Imagine a ball, but not what color it is.

(I've been thinking about writing a blog post about my internal language. However, that might be a bit too complex for just one post. So this post might be the first in a series.)

Can you imagine a ball, without imagining a ball of the specific color?

Can you imagine a handheld tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver, without imagining which one it is?

Can you imagine a person, without imagining someone of a specific gender or race?

For me, these things are not just possible, they are automatic. If you tell me “imagine a ball”, I imagine the idea of ball-ness. Nothing else is specified. If you ask me, “what color is the ball you imagined?”, that question doesn't make any sense. It's like if you asked me “what color is a crayon?”. There are lots of different colors of crayons. I can't answer unless you ask something more specific.

For a lot of people, if you asked them to think of a ball, they would automatically think of a specific ball. They would have to do extra work to imagine the idea of a ball without imagining a specific ball. Or they might not even be able to do that. For me, it's the other way around – I actually have to do extra work to imagine a specific ball, but imagining a generic ball is trivial.

That's not my only trick, either. Watch this: I'm imagining one of the metal forks from my kitchen. And now I'm imagining that the fork still has some number of pointy tines, but not what specific number of tines it has. But here comes the good part: I'm separating the points from the tines. Now, on the right side of my mind, I have a metal fork with some number of tines, which don't end in any specific way. And on the left side of my mind, I have a row of points, which aren't made of a specific material, and aren't attached to anything.


There's a couple of different things I need to explain [...]

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Gods and atheism

I'm not writing this post to convince anybody, but many people have found my beliefs about gods interesting, so I figured I'd describe them here.

If someone asks, “are you an atheist?”, I can comfortably say “yes”, because I don't specifically believe in any gods. But if they ask “are you an atheist or an agnostic?”, it gets more complicated. That's because the idea of a “god” can actually mean several different ideas, and I have different beliefs about each of them.

People often lump these ideas together, but they are quite distinct:

The Big Guy

This god goes around smiting people, performing miracles, making commandments, and so on. It's basically an immortal human with magic powers.

Most old religious books describe gods like the Big Guy. However, most religious people I've met don't really believe in a Big Guy – they believe in a different version of God. For instance, modern Christianity isn't really [...]

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Story idea: The Power of Love

(I've posted this elsewhere before, but I'm reposting it here because most of my blog audience probably hasn't seen it.)

(Content warning: discussion of abusive relationships.)

A certain individual gains The Power Of Love. Unfortunately, the only thing ze loves is to cause misery, so ze becomes a supervillain. Ze makes people love each other so intensely that it throws their lives into ruin. Ze makes victims love their abusers, and ze makes stalkers love people who fear them. And if any of society's heroes or leaders use their power for good, ze makes them fall in love with someone who will exploit their powers for evil.

To oppose this villain, a new hero arises, who has The Power Of Friendship. Ze can project a magical force field called The Friend Zone. People in the Friend Zone automatically stop, think, and work out their problems with each other as if they are close friends. Our hero tracks down all the people who were influenced by the supervillain, and uses zir power to help them solve the problems the villain created. Despite their intense feelings, the power of friendship lets them pull through and make arrangements that are tolerable for everyone.

Anyway, ze's so successful at helping people that ze ends up with a crowd of admirers following zem everywhere, hoping ze'll friend zone them.


I didn't just write this to make a joke out of the “friend zone” concept. (Don't worry if you don't know what that is – you're probably better off that way.)

On a more serious note, I think there's a problem with the idea of “true love”. The feeling of love, like any other feeling – excitement, anger, pride – can either cause good things to happen, or it can cause bad things to happen, or both. So what is “true love”? Many people think that love only counts as “true love” if it's the good kind. So what should we call the bad kind or the mixed kind?

This isn't just a semantic dispute. Because love can hurt people, people NEED to have a way to talk about the kinds of love that can cause harm. Otherwise, how can they think about it without fighting with themselves? (“But it seems so much like love! But it's hurting me! But it seems like love, and love is good, right?! But...”) This applies to both the all-bad case (“he's only beating you because he loves you!”) and the mixed case, like where people have a loving relationship that is mostly good, but sometimes their love manifests itself as possessiveness that ends up hurting the other person.

If you're talking to someone, and they call this kind of thing “love”, don't say “this is not love”. Say the thing that matters: “this love is not good”.

– Eli

On Virtues

It is better to be a coward and avoid fighting than to be brave and commit murder.

It is better to dishonorably betray a tyrant than to loyally serve one.

It is better to lazily stay at home than to be a hard-working employee for a fossil fuel company.1

It is better to selfishly hoard your money than to generously donate it to certain organizations.

It is better to dishonestly hide the fact that you're hiding the refugees than to honestly admit to it.

It is better to show disrespect for immoral authorities than to show respect for them.

It is better to hypocritically help people than to stick to your principles and hurt them.

The only thing I call “virtuous” is to accomplish good. The other “virtues” are merely traits. Sometimes, they lead people to do good, but sometimes, they lead people to do evil. But the way people talk about them is much different. People tend to value “good” traits more than the actual amount of good or evil you do. They act like being a coward is just as bad as being an abuser.

So how should we talk about them instead? I've given a lot of thought to this:

Some of these things are abilities. Bravery gives you the ability to face your fears, in the same way that knowing Chinese gives you the ability to read things that are written in Chinese, or that having a full bank account gives you the ability to buy a sandwich. Having these things is good in the practical sense of “good”, just not in the moral sense of “good”. It's okay to be proud of your abilities, and to admire other people who have great abilities. And of course it's good – in the practical sense – to develop your abilities further, if you can. The problem comes when we treat people worse for having fewer abilities, even though it's probably better to give more help to people with fewer abilities. And it can also be a problem to revere someone's abilities so much that you ignore the ways they are hurting other people. They are just material abilities. They have no inherent relationship to morality.

Other “virtues” are merely habits. Some of them are generally good – if you have a habit of being nice to everyone, that's usually better than having a habit of being mean to everyone. But some of them are more of a trade-off. A hard-working person might get more work done, but a lazy person might find ways to get work done more efficiently. A person with the habit of loyalty might help zir friend through hard times, but ze might also help zir friend do something evil. If you know that you have a certain habit, it can be good to think “Is there any way this might end up causing problems? If so, can I change my habit in those situations? If I can't, can I avoid getting into those situations? On the other hand, if I I've been told it's a bad habit, is there any good this habit brings that I just haven't recognized yet? Might there be a good way to work with it, rather than just trying to suppress it?”

(One interesting note: the difference between an “ability” and a “habit” isn't always well-defined. More on this in another post, though.)

A lot of the “virtuous” habits have something in common: they involve self-sacrifice. Hard work is hard. Being loyal means you support someone even when you have to make sacrifices. Being honest to someone who can hurt you may be a sacrifice. Self-sacrifice isn't bad, but it isn't good unless you get something good out of it. People usually don't want to believe that suffering happens pointlessly, so it can be more comfortable to believe that it is virtuous.

I have a completely different perspective: almost all suffering is pointless. We should focus on preventing it, not justifying it. I find it much more comforting to think that my suffering was completely unnecessary and preventable.

I've met a lot of people who make themselves suffer for the sake of others, but don't do it in a way that actually succeeds in helping others. If you're ever making yourself suffer, you should always take at least a moment to think: “What are my alternatives to doing this? If I stopped, what effect would it have on the other person? Are there other ways I could accomplish something similar without hurting myself as much? If I didn't spend these resources on this, what other good things could I do with them? Would the other person still want me to do this if they knew how much it was costing me?”

Our culture's ideas about goodness don't always match what's actually good. It can be useful to learn from them, but we shouldn't rely on them to define our sense of morality.

– Eli

  1. If you can afford to, that is. Please don't take this as an excuse to judge working-class people. The choice to avoid starvation is likely the greater good, and even if it isn't, it's no use to judge someone in that position. back

Story idea: The “Big Data Killer”

Our hero, an ace detective, gets called in to investigate a mysterious serial killer.

Apparently, the “Big Data Killer” strikes completely at random, all across the country. The only thing the cases have in common is this: The killer leaves behind a notebook listing all the metadata of the victim's recent communications. The notebook says who the victim called on the phone, how long they talked, what websites they visited recently, what search terms they searched for, and so on. The killer must be someone with access to some sort of big data database. It creates a picture of a terrifying surveillance state, seemingly assassinating people at random.

After many misadventures, our hero finally tracks the person down. But that's when the twist comes. The “killer” wasn't actually killing anyone at all. Ze was just a disillusioned life insurance executive. Zir company had used big data to accurately predict when its clients were going to attempt suicide, but didn't do anything about the suicides, because the insurance company didn't have to pay in the case of suicide. The “killer” had tried to work within the system to solve this, but failed. So ze decided to sabotage zir own company by altering scenes of suicide to make them look like murder!


I think this gimmick is pretty funny. I'm not sure it justifies building a whole story around it, though. The message seems unnecessarily cynical. I don't think it's bad to be cynical about mass surveillance, but I'd rather write something that actually says what we can do about it.

I also think there's something exploitative about this idea, and detective stories about serial killers in general. The story is about a tragedy – a series of deaths. But the story isn't a tragedy – it's a spectacle, a tale of intrigue. The main character is the detective, who usually has nothing in common with the people who are actually suffering. In this particular case, it seems like completely the wrong way to approach the issue of suicide, as well.

I guess maybe you could make it work by making the detective have a personal relationship with suicide and surveillance as well.

As it is, though, I can't really use this idea. But it does make a good example of 90% of my creative process: “Coming up with clever ideas, but discarding them because they aren't quite right.”

– Eli

Consenting in Advance

When I talk about sexual consent, people sometimes say something like this:

“But it's sexy to just do things in the moment and go with the flow! If I stopped to talk about consent, it would kill the mood.”

Before I go on, I should say this: There are a lot of different sexy things. If we have to sacrifice a few sexy things in order to avoid accidentally abusing people, we should certainly sacrifice them.

However, we mostly don't have to sacrifice this one. All you have to do is talk about it before you end up being “in the moment”.

That's what I do. When I start doing things with a new partner, we obviously have a conversation about what each of us likes. That includes some things that each of us is okay with the other doing to them without asking every time. It's sort of like setting up ground rules, so we know which things could be a problem and which things we don't need to worry about.

As part of the conversation, you might say something like [...]

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Eli status: August 2016

Here's a quick update on how things are going for me right now.

My hands

I've been having various problems with using my thumbs for years, since I injured them through overuse. However, 6 weeks ago, I finally figured out the cause of most of my current issues. It seems that my adductor pollicis was going completely unused (in both hands). That meant my other hand muscles had to do extra work to compensate.

For the last 6 weeks, I've been deliberately exercising the adductor pollicis, and my problems have gotten MUCH better. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to draw again within [...]

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A Critique and Defense of Equality

Suppose a genie appeared and offered to save the lives of 100 white people, and also save the lives of 5 black people. Should you accept? Of course you should.

That's a critique I've heard a few times. It says: “Equality has no inherent value. What really matters is doing as much good as you can, for as many people as you can.” I can't completely disagree with that – it was even one of the assumptions in my mathematical model. But it's much more complicated than that.

At worst, the genie example proves that equality isn't an end in itself. Increasing equality might still cause good things to happen. In philosophy terms, it doesn't have intrinsic value, it only has instrumental value.

Usually, when I've seen other people use this argument, they've tried to twist it farther than that. They've implied: “Because equality doesn't have intrinsic value, we don't need to care about it at all.” But there are many reasons to care about it. That's why I'm writing this post. In case you run into this argument somewhere yourself, let me prepare you with a defense:

The Defense

1. Equality as a rational incentive

Suppose my neighbor and I are gathering firewood. I want to get as much firewood as [...]

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Story idea(s): The imprisoned good being

Here's a story you've probably heard before:

The heroes stumble upon someone who has been magically imprisoned. Maybe it's a thousand-year-old spirit, maybe it's a regular person. Maybe it begs them to free it. Maybe they free it by accident. Maybe this is a game where you can choose whether to free it. Either way, freeing it is bad. If it eventually gets free, then it turns out to be evil. The heroes may have to spend the rest of the story fighting it.

I've seen a lot of different stories that follow this pattern. On the other hand, I can hardly think of any stories with an imprisoned good being. The main exception is when there's a good counterpart to an imprisoned evil being in the same story. These stories seem to encourage the belief that “if someone is being punished, they must have done something to deserve it”, which is generally a bad thing to believe.

I'd like to change this pattern. I live in the United States, which injustly imprisons huge numbers of people. Because imprisoning people is generally bad in real life, I would like to make it look bad in my stories as well.

Story idea #1

Legend says that in ancient times, there was a battle between a great good spirit and a great [...]

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My 0-10 pain scale

If a person goes to a doctor because something hurts, the doctor sometimes asks, “rate your pain on a scale from 0 to 10” (or 1 to 10). This can be frustrating if you don't know what number to give it. If your pain is moderately intense, how do you know whether it's a four or a six?

I thought about this for a while. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to make a pain scale that I could use for myself. Since I have trouble remembering pain sensations, it's hard for me to know whether a pain that I feel today is stronger or weaker than a pain I felt last week. A scale could help with that.

I came up with a reference point for each number on the scale. These reference points are based on how my brain works, so they might not work for everybody. They are useful to me. Your own pain scale might put them in a different order, or use different reference points altogether.

0. There is no pain, and no uncomfortable sensation at all.

0.5. There is no pain, but there is some sensation that makes me worry anyway. Maybe a muscle feels stiff or overworked, so that I expect it might start hurting if I used it more.

1. There is some pain, but not enough to be unpleasant. It's just a curiosity. If I had a magic switch that could turn the pain on and off, I usually wouldn't even bother to turn it off. (I might still worry, because the pain could get worse if I do the wrong thing, but the pain itself is not a problem.)

2. The pain is enough that I would usually choose to turn it off, but not enough to be distracting.

3. The pain is distracting. If it goes on for a long time, I eventually [...]

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