Three Thoughts on Nukes: The Parable of the Six Fishes, the Demon Core, and the 10,000 Dead Americans We Don’t Care About


Which reminds me of a story Penn Jillette used to tell.  He and Teller were scheduled to appear on TV (maybe Letterman?), and so they prepared a new twist on a classic trick: You take a volunteer’s watch, put it in a bag, smash it, dump out the tattered remains, do some patter, and then make the watch reappear whole and ticking.  In their version for Letterman (or whoever), they were going to take the host’s watch, smash it, then wheel out a big aquarium, and sprinkle the parts in the water, where they’d dissolve and the fish would eat them.  The host would freely select one of the fish, Teller would scoop it out with a net, they’d gut and and ta-da!, there would be the whole, ticking watch in the fish’s guts!

But the network standards folks wouldn’t let them do that trick; it’d be too brutal to have an animal killed on screen.  So Penn and Teller re-jiggered the trick: Instead of an aquarium full of live fish, they’d wheel out a fishmonger’s ice table with six dead fish on it.  They’d take the host’s watch, smash it, sprinkle the bits in the ice, the bits would dissolve, the host would freely select a dead fish, and Teller’d fillet it to reveal the watch.  Standards loved it, the host loved it, and that’s what went on live TV.

The point of the story—which is the sort of thing that belongs in an atheist’s Bible—is that Nuclear_Blast_Animation_Blinding_Lighteveryone was more comfortable with six fish dying instead of one, provided they didn’t have to watch.  Perhaps this is why, if we are to have a death penalty, we should televise it.  Perhaps viewing should be mandatory.  Perhaps the president should be forced to kill one patriot before he or she kills 10,000 abstract men, women, and children.


Consider The Demon Core and the sacrifices researchers make (occasionally heroic, but almost always mundane, and very often totally unforeseeable).  I’m mostly putting this here because I’d first heard about this when I was a kid, and realized that many folks hadn’t–and further, that most folks don’t realize what a duct-tape-and-butterknives affair science really is.  We imagine clean labs and specialized gear, but in real life it’s a lot of tupperware and dirty countertops.  A few folks are celebrated for the “Eureka!”s, and even fewer die terrible (but instructive) deaths.  The vast majority toil steadfastly day after day to further human progress one negative result at a time—so that we can go onto to totally disregard their hard-won findings because an actor or know-nothing shouted something demonstrably false at the top of their lungs just long enough to fool our just-half-a-step-from-monkey brains.nuclear_explosion_test_at_sea


I hasten to add that, having protested the continuing operation of a damaged Fermi II back in the 1990s and edited a textbook about Chernobyl, I am now nonetheless firmly pro-nuclear energy.  As a species, we need a lot of electricity, and we’re gonna need even more to dig ourselves out of the slow climate avalanche that’s going to kill us.  The way we currently generate bulk electricity kills tens of thousands of people annually (for example, air pollution from burning coal kills more than 10,000 people each year just in the US)—and that’s when it’s working as intended.  Even taking into account the inevitability of the occasional Fukushima or Chernobyl, we’re still better off with the Demon Core than the Devil We Know.

FUN FACT: My grandad is in this picture!
FUN FACT: My grandad is in this picture!

Maybe Just Don’t Be a Dick About Grammar?

This is a little video about dropping the pretensions and just returning to using “They/Them” as the singular non-gendered pronoun.  It’s a fun video, but the Big Picture is this:

English is a fantastically error-tolerant language.  You can construct fantastically agrammatical sentences and still be sufficiently understood to get things done.  Optimizing around tiny matters of correctness (e.g., “unique can never take a modifier,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and so on) usually fails to bring any substantive increase in the clarity of your speech or writing. Insisting that others do so as well–especially when there is no legitimate confusion created by their chosen construction–usually means you are acting like a classist dickweed (plausibly because you are one).

THE TAKEAWAY: At best, perfect “grammatical correctness”—like taking a good long shit—is (and should be) an entirely private pleasure.  It’s not for polite conversation among civilized people like you and me.

My 10yo asks “Want to see me use the Force?”…

… I nod.

He sticks his finger in his mouth, then draws the spit-slick digit out and, swift as a fencer, pushes it into my face. I instinctively rear back, as though moved by some sort of mystical energy field, perhaps one created by all living things—the sorta thing that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.image

Touché, tiny nerd. You win this round.

The Art of the Not-Making-a-Total-Putz-of-Yourself

If nothing else of substance, the last couple days of RNC Trump Speech brouhaha have offered a pair of very important business lessons.

art by DonkeyHotey
(art by DonkeyHotey)

My initial impression was that we were looking at this kind of fantastically gobsmacking paradox:

A candidate renowned for his wealth and business acumen is either unable to afford or incapable of selecting competent help.

But according to this article, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Skilled workers are perfectly happy to hold their noses and accept Trump dollars, but their employer is totally unable to actually use the tools he purchases.

This puts me in the mind of a business aphorism (which I believe I first heard from Ramit Sethi):

A students hire A students; B students hire C students.

To mansplain: An A student knows what good work looks like, that good work is hard, and is confident that they can reliably produce good work through the judicious application of hard work.  A students want to see good work, and do not want to look like putzes, so they choose subordinates who are as capable as themselves (if not more so).  B students may occasionally do good work, but since they don’t know this other stuff (about how to judiciously apply hard work to reliably produce that good work), they can be pretty insecure.  They hire down the ladder to shore up their ego.

But, of course, Trump is proving to not even be a B student; the B student is insecure and frustrated because he or she knows what good, consistent work looks like—they just can’t produce it.

Trump is a C student wallowing in the depths of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.

So, to revise:

A students hire A students; B students hire C students.  C students hire an A student, a B student, two C students, a guy on Craigslist, their cousin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mike Tyson, six doctors, and a personal trainer, follow none of their advice, and then scream at them when they get the C they earned.

On Allies

I’m going to level with you: the notion of “allies” doesn’t sit well with me, and I’ve always had trouble really clearly framing why. The closest I can get is this: As a Jew, I’ve had a non-negligible number of occasions where, unbidden, a Gentile has come forward to tell me about some time they went to bat for Jews (usually over an office Xmas tree or some such similar piddling bullshit).  And the message—occasionally explicitly stated, always at least implied—was “Look what I did for you and your people!”

Each of those people, no doubt, considered themselves to be my “ally.” And each of those people proved to be a total asshole—not because of the going-to-bat occasion, which were generally null to me (I mean, they were talking about some other thing they did at some other time before they knew me—often occasions where there was no Jew present to ally with; the gesture meant something between little and nothing).  They were just garden variety assholes, and happened to also be aggrandizing crusaders, or whatever.

And I don’t want to be that person, or to be party to that headspace and culture. If someone is harshing blacks or women or muslims or whoever (purposefully, or by clumsy ignorance), I want to gently intercede and work to open up and draw light into that situation—but I don’t want to do that as an “ally.”  I just want to do it as a human who is aesthetically offended by ugliness, and as a Jew engaging in right action (which is tikkun olam, which is Our Business in the World), and as a father who never wants his children to catch him being weak and letting such ugly, broken bullshit slide.

I’m not sure if that’s that Gay is getting at here (or what Coates was getting at in 2015). But reading this helped my finally find a way to encode these things I’ve long felt. Maybe it will help you, too.

Free Fiction Friday: “Do Me a Little Favor?” (an interactive fiction)

Hey All:

Been getting some interesting feedback on some of the new, totally unmarketable stuff I’ve been sharing with my e-mail list (basically monthly-ish emails; join here), so I thought I’d share another:

Enjoy! If you happen dig it, please do pass the link around.  As ever, if you’ve got something to say, I’m interested in hearing it.

This Article is About Brexit, but Shows Us Why Trump Will Be Elected

This is an enlightening read about how Brexit played out so “counter-intuitively” (from the perspective of progressive United Staters), as well as an informative glimpse into the somewhat icky complexity of the EU (for example, I previously had not appreciated the extremely pro-business and anti-labor implications of EU policy).

But that’s not why I’m sharing.  I’m sharing because this article inadvertently lays out pretty clearly how Donald Trump will end up getting elected:

Democracy is premised on the idea that there’s a range of things to vote for, and you vote for the one you like. If there isn’t a range, it fails (and turnout plummets). …

A problem is that the so-called “debates” that have been going on all refer to something monolithic called “immigrants”, and in the unitary sense intended there’s no such thing; arguments like “immigrants is good” vs “immigrants is bad” just aren’t talking about the same people. What you’re talking about is the comfortable articulate middle-class world, which is a million miles away from 20 blokes forced to sleep in a damp garden shed in between picking cabbages, being charged half their pitiful wage for “rent” and “transport” and being used to undercut guys from Boston or Spalding (who would have worked, but not like this). Similar things apply across our wrecked manufacturing base (aka almost everything north of Cambridge). Everyone in this system is getting screwed except the scumbags running it. And even worse is the system which facilitates and encourages it.

There is a huge and growing disconnection between happy middle-class life in urban centres and this kind of thing down at the dirty end — they’re different planets, different universes. … The referendum was swung by a huge slab of population who are being taken for granted and ignored in precisely this “you don’t count” manner.

Lots of people don’t do that; they have the intuitions but can’t articulate them, so they hang the feel of it on anything they can find, eg “foreigners”. If you demonstrate to them that what they’re saying is wrong, they just look uncomfortable and shift ground, because it was never about that in the first place. Just because they can’t articulate, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem or that they should be ignored; they’re humans with real, immediate problems. Yes, a very few will be impossible neurotic bigots at a deep psychological level, but the majority are simply trying to say something and can’t manage it. The happy middle-class urban world tends to mock this or be sanctimonious about it in a PC way (“racists!”); I find this cruel and disgusting.

Please check out the whole thing—it reads quicker than the author warns: “I want to stop something exploitative, divisive and dishonest” — conversation with a Leaver, by Oliver Humapge and his dad

“GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO”—The Little Things That Matter a Lot

What with the news being what it’s been this last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about grammatical constructions (like the one Bouie highlights here)—which abruptly reminded me of this article I read a couple years ago by Arika Okrent: “Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”

It’s pretty noticeable that words like “shall” and “ought” are on the way out, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. “Going to,” “have to,” “need to,” and “want to” cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

(FYI: Okrent also wrote a really neat book on created languages that includes a healthy section in Klingon. The whole thing is fascinating.)

I’m pretty interested in the rhetorical (and psycho-social) significance of “will/should/can” vs. “going to/have to/need to/want to.”  E.g., If I say “I will drive,” I’m both stating what will happen in the future, and implying my ownership of the act.  I’m gonna drive, and I wanna drive.  “Should” both softens the likelihood (evidenced in the fact that you can tag “—but probably won’t” onto the statement without sounding totally nuts) and softens the commitment (implying that I can do it, but likely would rather not).  “Can” is neutral with intent (I can do it, but I’m cool with letting someone else do it), and likelihood (since I’m obviously leaving it open for someone who’d rather drive to speak up).

Meanwhile, the “going/have/need/want to” forms seem to shift the question away from the likelihood of who shall do what, and more to the emotional timbre of the doing of the thing.  “I want to drive” clearly speaks to my intent to drive, and “I have to drive” clearly communicates I’d probably rather not (or, in the least, attribute the fact that I’ll do it to external factors).  “Need to drive” says that I want to do it—and shall do it—but likely for reasons I attribute to being outside myself (including, for example, a deep craving to drive, which I’ve now framed as being outside my control).  Finally, “I’m going to drive” is sorta the most fantastic of all, since it has two opposite meanings that can only be clarified through context, tone, or body language:  If I say “I’m going to drive,” either I’m super gung ho to drive, or I feel totally forced into it.

Yeah, this is all subtle.  In the end, we all get that someone is gonna fucking drive, so who cares about the damned shades of meaning, Dave?  Does it really matter much, or is it just word nerd trivia?

Yes, it matters.  The little things have a fantastic power to totally deflect the big ones, just like a lone shirt button can deflect a bullet.  We all agree that the difference between getting bullseyed right in the heart to meaningfully different from taking a bullet painfully—but far from fatally—into the meaty shoulder.

Likewise, the ways that small changes in language shift our inquiry are big.

For example, consider:


Language activists point out that the way we as a society refer to sexual assault uses passive voice[1] to blame the victim, with devastating effect.  We say, “She was raped” instead of “He raped her” or “Someone raped her.”  By doing this, we make the recipient of the action the subject of the sentence, and thus the focus of our questions: What was she wearing? How much did she drink?  Where was she going and why was she going there?

If you make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence, then he is also the focus of our inquiry—which is sort of entirely proper, right?  Seeing as how he’s the one on trial.  This is one of the few instances where I think we can all strongly advocate for a man totally being the focus of a situation that’s 50/50 male/female.

When I raise this, folks usually fire back in one of two ways:

  1. “It’s appropriate to use the passive voice here; we do know who the victim is, and we don’t know who the perpetrator is!”
  2. “The writer chooses to do this in order to focus on the victim, who is the one most in need of our compassion!”

I call double bullshit here.  First, on any given day, if I search Google News for “rape” I’ll tend to find an article on the first page of returns that is both 1) about a crime that has already been completely litigated and guilt found (sometimes decades ago) and 2) continues to use the passive voice. As for how the writer chooses to focus our compassion: If that’s your intent, then it is not working; try something new.

I’m not saying that journos are conspiring with the patriarchy to subjected whoever; I think these tendencies—like almost every linguistic choice we make from moment to moment—are entirely unconscious.  In the case of the rapist-less rape and those magic materializing bullets from the head of this post, I imagine these tortuous grammatically constructions arise from a combination of overabundant caution (we don’t want to speak beyond what we know), and a desperate, unstated need to distance ourselves from the awfulness of this world—to, in effect, deny that any humans were involved in creating these miseries, because to do so is to begin to suspect that we, too, might play some part in this.

And, in an entirely predictable irony, in trying to avoid giving offense and making ourselves uncomfortable, we create new and potent miseries out of thin air.

Continue reading ““GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO”—The Little Things That Matter a Lot”

Drawing with Sound on an Oscilloscope

No CGI, no digital effects, no computer even; just some electrical testing equipment and an audio recording.  Pretty neat and a lot of fun to watch—so neat and fun that I was, in fact, pretty dubious at first.  So I borrowed an oscilloscope from my local public library and tried it out—AND IT WORKED!

Here’s Jerobeam Fenderson’s explanation of the effect, and another article with several neat videos.

Here’s Fenderson’s older “Drawing Mushrooms” video, which is the one I tested myself:

Metal-on-Metal: Convert an Old Shovel into a DIY Electric Guitar

I love watching Rob Scallon rock out on a shovel guitar.  FYI, this is a totally doable afternoon DIY project for any of you (yes, even you!) or the bored teen in your life.  You can build something just like this (or a hockey-stick bass, an electric broomstick banjo, an axe ax—you get the gag) using the methods laid out in the “$10 Electric Guitar” project in my first book (click here now to get a FREE copy of that project—and, if you’re near Metro Detroit in July, you can come to Motor City Steam Con where I’ll be running a workshop on electric-guitarifying stuff).

Wnat more DIY musical shenanigans?  I’ve got a whole new book of crazy music projects.