cost him dearly in what had been her growing favor.

Oh well, he thought, and stared at the front of the room, unable to understand anything.

When the class ended, Orr navigated his way through the crowds to intercept Tom, but Tom had grown adept at leaving the room quickly (though not as quickly, Orr noticed, as Toff, who appeared to have simply vanished as soon as everyone else began standing). He dashed out of the classroom and glanced around, finally spotting some bouncing hair and the half-back of a shirt that could only be Tom's. He hurled himself toward that area, barely avoiding the oncoming students and all but colliding with the students moving in his direction as well.

And, soon, he was right behind his former friend, mesmerized by the bouncing hair, and found himself staring at it, unable to accelerate. What had he wanted to say? What did he expect Tom to say?

He took five large steps and was beside Tom. He said, "Hey, Tom."

Tom looked over at him and then stopped suddenly. Orr, who had not expected this behavior, continued a half-step farther and almost collapsed in his attempt to stop. He turned to face Tom. Students around them were grumbling about the unnecessary obstacle in the hallway. One girl muttered, "People are so insensitive!"

Orr grinned.

Tom, again without warning, began walking again and, as he passed Orr, who was struggling to turn back and begin walking alongside Tom all at once, said, "Hi, Orr. Listen, I gotta go."

Orr called, "Wait!" and though Tom didn't, Orr managed to catch up. He started, "I'm..."

But, Tom cut him off. "It's okay. Don't apologize. I'm just late for a meeting."

Orr said, "A meeting?"

Tom said, "Yeah, I'll talk to you later."

And, at that moment, they reached the door outside, and Tom took off at a run.

Orr thought, I'm going to need a better strategy. But, he was also going to be late if he didn't hurry back inside.

---

Orr spent his next class deciding how he should next approach Tom. His most obvious option, to look him up and call him, sounded at first appealing, but Tom's antisocial look and mannerisms reminded Orr too much of himself two months prior, and he decided that Tom likely would not answer arbitrary phone calls. But, the thought of himself gave him another idea, or (rather) reminded him of how others had gotten a hold of him: unexpected visits. And, with barely another thought, he decided that this would be his best plan.

That evening, he found Tom's room and knocked on his door. The door was framed in leis, and a large whiteboard covered the door itself, with the words, "We love you, Tom! Hen&Ted " written in blue marker (though the marker itself was no longer around). Attached both sides of the doorframe, now lying deflated on the floor, were two balloons, one blue and one white.

Someone was moving around inside, and after a few seconds, Tom opened the door.

Tom said, "Oh, hi, Orr."

Orr said, "Hey, Tom."

They stood in silence, Orr unable (again) to decide on a speaking algorithm, and Tom for his own reasons.

Finally, Orr said, "Mind if I come in?"

Tom thought for a moment and then said, "Not at all! ... You'll have to be quick, though. I'm pretty busy." And, he led Orr into the room.

It was a single room, with the bed unlofted, and little extra space because of it. The room was perfectly neat, including the bed, but the room also looked empty; no posters lined its walls, and the only signs that someone lived here were the blankets on the bed, the computer and some papers and books on the desk, and the man standing before him, motioning for him to take the lone chair.

After Orr sat down, Tom sat on the bed. They stared at each other.

Orr said, "It's been a while," and he chuckled.

Tom said, "Yeah." He smiled slightly and for a moment.

Again, they stared at each other in silence. And, again Orr broke it, this time with more gumption.

He said, "Okay, so the thing is this... I'm sorry it took me so long to figure things out... but I'm ready to ask my friend for help."

Tom said, "Help?"

Orr said, "Yeah. I'm pretty unhappy."

Tom said, "And, you want therapy?"

Orr said, "No, I want friends... I want people with whom to enjoy myself."

Tom said, "Well, I'm sorry, Orr. I waited a long time, I did, but I've got my own friends now. I'm not the Tom you used to know."

Orr said, "But, I'm not the Orr you used to know either. Just give me a chance, see if you can deign to be my friend. It can't cost you anything but time."

Tom thought about this notion for some time. He looked around his room. Then back at Orr. Then around his room again. He said, "I just don't see it happening. I'm sorry, Orr... But, I'm pretty busy these days. Time is something I can't really afford"

Orr said, "That's fine. I'm not asking for all of your time, just a day, an hour, even half an hour. And, if you can't afford it now, maybe in a week, or next semester. But, eventually, some time has to free up, and I'd like to ground it as soon as it's free."

Tom nodded and said, "Okay." But, he refused to smile.

Orr smiled at him and said, "Thanks."

Again, silence overcame the room. Tom looked at his watch and opened his mouth, waited for another moment, then closed it again.

Orr, not sure what else to say, said, "So, Toff and I are making a game."

Tom jerked his head up immediately. He said, "Toff?"

Orr said, "Yeah."

Tom looked down again and began scratching at his knee. He said, "How is she, anyway?"

Orr said, "She's good, I think. As excitable as always."

Tom nodded in painstaking absentmindedness. He said, "You hang out with her a lot, then?"

Orr said, "I didn't." He paused. "I mean, I did... and then I didn't."

Tom looked up at him, one eyebrow raised well above the other. It was the first familiar look that Orr had seen and he smiled at it.

Orr said, "We hung out for a while, then stopped, and now I think we're starting again."

Tom said, "Sounds melodramatic."

Orr said, "Not really."

Tom said, "Ahh..."

Orr said, "Anyway, I know I'm not the best person to be running about giving advice, but... You should apologize."

Tom said, "I did." He looked down again.

Orr said, "Again."

Tom said, "I did a lot." His voice was rising.

Orr said, "More then."

Tom looked up at Orr again. His eyes were narrow, and tears were forming in them. He said, "And, what's the point?"

Orr said, "Because..."

But, Tom interrupted him. "What should I have done?"

Orr said, "I'm not saying you did anything wrong. You should apologize because you hurt her."

Tom's mood improved an infinitesimal amount. He said, "She doesn't want to talk to me."

Orr said, "I don't think that not apologizing will help that."

Tom said, "Whatever." He shrugged.

Orr suppressed a sigh and said, "I can't force you to do it. But, I think it's the only chance you've got to save that friendship... If you want to."

Tom nodded. He said, "Yeah. Okay." Then, after a tiny pause, said, "I should probably get back to work."

Orr said, "Okay." He stood. "Let me know if and when you want to hang out. I'm a bit busy, but I'll make time."

Tom said, "Yeah, you and your six classes." He shook his head. "Maybe next weekend."

Orr nodded and said, "Give me a call."

And, he walked out the door.

---

The following Friday, Toff called Orr and asked if he wasn't busy and minded a study partner, and he (without any hesitation) said that he would not mind at all. And, that evening, they ate dinner together and spent the night studying.

At dinner, Toff showed Orr some scrawled notes she had written over the past six days about the game. Mostly, it was a list of names, from "The Modus Pony" to "The Lion-Hearted Oiler" to "Fragley" (who is known to yell, "Frege!" when he gets excited), and so forth. She had also developed something she called a "randomized riddle." That is, any normal riddle in a game would be too easy to solve after a few times playing. Toff's solution was a riddle whose contents depended on a couple of dice. It was based on the classic cannibals and other people trying to cross a river on a boat that can only fit two people. But, the exact characters (and tools) appearing in the Toff's scenario depended completely on dice. First, two cannibals and two logicians are added to side 1, along with the boat; then, the player would roll dice until she rolled a double (both dice having the same side up), and each other roll would add a new character or a new tool, partly depending on other factors in the game, and partly just by luck. For example, a roll of 1 2 might add a child and her parent to side 1, and the child is unwilling to go on a boat without her parent alongside her. Or 4 3 might add a dog on one side and a cat on the other, each of which must be accompanied by a human and which cannot be on the same side unless there are at least three humans to keep them apart. And, so forth. Some such riddles might be impossible (e.g., a roll of 6 2, which brings 2 cows to side 1, neither of which can fit on a boat), and some might be easy (e.g., a roll of 5 6, which brings a hot air balloon to side 1, thus allowing as many as 10 people (or 2 cows) to cross the river at once if they so desire). But, in the end, most would be designed to be challenging in unique ways in any given situation.

Orr listened to these ideas with a growing sense of awe and shame, having not thought about the game at all, and with growing interest because the ideas wrought in him an image of how the game might actually look.

Toff's description of her work took them through dinner, and Orr didn't have to explain that he had not progressed them at all until they began their walk back.

As they left the dining hall, he said, "Well, those are some awesome ideas--I'm sorry that I don't have any to add."

Toff said, "It's okay. You've got lots to do. And, I understand that you've been trying to woo Tom as well." She shot Orr a mischievous grin.

Orr said, "Yeah... Well..."

Toff said, "He's a hard sell."

Orr nodded.

Toff grinned at him again and said, "I hear that you also discussed me with him."

Orr said, "Well..." He realized that it was probably insensitive of him to have talked about her with Tom, and he was about to apologize, but Toff spoke before he had a chance.

She said, "Thanks. I can't say I'm any less angry at him, but it was nice to hear him apologize."

Orr said, "He apologized?"

Toff said, "Yeah, he wrote me a poem."

Orr said, "A poem?"

Toff said, "Yeah, a sonnet."

Orr said, "Wow."

Toff grinned at him for a third time, and this time, he returned her grin, and the two friends laughed together in the cold night.

Then, Toff mentioned the abstract direction that the logic course had taken (including first Russel's definite descriptions and then Frege's sense and reference in order to try to capture the expressive power of natural languages), and Orr took the opportunity to freshen up on the former topic, which he had missed in his initial obsession with Tom.

When the two arrived at Orr's room, Orr was surprised to find a figure huddled against the door, wearing a large coat, scarf, and hat. He thought, at first, that it was Mike, with new clothing, but Toff said, "Hi, Tom!" as they approached. And, when they reached the door, she added, "I'm glad to see you haven't been waiting long."

Tom looked up, uncoiled his scarf to reveal his scraggly face, and said, "Hi, guys!" He stood up.

Orr, dumbfounded, fumbled with his key to open the door and let the two in. He said, "What are you doing here, Tom?"

Tom waited to answer until they were all inside, Orr in his chair, Toff in Mike's, and Tom on the floor, at which point he grinned at Orr and said, "You're, what, the last person not to own a cell phone? You wanted to hang out, but I couldn't get a hold of you, so I had to call Toff here." He smiled at her. "Well, I might have called her before I tried to call you, but the point still stands."

Orr said, "The point?"

Tom said, "So, I hear that we're going to be studying some logic together."

Toff said, "I invited him to join us."

Tom smiled again. He said, "It might not be my most exciting Friday night ever, but I'm excited for it all the same!" And, after a pause, he added, "Should we start with the definite descriptions? I'm sure that they'll show up on the final."

Toff nodded and said, "Okay."

Orr nodded too, not completely sure with what he was agreeing, for his wordless perplexity at seeing Tom had slowly transformed into thoughtful perplexity. Is it really that simple? Are we suddenly friends again, in a matter of a week?

A rising deluge of success was beginning to flood over him, and he blushed. But, even now, when the newness of their time together brought out the forgiving, the jocular, and the generally friendly in all of them, before the quotidian struggles of different personalities and insurmountable pasts once more submerged them into cold emotion, Orr could see that emotion still surging underneath, hiding behind Tom's laugh, and Toff's grins. They were barely looking at each other, and Tom looked at Orr's Adam's apple instead of his face when he spoke to him. A part of Orr hoped that these mild discomforts were also a part of the newness of their experience and that they would soon drift away, but another part worried that the simple friendships of high school could never be relived, that only adult friendships were possible now.

And, even as Orr had this thought, he realized once more that walls were being built around him, limiting what he could do and who he could be. But, now, because he had torn away so much, he looked upon the vast expanse of his belief system and saw it for what it was: an engineering problem, a space where walls needed to be built, but could be built intelligently, self-consciously, and above all, elegantly, and that the resulting person, if designed correctly, could be an elegant mixture of happiness and productivity, of social conformance and individualism, of radical ingenuity and common sense. And, for the first time in over four years, Orr had inadvertently discovered a project worthy of a child prodigy.

He looked up. Tom and Toff were both looking at him quizzically, having perhaps noticed how long he had been silent.

He told a joke about a man made out of jello.

Everybody laughed.



THE END