Thursday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

It’s Thursday, January 17, 2019, and tomorrow afternoon I wing my way back to the frozen mainland. It will be strange to go back to a city without poi, shave ice, and ducks, but with very low temperatures. It’s National Hot Buttered Rum Day again (I’m starting to remember food days from a year ago), and the Christian feast day of Our Lady of Pontmain, described by Wikipedia as:

Our Lady of Pontmain, also known as Our Lady of Hope, is the title given to the Virgin Mary on her apparition at PontmainFrance on 17 January 1871. These apparitions were approved by Pope Pius IX.

It’s curious that an apparition was “approved” by a Pope, presumably meaning that he decided it was genuine: “I’m Pope Pius and I approve of this apparition.”

On this day in 1773, Captain Cook’s Resolution, on his second voyage, became the first ship known to sail south of the Antarctic Circle. On January 17, 1904, Anton Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre. More Antarcticana: on this day in 1912, Robert Falcon Scott and his men reached the South Pole, only to find, to their sorrow, that it had been visited a month before by Roald Amundsen. Scott died with three of his men on the return journey.

On January 17, 1929, exactly ninety years ago, Popeye the Sailor Man, created by E. C. Segar, appeared in the comics for the first time. Here’s the spinach-loving swabbie’s first appearance in the Thimble Theater comic strip, reproduced at the First Versions website (spinach had yet to show up):

On this day in 1945, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews during World War II, was arrested by the Soviet agency SMERSH in Budapest. He was never seen or heard from again, and his fate is a mystery, though presumably he was executed by the Soviets.

On January 17, 1961, during his farewell address as President, Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his famous warning against the “military-industrial complex.”

In 1977, after a ten-year hiatus, capital punishment was resumed in the U.S., this time by the firing-squad execution of Gary Gilmore.  Finally, on this day in 1998, Matt Drudge broke the story of the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Here’s the big headline on that day:

Notables born on this day include Benjamin Franklin (1706), David Lloyd George (1863), Al Capone and Robert Maynard Hutchins (both 1899), Betty White (1922, still with us at 96), Eartha Kitt (1927), James Earl Jones (1931), Shari Lewis (1933), Muhammad Ali (1942), Andy Kaufman (1949), Susanna Hoffs (1959), and Jim Carrey (1962).

Those who died on January 17 include Rutherford B. Hayes (1893), Francis Galton (1911), Louis Comfort Tiffany (1933), Dougal Haston (1977, participated in the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna and of the southwest face of Everest, died in an avalanche while skiing in Switzerland), Barbara Jordan (1996), and Art Buchwald (2007).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is back to Philosophy.

Hili: So the food was good in the hospital? Were there any mice?
Andrzej: Of course not. It was a very clean hospital.
Hili: Nothing’s perfect.

In Polish:

Hili: Czy jedzenie w tym szpitalu było dobre i czy były tam myszy?
Ja: Oczywiśnie, że nie. To bardzo czysty szpital.
Hili: Nic nie jest doskonałe.

I talk story with Pi:

Jerry: Pi, I am leaving tomorrow to go back home.
Pi: Shootsdem. [Hawaiian pidgin; look it up.]

And Leon’s enjoying his hiking trip to southern Poland:

Leon: I’m going to see whether there is much snow on the roof.

In Polish; Leon: Zobaczę, czy dużo śniegu jest na dachu.

A bizarre sign and humanist/comedian Shappi Khorsandi’s response:

A tweet from reader Michael. You don’t have to shake your head to see the great illusion, but it helps. Now, how did they do this?

Tweets from Matthew. Here’s an adorable wingless fly that lives on bees:

An amazing helicopter rescue (note the synchrony of the blades with the camera). What piloting!

Bouncing starfish:

Two nice sculptures that look very different from different angles. I’ll refrain from commenting on the topic of epigenetics:

A righteously vengeful cat. Matthew’s comment: “From 2013, but still . . . ”

Tweets from Grania. First, a Simon’s cat animation updated for Brexit. Given May’s tremendous defeat in Parliament two days ago, what will happen now? Give your take below:

An internet wag:

Who plays jacks any more? I did when I was a kid, and of course stepped on them often:

This is one of the cleverest stunts ever, but you need to turn up the sound:


Trevor the duck is okay

On September 25 of last year, I reported on the plight of Trevor the Duck, a lonely male mallard who had somehow found himself on the small island of Niue, 2800 km from New Zealand. Niue is described by Wikipedia as “a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand.”  (The name “Trevor” came from Trevor Mallard, a New Zealand politician.)

Niue is a coral island without free-standing water, and nobody knows how Trevor got there. He found a small puddle, but it had to be continually topped up by the locals as it shrank. The Niue fire department then stepped in, adding water as needed. For a while Trevor was harassed by a rooster, but the antagonism seems to have stopped.

Trevor, his puddle, and the rooster

In partnership with the stalwart Heather Hastie, a native Kiwi, I made efforts to get Trevor sent to New Zealand, where there’s plenty of fresh water and also potential mates, but that came to naught because New Zealand has strict regulations about what can be brought into the country—even an errant mallard. The government turned down my offer to help finance Trevor’s move to New Zealand.

Finally, through Heather’s inquiries, we learned that a group of Kiwi veterinarians were going to Niue and would check on Trevor’s health and status. As the office of Winston Peters, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister wrote Heather:

A voluntary group of Auckland Veterinarians, due on-island in October to deliver services for island pets and wildlife, have been asked by DAFF [Niue’s Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries] to give the duck a health check. These arrangements should secure a safe future for the duck in Niue, allowing the local population, and interested tourists, to enjoy visiting Niue’s celebrity duck.

Of course I wanted to know how things went with the vet, and asked Heather to write Winston Peters around Christmas, asking about the status of the checkup. Today there finally came a reply, indicating that Trevor is well. To wit:

From: W Peters (MIN) []
Sent: Thursday, 17 January 2019 11:25 AM
To: Heather Hastie
Subject: RE: 1862 Heather Hastie

Dear Heather

On behalf of Rt Hon Winston Peters, Minister of Foreign Affairs, thank you for your follow-up email regarding the mallard duck in Niue.

We understand that the duck was assessed by the visiting veterinarians who declared him fit and healthy.  We have not received any update or other information from the Premier or Niue’s Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) regarding the mallard duck, but trust that DAFF are taking steps that are appropriate in the circumstances.

Kind regards,

I’m glad, then, that Trevor is well, but of course he’s still lonely, and the Puddle Problem remains. But the people of Niue have taken to Trevor, for publicity about “the world’s loneliest duck” has been worldwide, and Trevor even has his own Facebook page. Judging by the video entry on December 18, things are looking ducky.  But I’m sure the lad would like the company of a mallard hen.

Accusations of cultural appropriation gone wild: Canadian comedy club bars white comedian with dreadlocks

Canada has always been a rival to the U.S. for ludicrous behavior by the authoritarian Left, but now our northern neighbor has taken the prize. As the Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star report (click on the Gazette screenshot below), well, the headline tells it all:

Zach Poitras, the comedian shown in the photo below, was barred from performing two shows, one at (I’m not making this up) the “Snowflake Club” and the other at the Coop les Recoltes. This is solely because Poitras sports dreadlocks, as you see below:

From the Monreal paper:

The Coop les Récoltes is a bar but also a solidarity co-operative created by the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Groupe de recherches d’intérêt public, a collective that deals with social and environmental issues.

The establishment confirmed its decision to exclude comedian Zach Poitras in a message posted on its Facebook page.

Poitras was barred from performing at the Snowflake Comedy Club and He refused to comment on the decision.

In its online explanation, the co-operative defended its mission to be “a safe space, free from any link to oppression,” and described cultural appropriation as a form of violence. [JAC: There goes “comedy” in that safe space!]

“We will not tolerate any discrimination or harassment within our spaces,” they wrote. The group argues that cultural appropriation is when “a person from a dominant culture appropriates the symbols, clothing or even the hairstyles of persons from a historically dominated culture.”

JAC: The Facebook page adds that only oppressed groups can experience this kind of cultural appropriation, which is also construed as actual violence. That’s palpably absurd hyperbole.

This part of the Facebook post sounds weird, but that’s because it’s apparently automatic translation from the French:

For a person from a historically dominated culture, see his culture being appropriate, that is to say, diverted or emptied of its meaning, capitalized, fetishized, etc., is violence. After decades of colonialism, slavery and cultural genocide where the people of black have been persecuted and forbidden to practise their culture, wear their clothes and their hairstyles (we are thinking here of the English settlers who prohibited yogis from practicing their spirituality, Black women forced to shave their hair or to indigenous people whose spiritual practices and rites have been banned by the Canadian state in an explicit objective of assimilation), it is a slap in the face to see that this is why a group has been persecuted , another group can take it without problems or consequences.

To those who speak of cultural exchange, we would like to recall that an exchange is made on an egalitarian basis between people from different cultures, that is, when there is no power report involving the domination of a culture.

These paragraphs are why I call this kind of ideology “authoritarian Leftism.” There is a simple assertion of what is right and wrong, with debate not allowed. Some questions are beyond discussion, and if you try to discuss them, you’re a racist or a bigot.

More from the Montreal Gazette:

The posting says the co-op understands that Poitras’s intention isn’t racist, but adds the hairstyle “conveys racism,” adding that “cultural appropriation is not a debate or an opinion,” but rather “a form of passive oppression, a deconstructive privilege and, above all, a manifestation of ordinary racism.”

Greg Robinson, a UQAM professor specializing in black history, compared the situation to a larger interpretation of the concept of “black face,” which saw white performers darken their faces to portray black people.

“White people would dress as black people to mock them,” he said. But Robinson added that even when the intention wasn’t to mock but rather embrace or immerse one’s self in a culture, it’s still necessary to be careful.

“It’s like the N-word — black people can use it in their community, but when someone from outside uses it, even if they want to be like black people, there still remains an aspect that is rooted in history.”

The Coop Les Récoltes did not reply to requests for an interview.

These people, as well as Dr. Robinson, are way, way off the mark. As Wikipedia notes in its entry on “dreadlocks”, this hairstyle has been worn for millennia:

The ancient Vedic scriptures of India which are thousands of years old have the earliest evidence of jaata/locks which are almost exclusively worn by holy men and women. It has been part of a religious practice for Shiva followers.

Some of the earliest depictions of dreadlocks date back as far as 3600 years to the Minoan Civilization, one of Europe’s earliest civilizations, centred in Crete (now part of Greece). Frescoes discovered on the Aegean island of Thera (modern Santorini, Greece) depict individuals with braided hair styled in long dreadlocks.

In ancient Egypt, examples of Egyptians wearing locked hairstyles and wigs have appeared on bas-reliefs, statuary and other artifacts. Mummified remains of ancient Egyptians with locked wigs have also been recovered from archaeological sites.

During the Bronze Age and Iron Age, many peoples in the Near East, Asia Minor, Caucasus, East Mediterranean and North Africa such as the Sumerians, Elamites, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Amorites,
Mitanni, Hattians, Hurrians, Arameans, Eblaites, Israelites, Phrygians, Lydians,
Persians, Medes, Parthians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, Cilicians
and Canaanites/Phoenicians/Carthaginians are depicted in art with braided or plaited hair and beards.

True, most whites who wear dreadlocks became aware of them because the hairstyle is popular among modern blacks, but that hairstyle has been appropriated time after time, with black dreadlocks being only the most recent instantiation of cultural borrowing that goes back to India.

More important, wearing dreadlocks is not at all like blackface and certainly unlike the word “nigger”— tropes and words historically used to mock and denigrate black people.

In contrast, dreadlocks, like nearly all instances of cultural appropriation I’ve seen and reported about, are worn by people because THEY LIKE THEM and admire that aspect of another group’s culture.  In what respect, exactly, is it racist to wear dreadlocks? Am I being racist when I go to a Chicago soul food restaurant, or buy ribs, in a place where all the other patrons are black? I don’t think so: I’m enjoying part of another group’s culture. Am I supposed to avoid such places, or pay some kind of verbal homage to the oppression of African-Americans? Isn’t it enough to enjoy another group’s food in their company?

The argument that it’s okay to culturally appropriate so long as the borrowing is from a “dominant” group not only makes no ethical sense, but runs into its own problems. How do you rank groups as being more or less oppressed than yours? Are Asians lower on the oppression scale than Europeans? I’m told that in some places in Asia, Europeans are regarded as inferior, so does the ethics of cultural appropriation depend on where you are?

What the comedy club in Montreal is doing is not only ridiculous, but is a prime example of virtue signaling: making a gesture to trumpet your own ideological purity, but a gesture that has no effect on society and no mitigation of injustice. 

In fact, as I’ve argued before, the more cultures borrow from each other (in respectful ways, which is the case nearly 100% of the time), the more they’ll come to understand and appreciate each other. Saying, “we’ll punish you for wearing dreadlocks” just enforces otherness and cultural segregation.

I wonder if there was this kind of outcry when Justin Trudeau visited Canada and wore Indian clothes (something I do when visiting as they’re more comfortable, and also a sign of respect for local culture). Yes, I know people made fun of Trudeau et famille, but did the Outrage Brigade come out? Was he prohibited from entering Indian restaurants?

This is the brand of social-justice warriorism that we must combat, for it has the opposite effect of what is intended. The fact that the “cultural appropriation” meme is spreading is due simply to people being afraid to criticize this kind of nonsense for fear of being called racists.

O Canada!

h/t: Stephen

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ the sack

Today’s trenchant Jesus and Mo strip, called “burka”, came with the artist’s comment in the email:

There is no punchline. That’s just the way it is.

It’s not World Burka Day, but World Hijab Day is coming up on February 1.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

It’s Wednesday, January 16, 2019, and two days before I return to what will probably be a frigid Chicago (I see a big storm is predicted). It’s National Hot and Spicy Food Day and I am in fact going to have some. In the U.S. it’s National Religious Freedom Day, which, given that it’s celebrating Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, passed on January 16, 1786, includes freedom from religion as well.

It was not a huge day in history. In 1707, the Scottish Parliament ratified the Union with England Act, assuring that the two “states” would be part of the same kingdom and ruled by the same monarch. As noted above, it was on this day in 1786 when Virginia enacted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious freedom, one of the three accomplishments he wanted chiseled on his tombstone (do you know the other two?).

On January 16, 1909, three men from Ernest Shackleton’s expedition reached the magnetic South Pole but not the geographic South Pole, which was “conquered” by Roald Amundsen’s team in 1911. Exactly ten years later, the U.S. formally ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, bringing prohibition into effect within a year. The prohibition of alcohol was rescinded when the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified in 1933.

On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler moved into the Führerbunker as the Russans approached Berlin. He committed suicide there on April 30. Exactly forty years ago, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled from Iran to Egypt with his family. After surgery for cancer in New York and a brief stay in Panama, Pahlavi died in Egypt in 1980. Finally, on January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia took off off for its 28th mission, but 16 days later it disintegrated due to heat-shield damage, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.

Notables born on this day include: André Michelin (1853), Eric Liddell (1902; remember him from “Chariots of Fire”?), Dizzy Dean (1910), Susan Sontag (1933), Sade (1959), and Kate Moss (1974).

Those who died on January 16 include Edward Gibbon (1794), Arnold Böcklin (1901), Marshall Field (1906), Carole Lombard (1942), Herbert W. Armstrong (1986), Andrew Wyeth (2009),

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is having a new experience: having to be patient.

A: I will see to you in a moment, but first I have to check my emails.
Hili: He is trying to catch up with lost time.
In Polish:
Ja: Zaraz się tobą zajmę tylko sprawdzę pocztę.
Hili: On goni czas utracony.


Leon is in southern Poland with his staff for their annual winter hiking trip, but there will be no hiking today:

Leon: I’m afraid that today’s weather is not conducive to hiking.

Leon: Obawiam się,że dzisiejsza aura nie sprzyja spacerom.

A cartoon sent by reader David, who found it on Michael Shermer’s Twitter feed (@MichaelSchermer).

And one from reader Brujo, who titles this cartoon “TSA Agent Moses,” and added, “Considering your recent unfortunate experiences with TSA, and that you come from Jewish forebears, I thought that you might get a kick out of this.”

Tweets from Grania, starting with a beautiful and friendly domestic mallard:

Cat’s Paradise, or the feline version of the Garden of Earthly Delights:

A nice man helps a thirsty pigeon (I may have posted this before, but it’s always good to see an act of kindness towards animals):

A male cedar expends much of its resources on pollen (from male cones) to fertilize distant female cones:

And a really nice video of cats and dogs escaping from confinement:

Tweets from Matthew. I’m not sure how this first one illustrates the point given that there’s an English translation:

This is some library! I wonder how Jenkyns found anything?

Another great example of a spider that mimics an ant (count the legs):

The first rule of Cat Fight Club: put the cat to sleep:

I’m not sure how much the whales are enjoying this, but the dolphins sure seem to be having a good time.


Democratic National Committee ends its sponsorship of Women’s March

This announcement, which as of this moment I’ve found almost solely on right-wing websites (you won’t see it in the New York Times or PuffHo), is a serious blow to the Women’s March, since they’ve lost an arm of the Democratic Party, almost certainly because of the antisemitism of the women’s March leaders. This report is from Haaretz, the most left-wing of the venues reporting this:

I won’t belabor this report, as there doesn’t seem to have been any announcement by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) or any explanation, either. The lost sponsorship appears to have been found simply from the DNC’s absence on the Women’s March list of sponsors. As Haaretz (explains

When the list of sponsors for the 2019 national Women’s March was published over the weekend, it became apparent that numerous organizations who had joined the March in its first two years, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Emily’s List had chosen not to partner with the group, following controversy over the refusal of three of the March’s co-chairs to clearly denounce Rev. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and his anti-Semitic and homophobic positions and charges of hostility to Jewish women within the group.

Between Sunday and Tuesday, additional sponsors, including the DNC, along with the National Organization for Women and the NAACP who had appeared on the list of sponsors, were gone.

. . . Also Monday, in what appeared part of the effort to stem the tide of opposition to the national organization, it was announced that the group had included three Jewish women to a new 32 member steering committee. The Jewish members are transgender rights activist Abby Stein, Union for Reform Judaism staffer April Baskin and Jewish diversity activist Yavilah McCoy.

I wonder what the new “progressive” but anti-Israel contingent of Democratic women in the House of Representatives would say about this.

h/t: Mark

Storm in a jockstrap

by Grania

Gillette has unleashed its latest commercial. Instead of its usual claim that it’s the best a man can get, this time they have opted for some social education and encouraged men to call out other men they see behaving badly. It’s not the worst advice ever given, although I suspect that many in the world are weary of being lectured to, especially by multi-billion dollar corporations; and even more are sick of the call-out culture of social media that may have started in an honest attempt to draw the line against society’s most egregious offenders, but has given way to nasty dog-piling on anyone who may have inadvertently trodden on someone else’s toes.

Some responses are positive and generally unimpressed by the levels of offence taken:


Others are less impressed:

One should remember that this is a company. Ultimately they don’t care whether you like their advertisement or not. They are just delighted at all the free publicity this ad is creating, making it worth every penny they spent.

Will it have a beneficial effect on society?  That’s a definite maybe, maybe not.

I should point out that Gillette manufactures women’s razors too, and charges more for them. So the company ain’t quite as woke as they like to appear.

Click on image to read original article on The Street


Catholics claim they know the whole truth about everything

Have a gander at this quote that came from Franciscan University. The backstory appears at the site Church Militant and Inside Higher Ed (IHE). Franciscan University [FU] is a Catholic school in Steubenville, Ohio; it’s sufficiently hard-line to include homosexuality in a course on “deviant behavior” along with rape and robbery.

Here’s the quote, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t both true and sad:

“Franciscan University encourages the faculty, in their teaching function, to address all material relevant to their subject matter but, as specified in the Faculty Handbook, opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching. This in no way impinges on true academic freedom, as the Catholic church accepts all that is true and rejects all that is false.”

Where did this come from? As Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reports, FU removed the departmental chairmanship from Stephen Lewis, an FU professor of English, after he was found to have included the Emmanuel Carrère’s book The Kingdom in a course syllabus. Given its content, that book was a no-no. IHE summarizes the contentious parts:

Part memoir, part religious history — imagined and actual — the hard-to-summarize book essentially tells two stories: that of Carrère’s own crisis of his Catholic faith and that of the formation of the early Christian church. Watching pornography in one scene, Carrère’s says that Jesus’s mother, Mary, wasn’t a virgin. Rather, he says, she knew men in her youth and “might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated.” There’s a bit more about a favorite adult actress and female masturbation.

There was an outcry among Catholics, and the University President apologized in an open letter, saying that The Kingdom was pornographic, blasphemous and would never again be taught at FU. There’s more to the story, but, as IHE reports, the quotation at the top came from a statement issued by FU on Monday.

According to that statement, no criticism of Catholicism can impinge on Catholic teachings because what the Catholic Church teaches is 100% true!

While religious schools are free to censor whatever they want, I find it ineffably sad that they censor criticism in this way, especially when it comes from a Catholic teacher trying to inspire thought (they’ve also made sure the book isn’t in the school bookstore).

And really, how brainwashed do you have to be to buy the school’s statement that “the Catholic church accepts all that is true and rejects all that is false”? Does that mean that homosexual behavior is really, truly, a disorder, and that you can go to hell if you don’t confess it? And that the sacramental wafers literally become Jesus’s body when blessed? And that Jesus’s mother was a virgin, which was apparently based on a dubious translation from Hebrew? Some “truths”!


h/t: Luana


A computer scientist finds the question of free will uninteresting for bad reasons

UPDATE: Scott Aaronson has emailed me and pointed out that his views on this matter are set out in a clearer and longer way in a publicly available paper he wrote called “The ghost in the quantum Turing machine.”  It’s 85 pages long, I wasn’t aware of its existence, and it is probably above my pay grade, but perhaps not for some readers who are physics-savvy and also willing to read the paper. If you do, weigh in below. Please consider this post a response to Aaronson’s 8.5-minute explication of free will on the “Closer to Truth” interview and not to the totality of his published views.

I’ll add, with Scott’s permission, a clarification that he emailed me along with the link to his paper:

“Briefly, you can make any theory “deterministic” by the addition of hidden variables, which is exactly what de Broglie and Bohm did for quantum mechanics.  In that sense, to ask whether the world is deterministic is not even to ask an interesting question about it; it’s only to ask about a particular description of the world.  But whether you can predict someone’s behavior without destroying them IS a question about the world.  So focusing on that means you’re led to actual meaty empirical questions about the world, rather than endless and boring semantic debates about the exact meanings of terms like “free will” and “compatibilism.”  I’d hope anyone with a scientific mindset would find that to be a feature.”


I may be remiss in not knowing who Scott Aaronson is, as I gather he’s quite well known. He’s the David J. Bruton Centennial Professor of Computer Science at The University of Texas at Austin, and works on quantum computing. He also has a popular website called Shtetl-Optimized (“Shtetl” refers to small Jewish towns in eastern Europe), which deals largely with computation but also personal revelations and amusing tales (see here about his quirks and then here for a story in which airport police arrested him because he absent-mindedly took change from his purchase of a smoothie—on a debit card!—from the tip jar in an airport food court.

In this 8½-minute video, Aaronson is quizzed about free will by Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the “Closer to Truth” public television series. (I’m weighing an invitation to participate in this series.) Do watch the video if you have time.

Aaronson thinks there’s a real and important question in the free-will debates, but argues that that question is not whether physical determinism of our thoughts and actions be true, but whether they are predictable. He thinks that the question of whether there is free will could in principle be solved by answering the following question:

Would one be able to construct a machine that, if it was programmed with the immense knowledge about your brain and your environment that would be required to do such a job, would be able to predict your actions?”

If the answer is “yes,” he says, then the question is solved: we have no free will and are “automatons”.

(By the way, Aaronson doesn’t appear to be a compatibilist, as he says that if such a machine were possible, and all our choices were predictable, we would certainly not have free will, even though some people would say we would still have free will. Those “some people” are surely compatibilists, who find the notion of free will compatible with physical determinism.)

Because, Aaronson says, the answer to the Big Machine question is not known (I would argue that in principle, because behavior and thoughts are the results of physical processes, the answer is “yes”), he finds the question of free will to be moot.

As he says at 4:15,

“My view is that I don’t care about determinism if it can’t be cashed out into actual predictability.”

This seems to me misguided, conflating predictability with the question of determinism. Surely it will be impossible, at least in our time, to gather the requisite information to accurately predict someone’s behavior, for such a computer would have to model not just a person’s brain, but also the entire universe, for the universe impinges on a person’s brain in ways that affect their behavior.

Further, insofar as fundamentally unpredictable quantum events may determine behavior, no machine could ever model those: at best it could give probabilities of different behaviors. But those quantum effects do not violate physical determinism, and cannot give us free will in the sense that most people think of it. (Surveys show that most people think of free will as “contracausal”: the you-could-have-done-otherwise form of free will.) In fact, insofar as Aaronson espouses physical causation of behavior in his answer—he says he sees the brain as a kind of computer running a program—he’s already admitted physical determinism.

Do Aaronson’s lucubrations, then, make the question of free will uninteresting?

Not to me; I find the issue not only philosophically interesting but a question that has practical ramifications, even if we can’t build the Aaronson Machine. If we are truly biological automatons, which I think is true on first principles (viz., we are made of molecules), then that has huge implications for religious thought and dogma, which of course depend on assuming contracausal free will. You are free to choose your saviour, your faith, your actions, and, for gay Catholics, whether to commit homosexual acts. Because you make free choices, making the wrong choice will send you to perdition, and making the right one to God, Yahweh, or Allah.

There are ramifications for the justice system. I firmly believe that if we grasped that nobody, including criminals, has a “choice” in whether or not to do something, like mugging someone, we would structure the justice system differently, concentrating less on retribution and more on keeping baddies out of society, trying to reform them, and using punishment as a deterrent to improve society.

There are ramifications for politics. Once you realize that people’s acts solely reflect the physical consequences of their genetic endowment and environment, you (or at least I!) become more sympathetic to the plight of those who drew a bad hand in the poker game of life. The notion of the “Just World”, in which people get what they deserve, depends on accepting contracausal free will. But that view must be tempered by realizing that neither the successful nor the downtrodden freely chose their paths.

I’ve always said that I don’t really care if you say people have “free will” if you define that term in some compatibilist way like “the inputs to creating a human behavior (output) are complex”.

What I care about is whether determinism be true. And I think it is, though of course I can’t prove it. All I can say is that the laws of physics don’t ever seem to be violated, and, as Sean Carroll emphasizes, the physics of everyday life is completely known.

What we see above are the ruminations of a man whose life is devoted to computing, and his profession shows in the way he thinks about free will, turning it into the question of whether machines could predict behavior.

Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

It’s Tuesday, January 15, 2019, and National Popcorn Day. In North Korea it’s Korean Alphabet Day, celebrating the invention of the modern Korean alphabet, Hangul, in the fifteenth century. In South Korea, though, Alphabet Day falls September 9.

Today’s Google Doodle (below) celebrates Sake Dean Mahomed (1759-1851), Anglo-Indian author (he was the first Indian to publish a book in English, The Travels of Dean Mahomed, published on this day in 1794) and opened the first Indian restaurant in England, which Wikipedia describes like this:

Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian restaurant in England: the Hindoostane Coffee House in George Street, near Portman Square, Central London. The restaurant offered such delights as the Hookha “with real chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, … allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England.” This venture was ended due to financial difficulties.

It’s a big day in history today, as a number of significant events happened on January 15. First, Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey in 1559. She ruled until her death in 1603.  Exactly two centuries after that day, the British Museum opened to the public.

On January 15, 1870, a cartoon appeared that forever associated the Democratic Party with a donkey (it wasn’t the first cartoon to do this, however). The famous one below was drawn by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, and here it is:

The explanation from

On January 15, 1870, Nast published the cartoon that would forever link the donkey to the Democrat. A few ideas should be clear for the cartoon to make sense: First, “republican” and “democrat” meant very different things in the 19th century than they do today (but that’s another article entirely); “jackass” pretty much meant the exact same thing then that it does today; and Nast was a vocal opponent of a group of Northern Democrats known as “Copperheads.”

In his cartoon, the donkey, standing in for the Copperhead press, is kicking a dead lion, representing President Lincoln’s recently deceased press secretary (E.M. Stanton). With this simple but artfully rendered statement, Nast succinctly articulated his belief that the Copperheads, a group opposed the Civil War, were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln’s administration. The choice of a donkey –that is to say, a jackass– would be clearly understood as commentary intended to disparage the Democrats. Nast continue to use the donkey as a stand-in for Democratic organizations, and the popularity of his cartoons through 1880s ensured that the party remained inextricably tied to jackasses.

On January 15, 1889, the Coca-Cola Company was incorporated in Atlanta, Georgia. I still think their advertising slogan, “The taste you never get tired of,” is one of the most succinct and accurate in the history of advertising.  Exactly three years later, James Naismith published the rules of basketball.

On this day in 1919, the Great Molasses Flood occurred in Boston when an exploding molasses tank sent an eight-foot tsunami of the good through the streets of Boston, killing 21 and injuring 150. Here’s a photo of the aftermath with a caption from Wikipedia:

Twenty one people were killed on Commercial Street in the North End when a tank of molasses ruptured and exploded. An eight foot wave of the syrupy brown liquid moved down Commercial Street at a speed of 35mph. Wreckage of the collapsed tank visible in background, center, next to light colored warehouse. Elevated railway structure visible at far left and the North End Park bathing beach to the far right. A “before” view of the disaster can be seen in this image.

On January 15, 1962, Europe’s oldest surviving manuscript, the Derveni papyrus, (ca. 340 BC, with the orignal  text dating back 150+ years earlier), was found in northern Greece. It’s part of a philosophical treatise, and here are some fragments as shown on Ancient Origins:

On this day in 1967, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the first Super Bowl, played in Los Angeles. Eighteen years ago today, Wikipedia went online. Finally, exactly ten years ago, US Airways Flight 1549, with pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles at the controls, went down, landing in New York’s Hudson River after the engines were stopped by collision with a flock of Canada Geese. Thanks to extremely skillful piloting and the calm heads of the crew, all 155 people on board survived, with very few injuries.

Notables born on this day include Molière (1622), Josef Breuer (1822), Osip Mandelstam (1891), Edward Teller (1908), Gene Krupa (1909), Lloyd Bridges (1913), Maurice Herzog (1919), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929).

Those who died on January 15 include Matthew Brady (1896), Rosa Luxemburg (1919), Jack Teagarden (1964), and Harry Nilsson (1994).

Nilsson hung around a lot of musical big names like Bob Dylan, but to my mind never sang much that was good—with one exception. And that is the song below, written by Fred Neil, with Nilsson’s Grammy-winning version featured in the movie “Midnight Cowboy.” This offsets any number of execrable songs like “Put the Lime in the Coconut

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Andrzej has had a heart attack and is in the hospital for a few days more. He doesn’t usually let readers know when he’s ailing, but made an exception in today’s dialogue. I’m sure readers join me in wishing Andrzej all the best and a speedy recovery.

Hili: What are we going to do if Andrzej doesn’t return from the hospital tomorrow?
Malgorzata: Well, he will probably come back the day after tomorrow and everything will get back to normal.
In Polish:
Hili: Co zrobimy, jeśli Andrzej jutro nie wróci ze szpitala?
Malgorzata: To pewnie wróci pojutrze i wszystko wróci do normy.
Leon is vacationing with his staff in the snowy mountains of southern Poland.
Leon: Is anyone out there?
In Polish: Ktoś tu w ogóle przyjdzie?
A prescient Mencken quote found by reader Norm. (UPDATE: This quote appears to be at least partially doctored–see the comments–so Mencken wasn’t so prescient after all. I should have suspected that. )

A tweet by Bari Weiss, and yes, Walker’s antisemitism should become common knowledge so the Outrage Brigade can decide whether to continue to laud an antisemite or, if they follow their own pattern and principles, demonize her permanently.

Two tweets from Heather Hastie. The first shows a raccoon with musical ambitions:

Yet another ninja cat, this one sent to Heather by Ann German:

This tweet, unearthed by reader Barry, shows the remarkable similarity of bones in a human foot (right) and an elephant’s foot (left). It seems that the elephant is just a human with fleshy high heels:

Tweets from Grania. What is this wolf cat? A Maine Coon, or another breed?

Well, I’m culturally illiterate and so don’t know what Knight Rider is, but Grania assures me this is funny:

A remarkable time-lapse video of a volcano erupting taken from the ISS:

Tweets from Matthew. I’m sure scientists have a number of hypotheses relevant to this question, but have they been tested?

Some very important history of science:

This is just cool beyond words: