Max's Ruminations

This page will be perpetually under construction.

Why I hope I'm wrong

Sure, I'm wrong about lots of things. But specifically I hope I'm wrong about an afterlife. As an atheist, I have no particular belief in what happens after we die. My suspicion is that each of us is just an interesting electrochemical pattern that resides only in neural tissue. I have no evidence that something persists after the neural tissue dies, so I have no belief in a hereafter. But ...

Last week I was in San Antonio visiting my uncle. Well, I was supposed to have hung out the whole week with him, but he got called out of town on a photo shoot. I ended up wandering up to Dallas to see the folks, Austin to see friends, Houston to meet Giselle (her brother lives in Katy), and finally back to Austin to watch ultimate (college regionals). I had to stay in Austin until late, fixing a bug for one of my clients. I didn't get back to Unca Bob's until about midnight. I was met by his cat Tommy, a little Burmese cat that had belonged to his mother, my grandma. She died eleven years ago. Tommy has been a sort of living link to her. I spent a few minutes with the affectionate little critter. Tommy wanted to go inside, but he'd gotten older and had started peeing somewhat indiscriminately. I shooed him away from the door, then went inside and to bed.

At about 2:30 I woke up; Bob's girlfriend was in tears about something. Initially I decided it was none of my business, whatever was upsetting her. Then I heard Bob, and Melanine on the phone: she was calling an emergency pet hospital. I went into the kitchen. Bob had Tommy wrapped in a blanket. He was all chewed up -- neighborhood dogs got him. "Yes, he's in a lot of pain," Melanie said into the phone. She hung up. "Hurry, let's go" she said.

"He's gone," Bob said.

I was stunned only briefly, then very very sad. I sat on a patio chair and cried while Bob dug a hole under the Angel's Trumpet tree. I stroked his little inert head in goodbye. Then he was buried.

I thought about the strange math of suffering -- how has to be personal to make an impact. I was only somewhat affected by the recent Colorado school massacre. Less so by the plight of the Kosovar refugees and the occasional innocent bombed Serb. Less so by, say, millions dying of HIV in Africa. But deeply grieved, for the moment anyway, by a dead cat. I couldn't quite shake some guilt about having kept him outside. It was silly, of course; there was no reason to think that staying outside would be dangerous.

Anyway, the only comfort I could find in the situation was that maybe Tommy was having a reunion with Grandma. And even though I don't believe in such things, I can still hope that I'm wrong.



I think one of the differences between this generation -- my generation -- and the previous few is this: for us, there is no permanence. Obviously this has always been true, on the scale of geological time, but over the scope of a lifetime, some things, at least, provided anchors: careers, church, family. But I don't go to church, and neither do my friends; in my trade, there's no such thing as job security or company loyalty; and nobody believes "Till death do us part" anymore. "Well, you know, if it works out that way, that's great." Nothing lasts.

I don't mean to imply that this is entirely a bad thing. Some of these changes are clearly for the better. Couples who make each other miserable -- or worse -- probably shouldn't be together. I don't have a real job, but I can work at home in my sweats (and stop in the middle of something to add to my ruminations page). But there's a cost here, and I don't yet know the full extent of that cost. I think that being raised in a pretty stable environment -- the opposite, in many ways, of my life now, with the church-going married parents who had careers -- created an illusion of permanence, an illusion whose loss makes me feel disconnected. Aren't you supposed to learn how to be an adult while you're a child? A lot of that stuff I learned just ain't so these days.

"Till death do us part." But if that isn't so -- if nothing does last -- doesn't it make sense to always have one eye on the door? But doesn't that make the problem worse? I think it would be nice to pretend that divorce didn't happen, to not know the odds going in to a marriage.

More thought is required here ...



under construction

Thoughts on The Vision in the Visible

A guy I know named Po Bronson wrote an article called "The Vision in the Visible", which he seems to have taken offline. Basically the gist was about so-called "Gen X" and the lifestyle changes from the previous generation. I was struck by the following:
Generation X is not having careers, and it's not falling in love, and it's not getting married.
I wrote him this letter:

That sentence jumped out from all the others in your essay. I haven't read all of the stuff on your site, but that one thumped me between the eyes.

What's the connection between the professional and the personal? Why would "not having careers" somehow go hand-in-hand with not falling in love?

I used to think I was going to get married to one of my very best friends, a woman named Giselle whom I met in high school. She and I had always been emotionally close but never geographically close (we'd never lived in the same city). We both had lived in Texas but I met her at a statewide academic contest; I was from Dallas and she from San Antonio. I stayed in Texas; she went to U New Hampshire. I went to California, she went to grad school where her parents had moved, Charleston. We talked at least once a week, saw each other twice a year or so. Somehow I always thought she and I would eventually end up in the same city -- she'd spoken often about California; her grandmother used to live in Silicon Valley before retiring to Napa. She met some guy a few years back at a wedding in Rhode Island, but I wasn't worried. Boyfriends had come and boyfriends had gone; I had remained, in some sense. He proposed two months later. I spent three months in what I look back on as humiliating ignorance. She claims she was worried about wrecking me. I had had an ugly breakup some years prior, the duration of which she had to her formerly funny, cocky friend whimper like a whipped dog. So I can kind of see her point, but, you know, she was going to have to tell me sometime. I was her maid of honor two years later. She and Christopher have a fifteen-month-old named Jake.

I remember only a little of the blowup which followed the revelation. The bit that stuck with me, in reference to why it wasn't me that was going to be on that altar, was, "I didn't want to be Mrs. Computer Executive!" I felt stung that she thought I would put my career ahead of her. I've always thought that I had my priorities less fucked-up than that. But this weekend, I set aside two free days for the first time in six weeks and then couldn't remember what I did for fun, and had to stop and think.

All of the obvious needs of a man my age (30), I find I've filled with low-commitment alternatives to the traditional (well, traditional for this century, more or less) roles. I live in a family dwelling with my brother, two friends, and somebody's girlfriend. My job is freelance contracting, currently on three different contracts which explicitly state "Either party may terminate this relationship at any time", which makes me wonder what value they have as contracts. I don't have a girlfriend, and a litany of excuses as to why not. Don't get out enough. Standards are too high. My hobbies (flying, ultimate) don't help. Don't know where to look. The last woman I fell for (am still bonkers about, foolishly) is surrounded by psychological land mines, and is geographically inappropriate (lives in Chicago) to boot. There's a girl interested in me, but she's truly a girl, an undergrad at my alma mater, almost but not quite as far as Chicago. Of course I have no kids, but I play with the neighbor tyke, and volunteer in a Big-Brother-style program in the San Mateo schools.

I consider these things and wonder, have I found new and valid lifestyle alternatives, or am I simply a coward? Damaged goods, desperately afraid of commitment? I don't have the answer.

Giselle always called me "the coyote of [her] soul", which for years didn't make any sense to me ... but is coming into focus over time. It's disconcerting, to say the least, when you discover that you are oblivious to aspects of yourself that are perfectly obvious to others.

The canonical answer to this question, "What's wrong with GenX", is currently: all our parents got divorced. Mine did. (I got into this odd (to me, anyway) argument with Mom when I said that she and Dad shouldn't have gotten married. She was horrified that I was arguing against my own existence. One thing I don't fear is my own rhetoric.) But is that sufficient to explain us? Explain me? Why isn't GenX having careers, falling in love, getting married? Screw GenX; why isn't it true for me?

Either I don't yet know the answer or I don't dare answer (yet).

In certain ways, I was oddly relieved to know that I was human, that I was capable of cracking, that I was not controllable.

When I went through my big heinous breakup in college, I never made it to that reaction. I was a wreck. Sometimes I feel like it cost me a year of my life. Stupid feelings! Why did it have to hurt so much?

Maybe the answer to my questions is: some things have hurt so bad, I'm never going to put myself in the position where I can be that hurt. It seems like a sad place to be, in a way, a decision that imposes more limits than it's worth.

My friend Scott had laser surgery to correct his vision. They said it would hurt for a few days, but a manageable amount so long as he didn't touch his eyes until they were completely healed. Two days after the surgery he was in the shower, and accidentally touched his eyes after getting water in his face. He said he was in so much pain that he wanted to die. Now, his eyes are healed. But he cannot touch his eyes, for any reason. The memory, several years old now, is still stronger than his faculties for reason. I haven't had eye surgery, but I know exactly how he feels.



I hate standardized tests.

When I applied to Rice, there were about 3000 applicants vying for 1000 or so acceptance letters. By the time I left, eight years later, that number had grown to 9000 -- which puts Rice in the same competitiveness ratio as Stanford. But I'm sure they didn't triple the admissions staff. With such a huge number of files coming through that office, they've had to select more based on numbers.

When I was a sophomore, Money magazine put Rice on the cover as a "best value in education". That was the beginning of the end. Instead of people coming to Rice because it was a quirky little school, because of the things it had to offer, now you've got people who read fucking Money magazine prodding their kids to go there because it's a "good value". Affluent kids with inflated test scores and fucked up value systems. It seems to me that the student body has been in decline ever since.

But this much I know: there are a lot of things the SAT doesn't measure: Artistic talent. Musical ability. Timing. Style. Sincerity. Endurance. Honesty. Maturity. Humor. Courage. Strength. Coordination. Compassion. Creativity. Wisdom. Love.



Last time I went back to Rice, I had the strangest feeling while walking around campus. I felt invisible. When I was an undergrad, I knew lots of folks, and was constantly making eye-contact, waving, chatting. Constant recognition. But now, I can lurk from one end to the other without being noticed. The familiar faces, save for a few professors, are all elsewhere.

I was sitting outside my old room, in a place that was stacked deep with memory and experience ... the afternoon sun was familiar, the trees, the sounds, the humidity ... but I was a ghost, all of my recollections wavering in front of my eyes. But I got yanked briefly back into visibility -- I was spotted by a frisbee-player undergrad friend. I felt this strange lurch ... sort of pulled halfway into the moment, one foot in the present, one foot in the past.
    "Hey old man," she said, "What are you doing here?"
    "Time traveling," I said.
    I got a tour of the recent changes: the improvements to the basement, the increased size of the cracks in the walls. I walked into the commons. I nodded at one of the RA's, Stan. The dining hall was only half-full on a weeknight ... that was new, new to me anyway. The important things, the people and the community, seemed as absent as I had been. Is it less difficult for Stan, for whom the decay has been gradual, or worse because he's had to watch the whole of it?

They're about to tear that place down. The building has been coming apart at the seams for years; it needs to go. Maybe if it doesn't look the same, I won't feel such an emptiness when I go back to campus. If it looks different, perhaps I won't be overwhelmed by the contrast between what remains and what is long gone.

July 1998

Time Travel (sorta)

June 6th, 1998

Dear Jake and Conor,

This is an exercise in time travel ... I'm writing this in the 20th century and you're reading it in the 21st. I suppose all writing is intended for the future, even if that future is only tomorrow or the next week ... I've never written a letter to two people who are still in diapers with the intent that they read the letters many years later. It seemed like an interesting idea at the time.

Conor, you've just joined us on the planet. I have only seen pictures of you. Jake, you're almost a year old; I've held you, changed your diapers a few times. I know both of you because your parents are all significant people in my life (to varying degrees, of course). I expect I'll be seeing a lot of both of you in the coming years. In the past, I might have been asked to fill the role of "god-parent", which is a largely honorary title in which I am required to make sure that you're raised a proper Christian should something terrible happen to your parents. However, since none of the five "grownups" involved is Christian, last I checked, I'll probably just be referred to as "Unca Max".

I thought I'd tell you what it's like to be where and when I am at this moment. The last years before the millenium have been interesting; a mix of hope and despair, of wealth and poverty, rates of change without precedent for the species. I expect a lot of our issues will still be around in ten years, perhaps fewer in twenty. Some things will be inescapably different.

What's going on in the world right now? Hmm ... the Indians and the Pakistanis have been testing nuclear weapons -- nobody has done that in a long time. They hate each other, so the rest of the world is nervous. However, Conor, your dad read that "no two countries that ever had a McDonalds have ever fought a war." Do they have McDonalds in India? Hindus worship cows (don't laugh). Asia's economies have only recently collapsed, for reasons not clear to me (they were going gangbusters for years, and it was a "miracle"; suddenly they're in the toilet, though nothing appears to have changed). Europe claims they're about make something like the US, a "United States of Europe" called the European Union -- we'll see. It's hard for me to imagine the French being in something that isn't screwed up (and if you want a good laugh, ask your parents about the Maginot Line). I grew up being afraid of having nukes dropped on my head by the Soviet Union, but that organization collapsed a few years ago. Russia, the biggest piece of that mess left, is in bad shape. What else ... gas is cheap. The American economy is doing pretty well, has been for a long time. There are still lots of fairly poor people, though our poor people are doing better than, say, Africa's poor people. Kids are wearing insanely baggy pants (fashion so silly that even I cannot follow, which I think is the point). Adult fashion seems to run to 50's retro, which I don't care for. White button-down shirts have been consistently fashionable for a century or so; that's what I own. "Modern rock" gets a lot of airplay, but it's starting to sound dated; techno appears to be where the really creative music is being made these days, but I don't care for it because it doesn't make me feel anything. Jake, your mom the teacher is particularly distressed about the recent rash of shootings in the schools (kids shooting other kids). A bunch of countries are about to put up a neat-o space station, but the Russians and Japanese are having trouble paying their shares. The first global cellular network just got activated. A single satellite went haywire last month and ninety percent of the country's pagers stopped working, a startling reminder of how dependent we are upon technology. Most movies released in the past year are real stinkers, though I did like "The Truman Show". A really popular TV show called "Seinfeld" just ended, and the only show I watch consistently (Babylon 5) is about to end its fifth and final season.

Lots of things have "always existed" for me, that is, they were widespread when I was born: cars, airplanes, telephones, antibiotics. I marvel at the things that will have always existed for you. You will always have computers and networks ... the Apple ][ was invented while I was in grade school (have you even heard of Apple? Are they still around? I used to work there). I got started using single-computer bulletin-boards in 8th grade (82) and got my first net access as a freshman in college (86). Back then, nobody had even heard of the web (does the web look anything like it did in 98? Lots of text, some graphics, a tiny amount of code, most people using 33.6k modems over regular phone lines for access?). Antibiotics still work, though some bugs appear to be on the brink of out-adapting everything science has at the moment. I read about an HIV vaccine last week. I suspect you will always face the brink of ecological disaster ... maybe global warming is happening (but maybe it isn't); the rainforests are half-gone, I think, and I've heard that the antarctic ice cap is on the brink of collapsing. Species extinction appears to be accellerating, though not in North America. When I was a kid there were no CDs, no ATMs, gay people were shunned by virtually everyone instead of just some, boys didn't wear earrings (I have two gold hoops in my left ear), most women stayed at home (and it was considered normal). I learned to ski before snowboarding existed; I was about nine when skateboarding became trendy, watched it become un-trendy, and saw it become trendy again (the first fashion trend I ever watched come full circle). Recycling was rare. Few people stuck their noses into the private lives of public figures. Nobody had cable or satellite dishes (and no MTV), there was no such thing as a "sport-utility vehicle", most families had a mom and a dad (though that may be making a comeback), and people mostly believed what they saw on TV. Nanotech was the stuff of science-fiction (I wonder if it still is as you read this -- I bet not). Genetic engineering was still considered science fiction.

Me personally: I just turned thirty. I've always thought of myself as a kid, so it seems strange to be thirty. It was strange to graduate high school and start college. Then it was grad school, then it was all my friends getting married. (I was at your parent's wedding, Jake, and would be at Conor's parents' if they believed that they needed anyone else to sanction their relationship.) Now it's all my friends having kids (for example, y'all) and I have a mortgage. I feel like a frog being slowly boiled alive. Each day I look in the mirror and think, how did I get to be this old? I expect I'll have a pot-belly and a few gray hairs by the time you're ready for this letter. What do I do: I write code (mostly in a language still in its own infancy, called Java), play a sport called Ultimate (ask me to teach you how to throw a flick), travel when I can, fly airplanes, read (my favorite author at the moment is a Czech named Kundera). I used to play tennis and go rock-climbing with Conor's dad. A lot of gear -- rollerblades, racquetball racquet, climbing harness -- is sitting in my closet as I move on to new activities. I am generally satisfied with who I am and what I've done so far in life. I don't have a girlfriend (one of the few things about which I am dissatisfied). I've been in love three times, though I can't really use the past tense -- I'm still quite in love with all three, in different ways. Once I thought I was in love but wasn't. Hopefully, by the time you get this, I'll be happily attached to some wonderful woman. If so, you've probably already met her -- you know a little bit what she's like. And I, sitting here typing, may not have even met her yet. But maybe I have.

I live in a nice house with my brother and a couple of other folks (Kevin and Dave) in Belmont, near San Francisco. We just got the house a few months ago; I've been working on the garden, and I'm about to plant some fruit trees. I have a pudgy little cat named Henry. He'll almost certainly be dead by the time you get this, which makes me sad. It's been years since I've been to a funeral, and hopefully it will be many more. I've had a pretty soft and fortunate life, almost entirely without regrets. I can think of little that I would do differently; some things I might have started earlier, like sports and flossing and trying to figure out how people work. Sometimes you'll think grownups know everything, and sometimes you'll think they don't know squat. The truth, of course, lies in between ...

Do I have any words of wisdom for you? Maybe, but you'll want to ask me to my face, because what I know now might well be out of date. Besides, advice is frequently useless: most lessons won't stick with you until you pay for them by screwing up and taking the consequences. And that's just the way the world works.

I hope this letter finds you (at several points in your lives) well. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can have a real conversation with each of you. When I was ten, ten years was 100% of my life -- now it's only 33% of where I am now, or 25% or where I will be. Fortune has already favored you in the form of your parents; I hope your luck holds in all the other areas of your lives.

signing off from 1998,
with love,
Unca Max

Things I have learned the hard way

When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.
If someone says not to repeat something, don't repeat it.
Don't use your teeth to strip wires.
Don't touch the soldering iron to see if it's hot yet.
Either pay the ticket or fight the ticket; don't ignore the ticket and hope it will mysteriously go away.
If you're not sure it's the right relationship, it isn't.
If you don't handle a break-up gracefully, she might think you're insane -- indefinitely.
Don't attempt to skirt FAA rules.
Don't stop going to the dentist just because you're in college now and your mom isn't scheduling appointments for you.
Tennis shoes are not sturdy enough to let you stand on a nail.
If you think it is the right relationship, and she lives elsewhere, move to the same city (note: more pondering needed here).
Houses cost even more than you think.
Insider trading doesn't always work.
Don't try to plug things in in the dark.
Don't hold sit on the ground holding a jar between your feet while attempting to poke holes in the top with an ice pick. You might miss.
Being a camp counselor is harder than it looks.
Nothing lasts.
Check your assumptions.


Atheist v. Agnostic

I'm having a bit of trouble with a pair of labels: atheist and agnostic. I have this desire (mainly to irritate the religious, I think) to label myself atheist. But I think if I described to most people my attitude, they'd say I'm agnostic. But it seems there's a subtlety here that I have had trouble describing.

According to Webster ...
atheist: one who denies the existence of God
agnostic: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

I think Rich said (or quoted), "An agnostic is an atheist who lacks the courage of their convictions." :-)

Here's what I'm having trouble with. I can't actually prove (or know) that God doesn't exist, but that seems really weak. You can make up an infinite number of bogus propositions that I won't believe in, but can't disprove either. I've seen Brandyn torment Believers with his six-foot-tall invisible pink bunny who can do anything their God can do (except the bunny doesn't want to).

My answer to a lot of the big questions is indeed "I don't know," which sounds agnostic, but for me it's much more active than what I think of as agnosticism. I refuse to make up answers to avoid facing "I don't know". I refuse to posit things that are untestable. Do I believe in the Christian God? No way. Can I prove he doesn't exist? Um ... well, no, dammit, but what does that have to do with anything? I loathe the idea that a Believer (or one of those damn fence-sitting agnostics) can glibly say, "You can't prove your position any more than I can prove mine."

So, am I an atheist, an agnostic, or what?

(I asked this question on a mailing list of a group of my friends, and here are the responses that Brandyn collected.)


Finishing School

A gal friend of mine was complaining about how she'd been on a few dates with some guy, they went to a party, had a little to drink, ended up back at his place; with virtually no preliminaries, he starts pulling her panties off under her dress. "Hey!" she told him, "We haven't even discussed this yet."

He just blinked and said, puzzled, something to the effect of, "... you don't wanna?"

My reaction was, "Ah, you got one that hasn't been properly trained yet." My friend laughed because it was funny, and she laughed because it was true. Call me a traitor to my gender, but I believe that interacting with the opposite sex means meeting somewhere in the middle -- and that middle involves at least minimal foreplay. And lord knows, my half of the species doesn't come to it easily or early.

Our mutual friend Laura took this idea an ran: "That's it," she said, "I'm going to start a finishing school for men." Think of the headaches that women could spare themselves if they required that a prospective date be a "Certified Man®". So now that we've hit upon this truly brilliant (and possibly civilization-saving) idea, we'll have to compile a course list:

  1. Dating: Appropriate Venues and First Kisses
  2. Listening 101
  3. Foreplay: Not Just Alcohol
  4. Shoes: Praising Hers, Letting Her Pick Yours
  5. The Calendar: Anniversaries Matter
  6. Not Ragging On Her Family
  7. Beyond Boasting, Tantrums, Farting
  8. Begging Is Never Sexy
  9. You May Not Be Perfect: Learning to Cope (thanks Jenny)
  10. She's Not Your Mother (Even if She Looks Like Her) (thanks Danese)
For your final exam, you must convince the examiners that you have truly always been this wise, because then you won't be a product, you'll be a catch, about whom your girlfriend will be able to brag to her friends. (Credit to Tori for that bit of advice.)

If you would like to submit a course you think should be included at Lolly's Finishing School, click here.



When I set out to learn about something, frequently I avoid the so-called conventional wisdom and consider the problem in as much of a void as possible. Find out what other people think biases your thinking, often too much in my opinion. If all of the current thinking is over in that direction (in the solution-space), I won't consider solutions in this direction that might be novel. This way of approaching problems can be slower (since I often re-invent the wheel). But in re-inventing that wheel, I often have a deeper understanding of wheels than I could get from a book. And it improves my chances of finding a novel solution, which is the most important thing to me.



There's an old saying, "Pain shared is diminished; joy shared is multiplied." By "shared" I assume they mean talked about, which is a form of sharing, but one that doesn't work well for headaches or broken bones.

But what if you could, literally, share pain? This thought crossed my mind during a talk with a guy I know named Steve, who has suffered some surgeries that involved an intensely painful recovering period. I told him that I would gladly, if possible, suffer some of that for him so that he didn't have to.

It seems like a generous idea, being able to unburden another person to some degree; certainly twelve people could handle five minutes of discomfort more easily than a single person could bear an hour. And sometimes I meet someone carrying around the other sort of pain, carrying around a heart scarred by parents and siblings and jerk-ass s.o.'s ... I would do almost anything to be able to lay my hand on their chest and drain it away, like a lance through a boil.

The big problem that I can see is that lots of people would be able to avoid necessary pain, especially people with money. Like desperate organ-donors, in it for only the financial gain, the poor could end up the repository for the stupid injuries and petty torments of the wealthy. And nature put pain in for a reason, to tell you "hey, that was a bad thing to do".

Still ...



I've been re-thinking the idea of family. I know some people with screwey parents who let their family hurt them. I suggested to one of them that she give up looking for unconditional love in that dry well. She was emphatic that "friends are not equal to family."

Who is your family, then, and what is the difference between them and your friends? A simple definition is blood relatives, possibly including everyone connected by marriages. But that's missing something. Giselle is emphatically family, and you'll never be able to argue otherwise to either of us, though there is no tie of blood or marriage. That tie is far deeper than pretty much any with my cousins. Her son Jake is my nephew, no modifiers such as "sort-of" or "theoretical" necessary. Kevin is also family, though he's more of a literalist and probably wouldn't agree with me; we haven't discussed it much. There are others, too many to list here.

Giselle coined a phrase, "one of the Ones", used to describe the people that come into your life whom you know will never leave, come hell or high water or fights or break-ups or marriages to others. I have met another One lately -- the person who said that friends aren't equal to family. Next time I talk to her, I'm going to say, "The great thing about family is that you can choose it."


The Alternotron

I had this idea some years ago for an invention call the "alternotron". The device, when activated, splits the universe into two timelines between which the user can pop back and forth. A fork that goes horribly awry you'd never go back to. The device is used when you're faced with a decision you dread, perhaps two possibilities so appealing that you can't bear to reject either. I might have used one such that I had gone to both Rice and Caltech. I spent much of my freshman year wondering if I had made the right choice (in retrospect I did, but still...). A female friend whom I dated in college wants one so that she can both stay married to her husband in one timeline and run away to California and shack up with me in another.

Such a device would require severe limitations to prevent its abuse; otherwise you'd see people buying a stock in one line, shorting it in another, and abandoning the timeline in which they didn't make money. It also grants enormous amounts of additional time to the user if s/he ages independently in each timeline.

I suppose choosing is the whole point of life, though.



A wise observation by a friend:
SOs and even "just friends" are not picked for logical reasons. You either click with someone, or you don't. If you click with them intellectually, you tend to become friends (circumstances permitting). If you click with them emotionally you become SOs, if you click with them sexually, you become fuck-buddies. If you click on all three, I guess you are supposed to get married and live happily ever after or something like that.
If you click physically and intellectually, but not emotionally, it can be very hard to let go, even if in your heart knows better.


Seventh Sense

"There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can't teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically - she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. And then, when se is beginning to hate her used body, she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living - not by principle, not be deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She no longer hopes to live by seeking the truth - if women ever hope do hope this - but continues henceforth under the guidance of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one - knowledge of the world.
        The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy - this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognized without a cry. We only carry on with your famous knowledge of the world, riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do.
        And at this stage we begin to forget that there ever was a time when we lacked the seventh sense. We begin to forget, as we go stolidly balancing along, that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life. It is hardly consoling to remember such a feeling, and so it deadens in our minds.
        But there was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem. There was a time when Free Love versus Catholic Morality was a question of as much importance to our hot bodies as if a pistol had been clapped to our heads.
        Further back, there were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was, what we were ourselves.
        All these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments. We cannot see any more, or feel, or hear about them. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave, under the protection of our last sense."
T.H. White, The Once and Future King



I watched 2001 again the other day and had a small insight. Hal the computer goes crazy and kills the crew. Why? We find out, as Bowman is disconnecting Hal's circuitry, that the commanders didn't know about the monolith. Hal had been given conflicting orders: perform the mission, but keep secrets from the crew. He could not find balance and went berzerk.

Seems to me that humans face a plethora of contradictions, conscious and unconscious, every moment of their sentient lives. Especially women. Be honest but be kind. Be successful but don't step on the other guy. Hurry up but don't speed. Satisfy your hunger but don't get fat. Display wealth but save for tomorrow. Be faithful but show sexual prowess. Have a career but don't neglect your family.

Hal only had one contradiction. He had it easy.



Head-logic is not the same as heart-logic. I suppose this is obvious.

        Heart says things like, "It still hurts."
        Head says things like, "It wasn't the right relationship."
        "I'd still fall on my sword to make it work," says the heart.
        "Boy, that would be stupid," says the head.
        "How can she be dating that new guy? How can I be so easily replaced?"
        "Come on, it's been months. It's not like it was the following week. She didn't start that up until our situation was clearly over."
        "I still feel ... I don't know. I never was that good with words."
        "Ha, that's an understatement. Look, if it's going to work, it's going to work, no falling on swords necessary."
        "Dammit! That's easy enough for you to say. You can't just talk me out of this -- lord knows you've tried enough. I don't just un-decide to love someone."
        "Who says you have to un-love or whatever? You can feel whatever you want. Just ... stop bugging me!"
        "Bugging you? You asshole, I'm trying to give you some guidance where logic isn't going to do the job."
        "Huh? YOU were the one going around in the last months of the relationship nagging me with, 'This isn't right.' I'd ask, what do you mean? She's intelligent, easy-going, pretty -- what's not to like? But noooo, you know it's not going to work but you won't say why."
        "I told you I'm not so good with words."
        "Oh, give me a break -- why do you think I hardly ever listen to you anyway? You never make any fucking sense! 'Can't live with her, can't live without her.' What a bunch of crap!"
        "Look, it's not my fault you spend all of your time engrossed in that dry technical stuff, not blinking, so focused that nothing else exists."
        "Cop-out. Back to you-know-who. Try to see it from her standpoint. It wasn't working, you both knew it, why keep beating your heads? The sooner you get out, the easier it is to remain friends."
        "Still hurts though. When you get far enough past being scared to be able to say the l-word openly, that's a big hurdle. It means you value someone enough to be vulnerable. I hate being vulnerable."
        "Yeah, it's no fun to have to back out of that."
        "And the sex was fantastic!"
        "Yeah yeah, I know." <chuckle> "Is that it?"
        "Um, well, maybe she'll read this some day and realized why we act funny around her."
        "Better watch the use of the word 'we', 'we' don't want to sound like a nutcase."
        "Oh please, allow my my meager literary licence."
        "Can we go to sleep now? You sap!"



I've been on a big self-awareness kick the past few months. It was triggered by a break-up. I was pretty upset. I've gotten over being upset but am not trying to understand myself better so that I can catch myself before I make mistakes.

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker, Kim. She wonders if it's better to be not self-aware (like a cat, let's say) than to be incorrectly self-aware. Everyone's view of themselves is biased to varying degrees by just being themself. She calls it the ego-filter. A cat is directly in touch with its needs, because it has no such distortion: it wants food, sleep, sex, affection. Humans have similar needs but often delude themselves and think they're satisfying their needs when they really aren't. Some people mistake abuse for attention. Some people get obese because they eat to satisfy a need that food won't fill. (In deference to obese people, some have thyroid conditions or are genetically predisposed.) Some people can't go without a boyfriend or girlfriend for more than a brief period; they're using someone to fill a hole in themselves. Some people think they'll be happiest with a certain sort of person, and seek that type over and over, despite the fact that each relationship fails. Cats just fuck. Now, granted, there's less to a cat's life. Cats don't obsess over The Relationship, but then again cats can't have a Relationship, either. So it's more complex to be a human, which means it's harder to get it right. It's harder to see yourself for what you really are.


Why are women attracted to assholes?

Maybe they just like being treated badly. Okay, improbable, I grant you, but it does fit the evidence.

Maybe they're attracted to men who are like their fathers, and there are lots of assholes with daughters (since assholes do better with women, you can predict that they'll have more kids).

Perhaps they mistake aloofness and rudeness for some sort of strength.

Maybe women like the challenge; they want a fixer-upper.

Maybe they don't want someone too sappy, possibly too easily hurt.

Could be that being a jerk throws the occasional bit of niceness into sharp relief so that it's noticed more.

A friend suggested that once you start dating an asshole, the way they undermine your self-esteem makes it very hard to leave.

Submit your theories, if you've got 'em ...


What would you say to yourself five years ago?

And would you have listened?

Hmm, more pondering is needed.

"I often have the urge to travel backwards in time so that I can slap myself silly." -- my friend Laura


What sort of things are you going to teach your kids?

I think about this a lot when I'm driving around and my mind wanders. I've learned all this stuff, right, some of it only after much frustration. Okay, so maybe learning requires a certain degreee of frustration to properly sink in. But you can always try ...

For example, when I was a tyke I was in the "nerd" group. I saw myself as such, got praised for being "smart" (for some academic-centered notion of "smart"), spent all my time doing it. I think I limited myself a lot. So:

Keep trying things, both new things and old things. Don't shun an activity just because you're not already good at it, or because you think it's outside your conception of yourself. For example, I didn't play sports until college, and then regretted (a little) not getting into sports sooner. I never even tried to learn a musical instrument. I didn't get involved with theater until I was a senior in high school. Each thing I didn't do, I was reluctant because I wasn't already good at it. It's okay to be bad at things. Don't worry too much about what other people think.
I'm going to go back later and have to sort this stuff according to when the lesson might be delivered ... some things will go before others.

I was not the best student. I didn't make top quarter at my large public high school. However, I had kick-ass extracurriculars and I take tests well, so I was able to get into a competitive university. My college grades were higher than my high-school grades simply because the material was usually a lot more interesting. Obsessing about grades, though, is a waste of time. Always do enough to get at least a C in everything, and try to get A's in the classes that appeal to you. I think I had a more balanced approach than my sister (straight-A's) or my brother (too many F's). Better than grades, in my opinion, is stretching yourself. If you've never done drama, try out for the senior play. Spend one elective on public speaking instead of study hall. Whatever. College will give you even more opportunities: the newspaper, the radio station, intramural sports. It doesn't matter if you've never tried it, whatever "it" is. Trying some new activity, even if you fail, will give you confidence (in my experience). Sometimes you will fail, and then ... so what? You try the next thing. When you've proven to yourself that it's not the end of the world if something doesn't work out (like, you don't get that part in the senior play), then you're willing to risk it again on the next thing. And being willing to face risk is an incredibly valuable skill. I can't emphasize this enough. Don't take dumb chances, but take chances.
Another thing that doesn't seem to be taught much is learning itself. I seem to recall that adults presented things as truth, and there wasn't much discussion of white lies or big lies (other than that telling them was bad). But I don't recall learning basic epistemology (the study of "how do you know what you know") until college, and that was not in the classroom.
An important thing to learn about reality is how to determine what is truth and what isn't. Your dad tells you something; do you believe him? Why? Because he loves you? That's a pretty good reason, but sometimes people don't tell the whole truth because they love you. Like the Easter Bunny. There isn't an Easter Bunny, but it's fun to think there is, and it doesn't really hurt you to think there is one.

You learn from other places, too. You read an article in the newspaper. Is it true? How do you know? You probably weren't there to see for yourself. People who write in newspapers usually try to be fair and unbiased, but not always. People on TV, especially whenever advertising is involved, are usually not telling you the truth. In advertising, people try to convince you that you need what they have. Usually, that's not true.

Religious people will tell you all sorts of stories about God and how you have to behave a certain way, otherwise bad things will happen to you. They can sound very convincing. They have their own rituals and culture which can be appealing, and they can say, "This many people can't be wrong!" But how do these people know? Have they met this God person? Of course not; it's required that you take His existence on faith. In my experience, most people believe whatever they were taught when they were young, when it's harder to sort out what is truth and what isn't. Most people are the same religion as their parents. Those who weren't were usually recruited into a religion by people promising big, important things: eternal salvation, love, that sort of stuff. You should make up your own mind, but when there's some connection like that (parents), it makes me think that there's cause and effect. They don't believe it because it's some absolute Truth, but because it was their parents' truth. I recommend you look for your own truth, not mine or anyone else's.

My friend Hyla suggested that I include a bit about dealing with other people's belief systems. Hyla was raised by pagan hippies in rural Alabama, and they sent her off to the public schools with no knowledge of Christianity. Not only did Hyla have no conception of her peers' world-view, she didn't realize that challenging these beliefs would make her a pariah. She's still pretty pissed at her parents over this.
Other people have their own way of looking at the world. This ranges from big issues of religon -- "Why are we here?", "How are we supposed to behave?" -- to political issues, down to inconsequential personal habits, like sock/sock/shoe/shoe vs. sock/shoe/sock/shoe. Some of these difference will be obvious to you, some won't; you'll have to pay attention, and allow that people will do and say things you won't expect or understand.

It might seem like your way is the right way, and that might be true. Should you tell another person that you think you're right and that they're wrong? Possibly, but remember, they think they're right too, and nobody likes to be told they're wrong.

When you differ with others, you don't have to agree, but you don't have to challenge them, either. This takes a while to get down.

To some extent, writing down a bunch of stuff to tell the next generation might be an exercise in futility. You can spew hard-won wisdom until you're blue in the face, but until they actually make the mistakes, the advice is hollow. Somehow other people's mistakes are no substitute for your own.

I used to think that eventually I'd stop making mistakes (and by "stop" I mean make a lot less), but now I'm coming to realize that I'll always make mistakes, they'll just be different ones.

What are you going to tell your kids?


What would you put on your own personality test?

Maybe you've heard of Meyers-Briggs and MMPI and all that stuff. I've been compiling my own list:

Suggestions? Maybe I'll get famous. At the very least I see the genesis of a new online dating service. No more of this overly-simplistic race/religion/height crap. (And how come all of the women who use online dating services want a guy who is 5'9", huh??? What the fuck is wrong with 5'7" when you're 5'2" yourself? I mean, really?!)


Which would win?

A rottweiler, or a rottweiler's weight in chihuahuas?

I heard this somewhere, and I later found the origin of this.

So I'm hanging out with a group of folks in the park, including my friend Darek. Darek is from my home-town, Dallas, and has this innocent face that would lead you to believe he cannot lie. I bring up the Rottweiler v. Chihuahua question. Darek says, "Oh, the chihuahuas, definitely. Well, wild chihuahuas, anyway."
"Wild chihuahuas?" asks the group.
"Yeah, in the Chihuahua desert, down in Mexico. The domestic ones were tamed from the wild ones. They're small but vicious ... they travel in packs, like wolves. You should see fifty of them take down a cow, it's impressive."
The group is incredulous. I know he's full of shit, but he's carrying it off so well that I want to believe him myself.
"Wow," say the Californians.
"Yeah, they're like the piranha of the dog world," says Darek.

Now I can't think of chihuahuas without seeing this image of a crazed herd of them nibbling a cow to death.


I wonder ...

Do vegans swallow?

And is it P.C. to ask this question?


The Many Names of Max

I'm still looking for a gangsta name and a mafia name.

Your porn star name: take the name of a childhood pet and combine it with your mother's maiden name.

Your soap opera name: take your middle name and add the name of the street you lived on when you were a kid.


Motorcycles and Genetics

Motorcycles, on first glance, would appear to have a negative effect on an organism's fitness function. They don't call 'em "donorcycles" for nothing. Kevin's dad got his replacement heart from a motorcyclist. However, they seem to increase the male's ability to spread his seed (if he so chooses). So in the grand scheme of things, is a motorcycle a statistical win or loss?

I did have this interesting dream once. I was walking to work in some city. I saw this really attractive woman walking along, but she paid no attention to me; I wanted to talk to her, but didn't have any pretense (and in real life, as in the dream, if I start talking to someone with no pretense, I feel naked before the world, with the words I'M HITTING ON YOU emblazoned on my forehead). However, later in the dream, it was the same time next morning, only this time I was riding a motorcycle. When I pulled up to the intersection where I had seen her yesterday, there she was -- and she came over and started talking to me ...

4/97, 12/97

Last updated 13 Feb 98 by max