Fancy Schmancy Website

I feel sort of depressed after writing out that whole last post about scary difficult scary scary difficult things, and didn’t want to end the posting day on that note, so:

I am writing a really pretty website and it is really pretty and I am super impressed with myself about how awesome the parts of it that I am finished with look and how awesome the rest of it will probably look when I’m done and I just want everyone to know that I am super amazing at designing websites and you should all be envious of my fantastic talent and skill and… talent. And skill.

Also Wellbutrin seems to be being fairly helpful for me this time around, which means that as long as I can find ways to manage the insomnia side effect, I have found an antidepressant that actually works for my depression.

So anyway some things about my life are pretty cool. Also I do not believe it is an understatement to say that when I finish with this website it will probably be the single most aesthetically pleasing thing produced by a human being since the dawn of time. Dawn. Of. Time.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Pick a Topic and Stick with It

Every now and then I tell someone about my blog and they ask what it’s about, and my answer is “Hold on, let me see if I can remember the entire list of things…”.

Now there are even more things.

Pretty much every “how to have a successful blog” advice piece I have ever read says “pick a topic and stick with it”, and I basically started out failing at that and have increasingly added even greater degrees of failing at it over time.

Welcome to my blog, it is about like twelve very specific things I hope you like the same twelve things I do!

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

On Solving the World’s Problems In Decreasing Order of Badness

Alex lives in an average, everyday medieval fantasy town, Hypothetica, which is at present being threatened by an enormous evil dragon. The dragon burns buildings and kills people and sometimes makes offhand, hurtful comments that people can’t stop thinking about for days afterward. If it isn’t stopped, it will destroy the town, kill everyone in it, and hurt a lot of people’s feelings.

Fortunately, several dragonslayers live in Hypothetica. Unfortunately, the week before, when the town was being threatened by an equally powerful and dangerous enemy in the form of an evil sorcerer who performed dark magic (and made disparaging remarks about several people’s shoes), a spell was cast on the dragonslayers that put them into a deep, year-long sleep. Thankfully, Hypothetica is also home to several sorcerers who, together, should be able to undo the spell and wake the dragonslayers.

Alex goes to the sorcerers’ tower and tells the sorcerers to begin the counter spell that will awaken the dragonslayers. As Alex is leaving, however, another Hypothetican citizen, Sam, walks up to the sorcerers and starts yelling at them for focusing on breaking the sleep spell instead of killing the dragon.

“Who cares if a few people are asleep or not when there is a dragon to be dealt with?!”, Sam shrieks.

Exasperated, Alex tries to talk some sense into Sam.

“Spells have barely any effect on dragons,”, Alex explains, “and the dragonslayers have the tools and experience we need to kill it.”

“The dragon is the biggest problem we have right now!”, yells Sam. “Sleeping people come second to killing dragons!”

“But if we wake them up, they will be able to help us kill the dragon!”

“We can’t put any energy into waking people up until we have dealt with the dragon, though. Don’t you care about the dragon? Don’t you think killing the dragon is MAYBE A LITTLE MORE IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW THAN A FEW PEOPLE OVERSLEEPING?!”


Alright, I am going to go out on a limb here and presume that we all agree that Sam is the irrational one in this story. The thing is, Sam-like people take a lot of different forms, some more obvious than others. There seems to be an obsession among certain groups of people with telling other people what they should and should not care about. Why focus on sexism in the geek and scientific communities when in other places there are problems like female genital mutilation? Why focus on people being mean to other people on the Internet when “people are starving in Africa”?

I can’t find the post, but I believe it was Greta Christina who I read saying that by this line of thinking, one could conclude that the only problem any of us should be focusing on at any time is global warming, given that a strong case can be made that it is the biggest problem facing our species right now.

There are a lot of reasonable counter arguments to be made in the face of the “We must solve all things in decreasing order of badness* and therefore we should not focus on that problem while this problem still exists.” line of thinking, but there is one in particular I want to focus on right now. That problem is this: problems do not exist in a vacuum. They intersect. They affect each other. Just look at Sam and Alex’s argument: Sam is absolutely 100% right that the dragon is the worst problem facing the town, but is still dead wrong about what to do about it, because the problem of the sleeping dragonslayers has a direct impact on solving the problem of the dragon.

Problems in real life tend to work like this. Why solve sexism in science when we have global climate change to worry about? Well, part of the answer is because brilliant science-minded women are being prevented from working on the climate change problem because of the depth and breadth of the scientific community’s misogyny problems. Why spend time worrying about Stephen Colbert’s satirical racism when there are “real” racism problems like stand your ground laws and the school to prison pipeline? Because casual, offhand racist jokes like that contribute to the perpetuation a culture of acceptance of racist opinions and beliefs that is the driving force behind those “real racism” problems. Why focus on improving education when we have giant corporations decimating the economy, polluting the atmosphere, and destroying net neutrality? Because better education will create a population better equipped to challenge harmful corporations in effective ways that are more likely to bring about real, lasting change.

It sounds childishly obvious when put like this, but: most of society’s problems have to do with each other. Most of them are connected. At the very least, on a basic level, any time you solve a problem affecting one group of people, you free up those people to help solve the rest of the problems we have. At times so much so that you actually solve the “bigger” problems faster than you would have otherwise. See the dragon fable for a hypothetical example of this, and how about Alan Turing for a real one? How many people do you think thought homophobia was a more important problem to address than Hitler was in the middle of the 20th century? How many more lives would have been lost if Turing had died before his contributions to cracking the enigma, and how many brilliant ideas have we lost as a result of him dying when he did?

How many scientific geniuses are we missing out on because of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, able-ism, etc. in the scientific community? How many problems might we have solved years or decades ago if we had addressed those issues sooner? How many people may have suffered and died because someone said “We have bigger issues to deal with than X-ism.”?

Let’s try a new rule: if a group of people thinks something is a problem for them, let’s maybe believe them and let them deal with it and try to help out instead of denigrating their concerns. We should be doing this anyway, because, you know, compassion and stuff. So many people seem to be comfortable with not being compassionate, though, that I figured I would take some time to write this post illustrating why caring about problems you, personally, might see as “small” can be the most rational approach to solving the problems you think are “big”.




*Phrasing borrowed from Cliff at Pervocracy in another post I have failed to locate.

The Hero Sword Fallacy

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about gun culture. He told me a story about a gun company called “Savage” whose logo is, naturally, a correspondingly offensive depiction of a Native American Indian. As a fan of guns, himself, he talked about trying to decide what his best course of action was in terms of expressing how offensive he found this. He has decided not to buy their products, and is considering writing a letter to the company explaining why he thinks their name and logo are offensive and incredibly harmful. He wonders, though, whether a letter like that is likely to have any significant impact at all on a company that has demonstrated their lack of awareness and consideration for others so clearly.

This is an incredibly common feeling with respect to pretty much every kind of activism there is. “Sure, I could say something, but I’ll never convince people like that. It will never make enough of an impact to really affect change.”

I think this perspective, while entirely understandable, is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how most social change happens. I think of it as the hero sword fallacy.

The hero sword fallacy is the idea that your actions don’t really have an impact unless they are the thing that changes someone’s mind, and, correspondingly, that having an impact is about finding the perfect action or argument that will change minds. The way that you slay a dragon is by stabbing it through the heart with the sword of Ultimate Magnificent Dragon-Heart-Piercing Justice, and the way that you slay social injustice is by coming up with the Ultimate Magnificent Argument of Perfect Logos and Pathos.

You see this with newly de-converted atheists all the time. In the excitement of having figured out that deities aren’t real, people think “Now I know the reasons why gods don’t exist, and they’ll talk to other religious people and de-convert them with my fantastic arguments and awareness!”. Reality tends to set in quickly in the form of very few (if any) people being immediately convinced by such arguments. Sometimes people drift toward the mindset of “Well, you just can’t convince People Like That.”.

The thing is, you can. When Greta Christina gives talks, she often does an exercise where she has the audience raise their hands if they used to be religious, and then keep them up if it was an argument that eventually led to them deconverting. There are always a lot of hands left up.

People are convinced by arguments. They are convinced by arguments all the time; many of those people who seem so easy to write off as The Unconvinceables have been convinced by arguments (or emotional appeals, or becoming more familiar with the facts or people they denigrate). This isn’t just the case with religion; it’s the case with antiabortionists, anti-feminists, homophobes and bigots of all types, and believers in psychics and The Secret and The Game. The thing is, we are almost never convinced to change opinions that we are emotionally, socially, or financially invested in the first time someone challenges us on them.

People do get convinced though. It just doesn’t work immediately. Social progress always happens slowly, in a thousand, thousand, thousand steps, big and small, that add up to significant change only in the long run. Landmark court decisions like Brown versus the Board of Education or Roe versus Wade don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen after decades or centuries of proceeding work. Also, as we have seen, they don’t serve as ultimate incontrovertible solutions to the problems they address; racism and abortion rights restrictions are both very alive and well today.

I encouraged this friend of mine to write the letter he is considering writing, but not because I think it will change any minds. Not because I think it’s likely to get a response, or result in any sort of policy change, but because it’s a step. Every time anyone speaks up about social injustices, great or small, it’s a step, and that’s how these things work. There is no Hero Sword Argument or Action that will magically cut through the heart of a given person’s ignorance or bigotry. Changes like that happen to individual people after tens or hundreds of conversations, and to organizations perhaps after hundreds or thousands or millions of appeals by customers or constituents, and to cultures after far more than even that.

The tiny things we do do affect change, it’s just that they only affect major change once they have happened in a volume that is incomprehensibly large when compared to an individual action. There aren’t perfect solutions to the problems we face, and it is incredibly unlikely that any individual thing any of us can do will be the tipping point that changes something, but those individual things do add up, and the tipping points do happen, and progress does get made — only gets made — by people doing what they can and knowing that even if their contributions don’t cause the immediate change they wish for, they help move us in the right direction. They help in pretty much the only way that anything ever does: as a small step toward a big change.