Here you can read some nonfiction I’ve written outside the realm of class assignments. The topics I address vary quite widely. Essays on Philosophy
Here you can read some nonfiction I’ve written outside the realm of class assignments. The topics I address vary quite widely.
Essays on Philosophy
Is there free will?
Depends on your definition.
(Written in Spring 2003)
My conclusion about free will comes from two premises that seem ridiculous at first, but make perfect sense when looked at closely: first, that it is impossible to do anything that one does not want to do, and second, that it is impossible to control one’s emotions.
Every choice we make is based on a desire. Sometimes a desire is a conscious feeling that that choice will bring us some happiness, or less unhappiness than the alternatives would bring. Other times the conscious reasoning is not there, but there is still a desire. If I eat cake, it is because the taste of cake gives me pleasure. If I eat lettuce, it is because I believe that eating lettuce will make me healthy, and that I will be happier if I am healthy. If I donate to charity, it is because I get a good feeling from knowing I have done something helpful. If I give my life to save a friend, it is because I will have a moment, before I die, of knowing that my friend will live, and I consider this more pleasant than living with the knowledge that I missed the chance to save my friend’s life. Or maybe I won’t think it out so clearly– perhaps I will just think “I want my friend to live,” and act on that. But the fact remains that I would be acting on a wish. I wouldn’t be able to make the choice to save my friend if I did not want to.
If one does not experience a desire to do something, one does not do it. Conversely, if one desires something more than all the alternatives, one does not choose against it. If I have several boring books and one fascinating book, and I choose to read one of the boring ones because it is required for a class, it may seem that I am choosing against what I most desire… but in fact, my choice is because I want good grades in that class more than I want the excitement I get from reading a fascinating book. If my desire for good grades were less than my desire for exciting reading, I would choose the exciting reading.
It is impossible to make a choice without a desire. When a choice is caused by a sense of duty or a fear of death, there is still a desire behind it– the desire not to die, the desire to fulfill one’s duty. If someone read this essay and did something completely pointless merely to prove me wrong, it would still be the result of a desire to win the argument. The only actions that do not come from desire are things done by accident, or under the influence of chemicals or insanity. These are not choices, and certainly not examples of free will.
When I say “it is impossible to control emotions,” I do not mean “to control the outward expression of emotions” or “to control the making of decisions based on emotions.” I am referring to the impossibility of deciding what emotions to feel. If I want something or do not want something, this desire or absence of desire is because of the way my brain works, or because of something that has happened to me in the past– not because I chose to want or not want. My desires may change as my brain grows older and I accumulate more experiences, but these changes are never conscious choices on my part.
If I deliberately put myself in situations that I know will incite a certain feeling in me, or present myself with arguments to convince myself that I should have that feeling, I may succeed… but I am controlling only the circumstances, not my mind’s disposition to have that reaction to that situation or argument. Perhaps if I practiced for a long time, I could become able to change my desires at will… but even then, my choice to change them would be the result of an earlier desire, and even if I incited that desire in myself by the same method, there was another desire behind that choice. If I trace any feeling far enough back, I will inevitably find a cause that was outside my control.
So, yes, there is free will in the sense that people do what they want to do, but wanting can also be seen as a limit on our control. Since every choice comes originally from desire, and every desire comes originally from uncontrollable causes, every choice can be seen, in a sense, as ultimately uncontrollable.
Of course, there are varying degrees of control. As someone with Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome, I have a lot of experience with actions that challenge the border between “controllable” and “uncontrollable,” and clearly some are more controllable than others. A muscle tic is completely uncontrollable; a motor or vocal tic can be controlled for a while with great concentration but will start again as soon as I stop thinking about it. Things I do in an attack of hyperactivity are slightly more controllable; things like the words I choose in casual conversation are more controllable than that, but not as controllable as something I think over with great deliberation, like whether or not to call in sick to work when I have a slight cough.
But I do not feel anything is 100% controllable. There is a lot of resistance against that kind of viewpoint, because it is believed that it would cause problems if people saw the world that way. This, of course, is a logical fallacy– “it would be inconvenient for us if it were true, therefore it must not be true.” But most importantly, this viewpoint does not even necessarily cause such inconveniences.
One concern is, “If we see people’s actions as uncontrollable, doesn’t that mean punishment is wrong?” That argument only makes sense if you equate justice with revenge, saying, “We punish people because, if you’ve chosen to do something bad, it’s only fair to have something bad happen to you– that’s just the way it is.”
This is illogical, because no one can actually give a reason for it; the most anyone can say is “That’s just the way it is.” To explain a logical purpose for punishment, we must replace “That’s just the way it is” with a reasonable argument: “If people who have done bad things have bad things happen to them, people are less likely to do bad things.”
Punishment should not be revenge, it should be deterrent, and deterrent works whether or not people have free will. Even if the choices people make are uncontrollable, they are still affected by people’s knowledge of the consequences of their actions, and if people know an action will have bad consequences, they are less likely to do it. (Of course, if a person has absolutely no control and doesn’t even know what he’s doing, then the thought of punishment will not affect his actions, but cases like that usually end in medical treatment instead of punishment, anyway.)
Another concern is that viewing one’s actions as uncontrollable causes irresponsibility. I would argue against that too. It certainly has not caused me to be irresponsible in making choices. I still consider every decision very thoroughly, and I still feel a great deal of regret when I am unsatisfied with a choice I have made. In fact, people sometimes tell me I think things over too much.
I believe one’s ability to act responsibly has nothing to do with one’s opinion of free will. I am responsible because it is in my nature to want to act that way. People who do not want to be responsible sometimes use predestination or similar lack-of-free-will arguments as an excuse, but their irresponsibility is not caused by their belief that they cannot control their actions. They are just using that belief to justify their own unwillingness to act responsibly.
I also don’t see why my thoughts about free will should make me unhappy. There is no reason to regret being unable to do things one doesn’t want to do. I am not saddened by the thought that my actions are inextricably connected to things outside my life– it pleases me, in fact, because I think it shows how closely linked we are to the rest of the world.
Furthermore, even if our choices are the result of a chain of events going back to the beginning of time, we are still the ones who make those choices. The question “Where do our choices come from?” is kind of like the question “Where do babies come from?” You could answer “Babies come from inside their mothers”… and that would be a good answer, and an accurate answer, despite the fact that all the matter that makes up a newborn baby was somewhere else before it was inside the mother.
When a baby grows inside its mother, its body forms out of the food the mother eats, the air she breathes, and the water she drinks. The oxygen she breathes comes from plants, the food comes from plants and animals, and the water comes from rain clouds. And those plants, animals and rain clouds are made up of particles that used to be part of other plants, animals and rain clouds, as well as things like soil, lakes and rivers. Even before the Earth existed, those particles were part of something else. All the matter in a newborn baby came into existence billions of years ago, when the universe began.
But we don’t say “Babies come from the Big Bang.” We say “Babies come from inside their mothers,” because that’s where all that matter finally became a baby.
In the same way, even though our choices were ultimately caused by events that happened long before we were born, we can still say that our choices come from within ourselves… because that’s where that chain of events finally became a choice.
The Burnt Toast Analogy
(written in November 2005)
I used to think that the existence of so much suffering in the world was as close as you could get to proof that there is no God. I reasoned that if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, there would be no reason why God would allow such terrible things to happen in the world (war, slavery, genocide, etc.)
The main argument people used was “God doesn’t want to interfere with our choices,” but that never went very far with me. I couldn’t understand how a benevolent God would value the free will of a few despots over the lives and happiness of millions of innocent people. And if God was unwilling to control people’s choices, couldn’t he at least make evil stuff physically impossible to do? I mean, there are plenty of horrible things he had no problem making physically impossible– like being able to kill someone just by thinking about it, or everyone being able to read each other’s minds. Plus, the free will argument says nothing about why God allows natural disasters to cause huge amounts of suffering.
But then, one day, I was having a conflict with someone. She didn’t actually say anything mean to me; the conflict was mostly in my head, but it still helped me to see something.
I was having a lot of emotional trouble that day– maybe it was a hormonal mood swing, maybe it was a problem with my medications. Anyway, I was having panic attacks and rages and trying to hold it all in, because I felt as if I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, especially this one person. She was a no-nonsense type who had plenty of ordinary hardships in her life, and I felt that she would see my emotional problems as a spoiled-baby kind of whining, and tell me to get over them, because I had rich parents and couldn’t possibly know what it was like to grow up the way she did, and so on.
And that got me thinking about how different people have their emotional limits in different places. Suppose there’s a little kid who lost his favorite teddy bear. And suppose his father had his big-screen TV stolen, and his mother got fired from her job. Society would rate those losses on a scale, with the child’s loss being the smallest and the mother’s being the biggest… but it’s quite possible that each person felt exactly the same amount of suffering when the loss happened.
The worst things that happen in this world seem so terrible to us that we have trouble imagining a kind God allowing them… but maybe it seems that way simply because they are the worst things that happen. Sure, it would be great to get rid of those things, but probably it wouldn’t really change how people felt about the world. No matter what the worst things in the world were, we would feel just as bad about them, because they would be the worst things we had ever experienced.
God can’t win, because no matter how close to perfect he made the world, there would still be a worst thing in it, and people would always feel the same way about the worst thing they knew. Even if the worst thing that ever happened was that our toast got a little burnt in the toaster, we’d probably feel incredible suffering whenever that happened– we’d wonder how God could possibly be so cruel as to let the toaster burn our toast.
Maybe God made another world before this one, and some of the things that happened there were so bad that our world’s biggest problems would seem like burnt toast in comparison. And maybe the people complained, and God made them this world. And at first they were happy. They felt just the way we would feel if our world suddenly changed into a world where the worst thing was burnt toast. But then new generations came along, and they weren’t happy, because our world’s biggest problems were the worst things they had ever had to live with. And God realized that he had better give up trying to make all the people satisfied.
Now, I am still on the fence as to whether there’s a God. There are, of course, simpler explanations for suffering in the world, like that there is no God, or that God is not all-powerful, or that God is not a nice guy. And I think maybe the fence is an okay place for me to stay, because I am the kind of person who sees all the possibilities and realizes that you can’t be absolutely sure of anything. I’m comfortable with uncertainty; I don’t feel a need to have a strong belief one way or the other. But whenever I sit on a fence, I have interesting insights on both sides, and this is one of them.
Essays On Being Different
Connections to Spock
Character comparison by an autistic Trekkie
(written in college)
- Shielding. His shield is a mask of stoic control, and is put in place to hide emotions; mine is an absence of the knowledge of how to express them, and functions only as a barrier between my desire for human contact and its goal. Both impair our interaction with the human race, because showing no emotions, or the wrong emotions, or the right emotions in the wrong way, is abnormal, and abnormality is among the things most feared by humans.
- Rejected. In my childhood I was called a nerd, weirdo and freak; in his childhood he was accused of not being a true Vulcan. He was an interplanetary hybrid, and I did not know the appropriate words, actions, clothing, makeup, body language, or facial expression for a situation, but both cases stem from every normal creature’s instinctive fear and hatred of the unknown– both cases are because the child was different.
- Above average. How often does he state a number without decimal places? Does calculating mentally, in seconds, how many tribbles are in a cargo bay remind you of anything? Are the movies “The Voyage Home” and “Rain Man” as similar in your eyes as they are in mine? I could say over 100 words by my first birthday. I wrote stories in two languages from the time I was four. I have rhymed every element on the Periodic Table in a limerick and I have written more than a dozen sonnets and I have written a seven-verse rhyming poem that reads the same right-side-up as upside-down– all before my eighteenth birthday. A math savant and a language savant are different, but they share one thing: each has been born with unique gifts to compensate for other, more painful abnormalities.
- Going crazy. I have never actually thrown a bowl of soup at anyone–but I have done crazier things when off my medication. Five pills every morning and three every evening are necessary to control the symptoms of my disorders to a point at which I can be accepted by the rest of the world. Forget Clonidine and my Tourette tics take over, without thioridazine I become an outrageously hyperactive insomniac, and the omission of Paxil results in a condition I don’t even want to talk about. If only my insanity came at septennial intervals.
- Honesty. More than once he states that Vulcans are incapable of lying… this is clearly an exaggeration, but he is just as clearly not at peace with the pretense common in human interaction. Some autistics are actually incapable of lying, while many others find it unbearably uncomfortable. In both his case and mine, this makes it difficult to function in a world where minor lies are one of the staples of social skills.
- Confused. The reason a rational being–of which there are so few on this planet–does not know what words, actions, clothes, makeup, body language and facial expression are expected of her is that these codes of interaction are illogical. The proper behavior for a situation cannot be deduced by reason alone. How many times have both he and I sat in our quarters meditating on the baffling lunacy of the human species, knowing we will have to spend our entire lives learning how they function, and die still less than fully enlightened?
- Still human. Even in the midst of our bewilderment by Homo sapiens, each of us has a human side. His is the source of his family’s rejection, mine the origin of my own need to end rejection by the world. Both carry a desire to be like other humans, and both are a barrier to peace of mind–wouldn’t it be so much easier if he could be satisfied performing his duties like a computer and I could enjoy spending Saturday nights alone in my room?–but both have brought us moments of happiness that are worth the long loneliness in between.
- The war. When the confusion with human illogic meets the side of us that is itself human, the struggle to reconcile them lasts a lifetime. The need to join with the rest of the human world fights each day to push past the gigantic obstacle of our inability to understand it. And that is where I first saw the connection.
The Ethics of Curing
Once I got my own apartment and my own internet connection, one of the first things I did was join some online groups for people on the autism spectrum. I found that many people with Asperger’s and similar conditions congregate on the Internet, talking about challenges they face and how to deal with them.
On such forums, there is a distinct tendency to view autism spectrum disorders as being comparable to one’s race or gender, instead of comparable to a physical disease. Of the people I’ve seen posting on that subject, most of them appear to believe that the solution to autism-related problems is not to cure autism, but to teach society to be more accepting of it.
I have never been a hundred percent sure where I stand on this issue. For the most part, I agree that the autism spectrum has good aspects as well as bad aspects, and that many of the bad aspects are caused (or at least compounded) by the way society treats people who are different. On the other hand, there’s also the fact that some problems (such as sensory overload and panic attacks) are truly symptoms of the autism spectrum condition, and can cause great suffering. If I could remove those kinds of problems from my own life without changing my personality and my talents, I definitely would… although I would certainly not be willing to give up my personality and my talents for the sake of eliminating those problems.
The possibility of curing autism spectrum disorders, or preventing anyone from being born with them, raises some difficult ethical dilemmas. Suppose, for example, that we could diagnose Asperger’s before birth and abort any fetus with it– or even (much further in the future) remove the genes to make the fetus normal. This issue troubles me deeply because there are no good options, whether we actually develop this ability or not.
Some people, when presented with this scenario, say that parents should be told if their fetus has the genes for an autism spectrum disorder, and that they should be allowed and even encouraged to abort or genetically engineer the fetus so that it won’t be born with that condition.
But then what would happen to the world of invention and discovery? Many of the great geniuses of history had traits typical of autism spectrum disorders, as well as other mental and emotional conditions. Disorders often come with brilliant savant skills. Considering that at least 85% of the fetuses diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted in the present day, how many geniuses will the world lose if we make it possible to abort selectively for other disorders? And even if it were possible to cure disabilities before birth, how could we be sure that remarkable abilities wouldn’t disappear with them?
Then there are people who take the opposite viewpoint, and say that parents should never be given the option of aborting selectively or genetically altering the fetus, even if they don’t believe they could handle raising a child with a disorder.
But forbidding selective abortion wouldn’t work. As long as you allow abortion and you allow prenatal testing for disabilities, there is no way to prevent selective abortion, because there is no way to prove whether or not the parents are choosing abortion based on the results of a test.
This is the same reason that the laws against firing employees for the wrong reasons don’t work. People get fired illegally all the time, because of disabilities, political opinions or other unjustified reasons. Very often they simply can’t do anything about it, because it can’t be proven. It depends upon proving a person’s motive, and no one can be certain of people’s motives– sometimes not even the people themselves. The employers who choose to fire– or the parents who choose to abort– may even have convinced themselves they’re doing it for the right reason.
And if parents who don’t want disabled children are forbidden to abort selectively, or genetically cure their fetuses, then what happens to the children when they’re born? Either they’re raised by parents who don’t want them, or they’re put in the adoption system, where (compared to normal children) they have a very small chance of finding a family.
There are also people who say we should never even develop the technology to diagnose a fetus with a disorder, let alone the technology to genetically engineer it to be normal. But even if we never develop the technology to do those things, we’re still stuck with the completely unacceptable situation we have today– where a disabled kid whose parents don’t want to raise a disabled kid will have two possible fates: grow up in the adoption system or be raised by unsuitable parents.
Finally, there are people who believe that allowing selective abortion and prohibiting selective abortion are both unacceptable choices, and the only solution is to eliminate situations where the choice would have to be made. These are the people who say, “If there’s any kind of child you aren’t willing to raise, then you just shouldn’t have a child at all.”
This, too, is an unworkable solution. There’s no way to enforce the use of birth control or abstinence by a whole subset of people. Furthermore, even if it were possible, it would have basically the same result as allowing abortion or genetic alteration of abnormal fetuses. Children who were abnormal would only be born to parents who were willing to raise them (which would be good)… but as a result, eventually, children outside the norm would become just as rare as they would become with selective abortion or genetic engineering.
And what is the moral difference between aborting a disabled fetus because you are unable or unwilling to to raise a kid with a disability… and aborting a normal fetus because you are unable or unwilling to raise a kid at all?
The question of selective abortion and genetic engineering for disorders is an issue on which I’ve been unable to develop an opinion, because every single one of the choices we have is absolutely unacceptable. We have to come to terms with the fact that this not a case of finding a good option, but a case of choosing the least horrible option, and that choosing the least horrible option will be very difficult. I’m frustrated when people think they have a clear and simple opinion on a subject that is inherently complex and unclear… because that means they are not looking at it closely at all.
Essays On Writing
Some insights about writing fiction
Some thoughts I’ve come up with while writing a science fiction novel.
The chaos of characterization
When creating characters of my own and making them do stuff, I am lost when it comes to characterization. See, in the real world, characterization doesn’t make sense to me, because I see real humans as immensely complicated and full of contradictions. Every person I know frequently does things that seem out of character to me. I can only understand those things when I realize that humans have many, many different parts to their personalities, and that any one of a huge variety of seemingly contradictory actions will be in character with one part or another. I know I myself have moods so different from each other that they seem like different people, and something that would be completely uncharacteristic of me in Mood 1 is totally typical of Mood 2, 3 or 4.
But when people read a book, they expect the characters to be simple enough that you can tell right off the bat whether an action is in character or not. So when I make my characters do wide varieties of things, some seeming contradictory, am I being more true to life than most books, or is it bad characterization?
Realism vs. believability
When writing fiction, it doesn’t matter if any of the events in the story are based on fact– what matters is whether the story is convincing, whether the reader is able to imagine the events being true. And this convincingness doesn’t necessarily even have to do with whether the story is similar to reality– often it just has to do with whether it fits what people expect to see in a book.
For example, my mom is an extremely intellectual and scientific person. In conversation, she speaks as casually and colloquially as most people, and when you hear her, that casual way of speaking doesn’t seem out of place with her intellectual mind. This is because we know that in real life, almost everyone talks casually and colloquially in ordinary conversation, including intellectual people.
However, as part of a project in college, I once had her tell me a family story and I wrote it down almost word for word as she said it. I was shocked to find that, to me, to my professor and to all my classmates, it read as if she were a socialite yuppie soccer mom with no interest in anything scientific or intellectual at all. The same words that had seemed completely in character when she spoke them seemed completely out of character when written down.
I realized then that written “voices” are very different from the patterns of speech found in reality. For a character in a written story to seem intellectual– especially a female character– she must have a stilted, over-formal speech pattern that no one has in the real world. If she talks casually, like a real person, readers will assume she is not intellectual, except in cases where she is actively talking about something intellectual. There was no way I could have quoted my mother telling me that totally unscientific, unintellectual family story and preserved both her true patterns of speech and her impression of intellect.
Furthermore, when you write fiction about a subject on which most people have misconceptions– like autism– it isn’t enough to say something that you know is realistic, or even something that is based on a true story. You also have to try and predict what misconceptions people will have when they read it, and add enough explanation to get rid of those misconceptions.
For instance, I once wrote a story for creative writing class that was almost entirely true. It was based on a conflict I had with a special ed worker in junior high school. But instead of using my real name, I told the story in third person, calling the main character “The Autistic Child.” It was a statement about how people forget our true names and personalities as soon as a label like autism becomes known to them.
I showed it to my critique group, not telling them that it was based on a true story. (They didn’t know I was on the autism spectrum.) And they tore it apart. They said it was completely unrealistic. An autistic kid wouldn’t behave like that. An autistic kid wouldn’t have the intelligence and the verbal eloquence of the character in the story, and someone with that amount of intelligence would never be as socially inept as that character. Basically, they felt the story was unrealistic because it didn’t fit their own completely inaccurate idea of what an autistic kid would be like.
That was when I realized that you have to try and predict your audience’s misconceptions. To avoid critiques like the one I got from that group, I would have to revise the story, mentioning somewhere in it that autism is very misunderstood, and that the main character does not fit people’s stereotypes of autistics. It’s sad that I would have to do that… writers never have to explain why their characters don’t fit racial or gender stereotypes. But people recognize that racial and gender stereotypes are often inaccurate. They don’t recognize that about stereotypes of autistics, and writers just have to keep pounding it into their heads until they do.
The reason I’m thinking about this is that several main characters in my novel are on the autism spectrum, and I hope that I’ve learned enough by now that I can make them realistic without making ignorant readers think that they’re unrealistic.
The Five Rules of Rhyme
What’s a rhyme? We tend to define “rhyming words” as “words that have the same endings.” But that’s far too vague, and here are five reasons why.
- rough bough
- honored dead
- intelligent agent
- retainer container
- silver quicksilver
Each of these is a pair of words that would rhyme if there were no more to the concept of rhyme than “the same endings.” But obviously, they don’t. Pair 1 is the most obvious; it doesn’t rhyme because the same endings are only the same when spelled; in speech, they would sound different. But what about the rest of the pairs? Can you explain why they don’t rhyme? I think it’s definitely time to come up with some Rules of Rhyming.
Rule 1: The sound-alike endings rule
Let’s start with the obvious one. “Same endings” means “same-sounding endings.” Rough, bough, though, through, and cough do not rhyme. Rough, tough, and enough do rhyme. But so do though, grow, hello, woe, whoa, apropos and escargot, even with a different letter at the end of each of them. Some poets have experimented with “sight
rhymes,” where words are considered to rhyme if their endings look as though they are pronounced the same, but these are rare; rhyme is almost universally a thing of sound. Words whose endings sound the same can rhyme even if they don’t look the same, and words whose endings don’t sound the same, even if they look similar, will never rhyme.
Rule 2: The one-syllable minimum rule
The problem with “honored dead” is that all that the words have in common at the end is the letter “d”. This is also why words like “hunt” and “chant” don’t rhyme. The ending that is the same for two rhyming words must consist of at least one syllable.
Rule 3: The accented-ending rule
What’s wrong with the rhyme between “intelligent” and “agent?” The “-gent” ending sounds the same, and it’s a syllable long. But you’d still never use those two as rhymes in a poem. Clearly, in order for a pair of words to sound right as rhymes, the accent must fall on the common ending, and, if the ending is more than one syllable long, on the first of those syllables. While “agent”
doesn’t rhyme with “intelligent,” “prevent” does rhyme with “consent,” as does “adolescent” with “fluorescent” or “crescent.” (Whether “accent” rhymes with any of those, of course, depends on where you put the accent.)
Rule 4: The beginning-of-ending diversity rule
“Retainer container,” like “preferring conferring” and “prevents events,” is the type of “rhyme” that falls somewhere on the border. Many writers would not hesitate to rhyme the two, and others would hesitate somewhat but end up doing it anyway. I, however, would rather not consider words to rhyme if their similar ending is too similar; i.e., if it begins with the same consonant in both words. “Assert” rhymes with “convert,” because “-sert” and “-vert” begin with
different letters, but “assert” does not, in my mind, rhyme with “insert,” with which it shares the full “-sert” ending. Exceptions include such rhyming words as “depress” and “undress,” which both end in “-ress,” but couple the “r” with other consonants in such a way as to make it almost a different letter in each word.
Rule 5: The whole-with-part rhyming rule
This is an extension of the preceding rules, added to clarify the scenario of two words, the “ending” of one of which comprises the entire other one: for instance, “gun” and “begun,” “tail” and “entail,” or Pair #5, “silver” and “quicksilver.” These types of pairs can rhyme, but only if they follow rules 1 through 4. According to Rule 1, “tale” and “entail” are rhymes, just as much as “tail” and “entail” or “gun” and “begun,” but “tome” cannot rhyme with “epitome,” or “pear” with “appear,” because the syllable that is spelled the same is pronounced differently in the two words. Rule 2, of course, is not much of a problem, since there is no word that is less than a syllable long; even the one-letter word “I” can be rhymed with “Malachi” or “octopi.” But because of rule 3, we do not have the easy rhyme for “silver” that seemed to have presented itself; while “entail” stresses “tail” and “begun” stresses “gun,” the accent in “quicksilver” is on “quick,” not “silver,” and it therefore does not sound quite right as a rhyme. “Silver quicksilver” goes against rule 4 as well, since the word “silver” and the ending “-silver” begin with the same consonant sound, but this is a flaw of all whole-with-part rhyming, for which an exception is usually made. Whole-with-part rhymes also tend to work better when the word that forms the ending of the other word is only one syllable long.
Obviously, there is much more to rhyming than having the same endings, and I hope to have clarified the distinction somewhat. Perhaps others have found, or will find in the future, more criteria for defining a rhyme.
Essays On Human Reproduction
(written in 2005)
Here is a little story told by a member of an oppressed group. At the end, I will reveal what group is being discussed, and where and when this took place. Then I’ll talk in some depth about this subject.
By law, I was not allowed to own property or vote. I lived in the house of a married couple who had almost complete control over what I did. I did not choose to live there; I had no choice over where I lived.
Legally, they could regulate when and for how long I could leave their house (usually no more than a few hours at a time by myself) and what I did while there– they could, for example, make me do cleaning or yard work without payment of any kind except for the promise of a continued roof over my head. In fact, it was illegal for me to have a paid job.
It was not slavery because I was not expected to do as much work as a slave, and I could not be bought or sold. However, if they had wished, they could quite legally have given me away for nothing, to an institution that would later place me with another couple, all without any consent from me.
They could punish me if I did anything they did not like. They were kind to me, and did not punish me particularly often, but I always knew that punishment was possible. There were no laws regulating what I could or could not be punished for. There were laws against physically punishing me too severely, but the interpretation of those laws was often uncertain. A blow with the fist to any part of the body was clearly illegal, but a slap on the buttocks was usually considered legal (although it would have been a prosecutable sexual attack if done to someone who did not belong to the same group I did).
Often, starting at seven or eight in the morning and continuing until afternoon, I would be forced to spend time in another building not far from the house. Hundreds of people like me worked there, under the supervision of a smaller number of people who were of the same group as the couple I lived with, and who had many of the same rights over us. They made us do many apparently pointless tasks that were said to improve our minds. Some of us disagreed with this and felt that our minds were instead being shaped to a mind-set approved by the oppressing group, but not beneficial to us. However, we had no choice in the matter; we had to do what we were told regardless what we thought of it, otherwise we would be punished.
You’ve probably guessed it by now. This isn’t the story of a racial or economic minority, and it’s not set in some faraway country in a long-ago time. It’s the experience of every person under the age of eighteen in the United States, and most other countries, in the world of today. I wrote it myself, to make a point about this issue.
The way adults treat children isn’t slavery. Unlike children, slaves can be bought and sold, and the purpose of keeping them is to make them do work. Also, in general, parents treat their children better than slaves have ever been treated historically. But the fact remains that if there were as great a power difference between any two races as there is between adults and children, there would be people comparing it to slavery.
Perhaps children just aren’t mentally suited to having any other role, but I’m hesitant to say that with any certainty, because I know that it is the same argument that has been used throughout history whenever any group has been oppressed. And most oppressed groups show less mental ability before they are freed from oppression and allowed to learn and do the same things as other people. In societies where children have to take on more responsibilities at a younger age, they do show greater maturity.
The point of this essay, however, isn’t to make society change the rights and responsibilities of children. I’m not at all sure it would be a good idea, and it’s got no chance of happening anyway. Instead, this essay has three purposes.
First, it is an attempt to explain why I do not want to have children of my own. I do not want to have this much control over another person. I cannot understand the mind of anyone who is okay with having this much power over someone. Obviously some people have to do it, or else the species wouldn’t go on… but that doesn’t mean I can handle it myself, or even imagine being able to handle it.
Second, I am postulating a reason why children often rebel against their parents as they reach their teens, and why they often move far away and lose touch with their parents after they grow up.
Think of it: for eighteen years of your life, you are basically a second-class citizen: hardly any of the Bill of Rights actually applies to you, and you have no ultimate say in the decisions that affect both your everyday life and your future. And during these eighteen years, who is giving you orders and making all these important choices for you? In most cases, it’s the parents.
It doesn’t matter if this situation is necessary and ultimately helpful– the child is bound to feel some resentment, even if the parents are exceptionally nice. I’m not saying it’s fair to the parents, I’m just saying it’s understandable, and I find it hard to imagine being surprised by it. Parents who are shocked when their children are “ungrateful” remind me of the Talosians in Star Trek, who looked at their prisoner Captain Pike with a sort of astonished disbelief and said, “Your species seems to have a deep aversion to captivity– even when it’s pleasant and benevolent.”
Finally, I am hoping to show that children do not have as easy a life as adults think they do. I cannot understand the idea of wanting to be a child again. I have some pleasant memories from childhood, but I hated the lack of basic rights, the control adults had over me, and the way I was sometimes patronized and talked down to.
My parents and teachers were kinder to me than most adults are to most children, but all the kindness in the world doesn’t substitute for freedom. I have tons of worries now that I’m an adult– worries about money, careers, and relationships– but I would never trade those troubles for dependence on my parents. I value my independence immensely, and I am striving to become more independent all the time.
If there is one thing I want to say here, it is this: When you see children, don’t assume they are happy. Don’t assume they have no worries, and don’t assume it’s okay to treat them condescendingly because you don’t consider their problems as important as yours. They have to live in a way no adult would accept having to live, so the least one can do is show them a little respect, and talk to them like intelligent people. That is perhaps the most important thing in the world, for anyone, oppressed or not.
(written during college)
I was astonished when I first heard that some people think it’s “selfish” not to have children. Here is my say on the subject:
1. I do not dislike children. Saying “I like children” or “I dislike children” would be as silly and prejudiced as saying that one liked or disliked adults, but I have liked nearly all the children I have known. However, my affection for them is not condescending, it is the same friendship and respect I have for people my own age. I would feel completely wrong in a position of control over a child.
2. If one has enough time, money and other resources to raise a child, why not devote them to someone who already needs them, instead of making a new person to need them? The amount of money it takes to raise a child could save hundreds of thousands of lives if donated wisely. To me, one new life is not worth hundreds of thousands of existing lives. If anything’s “selfish,” it’s ignoring all those lives just because of your own desire to raise a child.
3. I am dangerously clumsy and absentminded. If I had children, I do not know if I would actually drop them all the time and forget to feed them, but I have nightmares about that kind of thing.
4. Since I have Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome, I have a high chance of passing them down to any offspring I have. I do not believe it is necessarily bad for children to have these conditions, but I believe that children who have them should only be raised by parents with huge quantities of patience, responsibility and diplomatic skills. If they are raised by people without these abilities, they can grow up wishing they had never been born, and I am not sure I am skilled enough in those ways. On the other hand, if I had a normal child, I could not be a very understanding parent, because I have never been a normal child.
5. I take medications. If I miss them for one day, I become insanely hyperactive and can’t sleep, and after two days I go into convulsive, hyperventilating panic attacks. The labels on these medications say that they are not to be taken during pregnancy, and for me, discontinuing them is not an option.
6. It is not considered acceptable to tell children all the things you would tell an adult– some information has to be hidden from them. And it makes me very, very uncomfortable to hide information from people, especially people I care about and spend a lot of time with. If I had to spend years telling a kid lies and half-truths, I would go insane. (Even just about Santa Claus.)
7. I would not be a good parent, period. Messes drive me crazy. Temper tantrums freak me out. I can’t multitask; if too many things are happening at once, I have a panic attack. If a child in my presence gets out of control, I panic, or I get viciously angry, or I go hide in another room by myself, or I start acting as hyper as the child, depending on my mood. If I had a child, I would be miserable, and so would the child, and so would anyone who had to put up with us.
I do not consider these selfish reasons. And no matter what reason one has for not wanting to have kids, no one should feel obliged to have them. I think the really cruel thing– to yourself and to the children– would be to bring children into the world when you don’t want to.
These are some essays that are too short to go with the other ones, but too long to go on my Insight Page. Someday I may assemble them together into longer essays, but for now, here they are.
On the changing of words
March 7, 2006
I was raised to despise common misuses of words. “Hopefully,” for example, means “in a hopeful way,” it doesn’t mean “I hope.” You can say “I looked up hopefully at the blue sky,” but you can’t say “Hopefully the sky will stay blue.” “Nauseous” doesn’t mean “nauseated,” it means “nauseating.” It’s correct to say “That is a nauseous smell,” but saying “That smell makes me feel nauseous” is wrong.
For a long time I didn’t question these rules– I kept on preaching them and sneering at people who got them wrong. Then, one day about a year ago, I realized something. I have never actually heard someone use the word “nauseous” in the way I was taught was correct.
I don’t doubt that the word originally meant what I was taught it meant. But words change meaning because the way people use them changes. Originally, for instance, the only meaning of the word “passion” was “death.” It was related to “pass,” as in “pass away.” In particular it was associated with the death of Jesus, and it came to mean “strong emotion” because of the emotions Jesus felt during the crucifixion. Today it still refers to strong emotion, but it’s become especially associated with strong emotions of love.
These developments didn’t happen because some authority said “This is what the word’s going to mean from now on.” They happened because of how the masses of people used the word. That’s how the meanings of words change– that’s how language grows. If enough people use a word in a certain way, that way becomes one of the acceptable ways to use the word.
So, if most of the people who use the word “nauseous” in the present day use it to mean “nauseated,” doesn’t that mean that “nauseated” has become one of the meanings of “nauseous”– perhaps even the main meaning? After all, nobody says that “death” is the only correct definition for “passion” just because it was the first.
One thing, however, does annoy me about such changes in language. Sometimes, when a word’s meaning changes, we no longer have a word for its original meaning. For example, the words “incredible” and “unbelievable” have been used so often as exaggerations that they have come to mean nothing more than “very surprising.” There is no longer any word that means the opposite of “credible” or the opposite of “believable.”
Thoughts on tool-using
Humans’ ability to make and use tools is indeed astonishing. The human species has created exponentially more– and more powerful– tools than any other creature on earth. As a species, we are exceptional tool-users.
But this does not mean that we are all exceptional tool-users individually.
Just remember this: Intelligent tool-using requires an inventive mind. Don’t gloat about being a member of an advanced tool-using species if all you do is get tools from someone else and use them in the way someone else taught you. Any animal can use tools if you give it the tools and train it to use them!
So use a spoon to pry the lid off a paint can. Use a cake tester to get out that dried noodle that’s stuck between the counter and the stove. Use a piece of medical gauze tape to mute the flash on your camera. And if you really want to show that you’re an intelligent tool-user, invent some tools of your own!
Ferris: Not Worth Saving
Dec. 10, 2005
I have never understood why so many people like the movie “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.” Personally, I have always been very angered by that character. He seems to be not only the polar opposite of me, but the polar opposite of all the qualities I admire and approve of.
Car theft is a felony, and several other things he does during the movie are misdemeanors. And he’s not just a criminal, he’s also stupid. He only looks smart because all the other characters were made even stupider for the sake of the plot.
I could complain about the phrase “they could be fascist anarchists,” which is one of the clearest demonstrations of his ignorance (fascism is the opposite of anarchy)! But I’m too busy being offended at his self-centeredness in saying that European political issues don’t matter because they don’t affect whether or not he has a car.
It’s just as he says: he only believes in himself. And he’s clearly not worth believing in, because his entire life seems to be founded on dishonesty. He’s only honest to two people in the whole movie. His immense popularity with other students is completely based on lies. They would all turn on him in an instant if they found out that they were fundraising and advertising with all their might to save the life of a guy who was only pretending to be sick.
I complain about how this movie denounces studying and attending school, and people say, “But it’s just high school. And high school does suck.” I point out how it encourages delinquency, and they say, “But it’s not supposed to be serious! It’s just a comedy!”
To which my reply is that, although this comedy is ludicrously unrealistic, parts of it hit too painfully close to home for me to be able to laugh. High school was a living hell for me, but that was largely because of people like Ferris Beuller.
Words and Children
Dec. 10, 2005
I have never been able to understand the fact that we have words that are okay for adults to say but not for children to say. Nobody has ever been able to give me a logical reason for this double standard. There is absolutely no reason to think that knowing and using any word will have a worse effect on a kid than on an adult, and yet the vast majority of people have a strong negative reaction to hearing kids use certain words.
Sometimes people say “Well, it’s just because it’s not a nice word– nobody should say it.” But then they start saying it themselves, as soon as there are no kids around. Or even if they don’t, they’ll get much less upset when an adult says it than when a kid does.
I think it is because most adults have an unrealistic ideal of what children are or should be: innocent, angelic beings with no anger and no sex drive. When kids use angry words or words with sexual connotations, it challenges this ideal, and adults, unwilling to admit to themselves that their image of children is inaccurate, complain that something deeply wrong is happening.
Schools try to shape everyone into a “leader,” but leadership isn’t as necessary as society says it is. Certainly the world needs leaders, but the last thing the world needs is for everyone to be a leader. That would bring nothing but chaos.
That’s why I was always annoyed when the amount of leadership I displayed was taken into account when grading me in classes. I feel completely wrong in positions of control over others. Telling people what to do is painful for me, and I’m scared of situations where my choices will make a big difference in other people’s lives. I certainly can’t call myself a leader.
I used to think that meant I was a follower. On closer reflection, though, I realized that I am neither. I walk a path that is very much my own– I expect no one to follow me down it, and I expect no one to lead me down it.
People sometimes do choose to follow me, and I am flattered when they do, but I do not ask them to… and I cannot give them intructions; all the leadership I can offer them is the opportunity to follow my example.
Sometimes people lead me, as well– in fact, I accept advice from others more often than most people do. But in terms of the great ideologies of life, and the ultimate goals I strive for, I take no cues from society… my feelings are my own. And when I allow myself to be guided, it is always by individual people for whom I have built a deep trust. I do not follow a path just because the world in general approves of it.
The importance of talking
Conversation is a powerful thing. Without it, there is so much uncertainty.
Maybe I know something, but maybe you don’t know that I know.
Or maybe you know that I know, but I don’t know that you know that I know.
Or maybe I know that you know that I know, but you don’t know that I know that you know that I know.
It goes on infinitely. But there is one way to make certain that both of us have all those levels of knowledge, all the way to infinity– and that is for us to talk about it.
I posted this somewhere else in 2003 or 2004, and a friend loved it, and urged me to make a webpage for it.
Heeheehee, language is weird…
Ever notice how a prefix or suffix gets really associated in people’s minds with a word that happens to contain it, even if the meaning of the word and the meaning of the prefix or suffix are completely different?
My classic example is the prefix “homo,” which means either “same” or “man” depending on the language (thus, “homosexual” means “same-sex,” and “Homo sapiens” means “intelligent man.”)
But “homo” got associated with “homosexual” and so it was used in words like “homophobic,” which is used to mean “fear of homosexuals,” even though it literally means either “fear of men” or “fear of sameness.”
Then, “holic” got associated with addiction, because of the word “alcoholic.” People forgot that “hol” is a part of “alcohol,” and “ic” is the real suffix in that word.
Of course, “chocoholic” and “workaholic” sound catchier than “workic” or “chocolatic.” But if an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, then a chocoholic is addicted to chocohol and a workaholic is addicted to workahol.
If “holic” were an addiction-related suffix, then a Catholic would be addicted to cats.
Thus ends your daily ration of linguistic weirdness…