Ashley Madison makes me want to vomit profusely

In New York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky argues that the Ashley Madison hack should scare us. After all, as she says, “private information that was stolen by criminals is now being used by the public to shame and punish individuals who assumed that their information would remain private”, and that does sound mighty scary.

It’s difficult, however, to overlook the assumption of privacy that those folks made. How does that assumption compare to one’s natural assumption that their partner wouldn’t, you know, betray their trust? Or the assumption that one’s partner wouldn’t betray their trust repeatedly and consciously, and so deliberately and with such premeditation as to subscribe to an online service that facilitates the mass erosion of such trust? And finally, isn’t it conceivable that trusting a company that destroys trust on a wholesale level is… mildly foolish?

Yes, it’s pretty much impossible for me to overlook the fact that a tremendous amount of justice has been done, and that the irony is something to revere. It’s not merely that cheaters have been exposed. This has nothing to do with regrettable moments of irresistible passion or whatever nonsense, or consensual polyamorous relationships, or people who allow their partners to fuck around. The point of the site is to connect cowardly and unscrupulous people to one another, so they can jointly wreck the trust of their partners and destroy any notion that relationships should be equitable and consensual. And have fun while doing so.

Ashley Madison’s motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.”

A fun drinking game? Say anything you want after the phrase “life is short”, and the most humorous one earns a drink.

  • Life is short. Lop off a limb!
  • Life is short. Jump out a fucking window!
  • Life is short. Make it even shorter! Fuck it!

Basically, “life is short” is a stupid person’s attempt at rationalization, not unlike YOLO.

Havrilesky would apparently admonish me as one of those people who have “never been shy about imposing their highly subjective views and principles on one another’s private lives — nor have they hesitated to punish the slightest variation in behavior, the slightest straying from the so-called norm.”


As far as I can tell, it’s virtually a tautology that the erosion of trust… is a bad thing. I mean, maybe it isn’t for sociopaths. But most people who betray someone’s trust come to feel bad about it. I’ve got to imagine that the principle that it’s wrong to fuck your partner over is the closest thing we’ve got to a moral universal. Maybe a lot of people commit that wrong, but it’s still wrong.

But when you join an online community to revel in it, you’ve really taken yourself to a new level. You’re saying that you know it’s wrong and just don’t give a fuck.

So, yes. Privacy is important. People have rights. And the obvious answer to rhetorical questions, like “Do we want our public servants targeting citizens by using information gained through criminal means?”, is no.

But I’ll weep for those who honor privacy and rights, and find theirs violated, before shedding a single tear for those who violate such expectations of others and then cry foul when they’re subjected to similar treatment.

Update: Annalee Newitz from Gizmodo reports that the data suggests that “Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.” My opinion holds, but now this whole ordeal seems even more pathological and sad.

W. B. Yeats

When Helen Lived

We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent, sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

The Young Man’s Song

I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

Oh, love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away,
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

Vote for Bernie

A couple weeks ago, the former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, favorite of progressive Democrats, lashed out at Bernie Sanders. In Politico, Frank made the same vacuous argument that establishment Democrats have made against Ralph Nader, and other people of some integrity, for years.

The argument holds that the opposition candidate’s election would be so disastrous that we should pinch our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils. It’s an arrogant argument that presupposes that “viable” candidates need not earn our votes. Rather, they deserve our votes so long as they are less terrible than the opposition.

The “viable” candidate in Frank’s view happens to be a militaristic opportunist. She who shall not be named is a vociferous supporter of Israeli aggressiona religious lunatic on same-sex marriage (when convenient), and a pet of finance. So much for “less terrible”.

Obsequiously voting for such a candidate, in spite of one’s purported liberalism, is a simple act of self-flagellation. And it may rest on a false assumption of Sanders’ unviability. A recent CNN poll has support for Sanders skyrocketing, while support for the other candidate has taken a nosedive.

So even if you’d vote against your conscience for some reason, and merely vote with the tide, you might think again about who you’ll support.

Support Bernie Sanders and learn more about the issues.

Being good enough

When I think of where I’d like to be in five or ten years, in terms of my knowledge and my career, I don’t think of anything very specific. In fact, I’ve never really said to myself, “Above all else, I would like to become an expert on X or be a Y.” On the contrary, when I reflect on my life so far, I become aware of just how strongly I am guided by my desire to be “good enough”.

To be clear, this post isn’t an ode to mediocrity or laziness — though there’s much to say in favor of these — rather it’s a defense of the generalist in an era of specialists.

It’s a peculiar fact that we live in a world where so many work so hard to become specialized in ever narrower domains. This fact is often justified by the belief that our knowledge can only be expanded by a dedicated army working hard at the fringes. But while I think there’s some truth to this picture, particularly in certain domains, it’s incomplete. At the bottom, it’s perhaps a view of knowledge inspired by military invasion and conquest.

The second, often forgotten, means by which we expand our knowledge is synthesis. Paradigm shifts in areas of knowledge are not the product of minor changes at the outskirts of our knowledge, and therefore seem unlikely to be effected by hyper-specialists. Rather such “revolutions” consist in the refactoring of our knowledge, something that can only be performed by groups of people acquainted with necessary bits across several areas. People who are “good enough” in a variety of fields.

Scientists are not the only ones who can apply these lessons to their work. Virtually every domain of human inquiry has seen dramatic advancement over the past couple centuries. And as these domains advance, it’s becoming easier than ever to become “good enough” in many fields.

This last part may appear counterintuitive. If our knowledge has advanced over many years, how can it be that there is less to learn in order to become competent? Shouldn’t one have to learn more?

While the notion may be true enough for some fields, it seems to me that it’s completely false for most areas of inquiry. The growth in what we know doesn’t resemble the pouring of fluid into a bucket, but something more akin to completing a jigsaw puzzle. The vast majority of what we once believed is false, and no doubt much of what we “know” now is also false.

When we advance in our knowledge, we slash and burn the false knowledge that has accumulated, and leave open meadows that will one day become overrun with false knowledge yet again (though we hope there will also be some truth interspersed). This suggests that even the most brilliant minds are (and have always been) polluted with false knowledge. Naturally, all this occupies much of their efforts, and consumes much of their attention.

This seems a pessimistic take, but there’s reason to be optimistic. As human knowledge has progressed, we expect that the total quantity of false knowledge is steadily diminishing. And as such, there is somewhat less nonsense around to hamper one’s efforts.

As a consequence, being “good enough” today is quite different from what it was in the past. And the person who is “good enough” these days seems quite likely to have been regarded as a prodigy in the past.

It seems wasteful to not take advantage of our improved knowledge and our streamlined process of learning. With so much of the labor of knowledge performed for us, it seems one ought to spend twenty percent of their time to acquire eighty percent of the most essential knowledge in a field, and to do so in as many different fields as possible.

To become “good enough” across the board, to synthesize, and to discover.

Viva la MetaFilter

With the game of musical chairs taking place at Reddit, there has been new discussion about the many controversies involving Reddit, and the unsavory character of its community.

I don’t spend much time there. Partly because I’m not interested in what’s discussed for a given topic — it’s somewhat too LOL-centric for me — and partly because opinion is cheap.

I spend more time at MetaFilter, a community that’s been around since 1999, and is shockingly free of jerks. In my experience, the people there are polite, and the topics are unique. The discussion doesn’t surround memes and links that have circled around the web a million times over. There’s even a chance you might find something genuinely new and interesting.

Give MetaFilter a try, and if you like it, send them a few bucks.

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Defend your privacy

Someone posed the question, “Should I live my life as if I am entitled to privacy?“, on MetaFilter. They mused:

Should I just give up on the idea that a normal person is entitled to privacy? Should I stop speaking my real thoughts? If I tell a friend privately that I thought some restaurant served bad food, should I be afraid of repercussions? And should a restaurant be afraid of what I say in a private conversation? How should we live our lives? How should I live mine?

Unfortunately, the responses in the thread seem pretty defeatist to me. Aside from someone offering mental health advice, here’s a few excerpts from the replies:

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is really a good rule, for privacy reasons and other reasons.

Everyone is entitled to [privacy], and you should not have to live in fear that you will lose it.

When you deliberately share things with people, though, they can no longer safely be called private, particularly if you share them in a public place, which is ipso facto not private.

I try to never say something to one person that I wouldn’t want the world to hear.

In addition to defeatist, I think these replies are just profoundly sad. I’m not angry about it; I just feel sadness.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to believe you can’t share intimate thoughts with anyone. To never say anything that leaves you vulnerable, or that you’re unsure about. It seems like a truly lonely way to live, and I think rejecting the notion is frankly necessary if you wish to live a full life.

What does it mean to say that you’re entitled to privacy, but that merely sharing with others is to relinquish that privacy? Doesn’t that amount to saying that the only privacy you can expect is the privacy of your own thoughts? Doesn’t seem very generous to me.

And don’t get me started on the if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all nonsense. No one has ever actually believed this. People have feelings — positive and otherwise — and no one succeeds in suppressing them in the end.

For my part, I try to be as honest as possible. I’d even say I aspire to radical honesty, even if I fail in this more often than I’d like to admit. And if something I think is unnecessarily hurtful to others, maybe I’ll work on how I think about things.

Like many people, I think we’re living in a time where our basic right to privacy is under attack. And what’s needed now more than ever is for us to assert and exercise this right. If someone invades your privacy, or betrays your confidence, stick to your guns. If it’s a significant offense, cut them out of your life, and protect yourself from losing a part of yourself and growing distrustful. And if someone mentions, or confronts you with, information that’s the result from an invasion of privacy, don’t acknowledge or concede it. Treat it as fruit of the poisonous tree, which it most assuredly is.

All this is hard to practice, but it’s always good to try. And retaining our privacy demands it.

The politicization of decency

Now that same-sex marriage is a simple fact, it has been interesting to observe the ways in which a vocal minority has rebelled against it. Over the years, the opposition has evolved from overtly hateful hysteria to paranoia of religious persecution. But there’s another approach, and it’s espoused by people who are perhaps more rational than the religious right, but fundamentally as hateful.

You find it in the strangest of places, and often in response to the support offered by some companies. As one example, the following comments appeared on an Apple fan site, after Apple released a video showcasing their participation in Pride:

Cue up the homophobes who don’t think Apple should get involved.

Thinking Apple shouldn’t be involved in political causes that don’t concern their business ≠ ‘homophobia’.

Such a response is the last vestige of a scoundrel.

The idea here is that an issue shouldn’t be discussed just because it makes someone uncomfortable. That it’s improper and impolite to acknowledge, and that certain topics ought to be swept under the rug for only the riff-raff to discuss. Or more precisely, it’s the suggestion that the content of discussion isn’t to be addressed or questioned, but rather the existence of discussion itself.

I happen to think there’s absolutely nothing “political” about same-sex marriage. Or at least, it’s certainly no more political than other kinds of marriage. True enough that there’s a political dimension to it, as well as most things, but claiming it’s intrinsically political is simply false. Similarly, I believe the saying that “the personal is political” is profoundly misleading. Things can be viewed in all kinds of ways, and suggesting that a civil rights issue is merely political undermines the topic as fodder for some game or merely an object of one’s preference.

Same-sex marriage, like other civil rights, isn’t like subscribing to a political party, nor is it like one’s beliefs on gun rights. Reasonable people can take reasonable positions on these matters, and reach different conclusions. However, if you oppose civil rights, you defy an ethical commitment that any decent person will make to another. It is to hold a reprehensible and antisocial position that should be attacked if we are to live in a society. No one should accept such backwards beliefs as inevitable in the sea of opinion. 

There ought to be no tolerance for intolerance. And if you assert a person’s identity is out-of-bounds, you’re intolerant. It’s that simple.

Religious freedom

Republican strategist, Ana Navarro, argues that religious freedom and the legality of same-sex marriage are compatible. She’s quick to compare her enlightened views to those of Democrats, an interesting strategy given the state of her party:

Unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and so many other Americans, I didn’t evolve on the issue. I don’t remember a time in my life when I thought gay people were entitled to fewer rights than I was. I don’t think same-sex marriage is a threat to the institution. […]

I never saw a conflict between conservative values of less government intrusion and personal freedom and supporting marriage equality. There is no freedom more personal than deciding who to commit your life to. Government shouldn’t mandate whom we choose to love.

Of course, her views are not so strong to keep her from identifying with a backwards political party. Nor are they strong enough to survive religious claims:

The religious freedom battle is just beginning. There are decent people of good faith, people who are not bigots who have deeply held religious views against same-sex marriage. They legitimately feel their religious freedoms are at risk.

Some of these people are also my friends and relatives. My 74-year-old Nicaraguan Catholic father cannot get himself to accept same-sex marriage. God knows, I’ve tried.

I know my dad. It is not in his nature to discriminate against anybody — well, maybe with the exception of communists. My dad cannot get his arms around the idea of two men walking down the aisle. His views are shaped by his culture and guided by his religion.

I’m sad to say that it is in her father’s “nature to discriminate”, because he in fact discriminates. And that prejudiced people are, actually, bigots. Of course, one can always modify the language to suit their inclinations.

In a similarly Orwellian parlance, she also suggests that supporting civil rights should also entail supporting the rights of people to infringe on said rights when it’s convenient:

It is time for everyone to remember that tolerance is a two-way street. We must be respectful of people’s rights — that includes the right to marry who you choose, and also the right to practice the religion that you choose. These two rights can co-exist. […]

Our society is so politicized and polarized, reaching agreement can be hard to imagine. I urge both sides of this issue to take a deep breath and reflect on how we can live and respect each other’s freedoms, rights and beliefs.

Navarro suggests she’s among the enlightened fringe of her party, which is only true if one were to consider the likes of Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal to represent mainstream Republican opinion (which I happen to believe is untrue). Rather, she more or less represents the so-called moderate Republican view: It’s clear the gays are running the show now, so let’s not discriminate against them overtly, but rather frame such discrimination as a religious prerogative, thereby painting those who support civil rights as discriminating against religion. It’s kind of pathological. Personally, I’d prefer an honest bigot over a slimy and deceitful one any day.

As for the argument itself, I have no reason to believe that same-sex marriage and religious freedom are either compatible or incompatible. That is, “religious freedom” is an incoherent notion that requires further explanation. The reason for this is simple. The notion of “religion” is poorly defined. If I were to start a cult in which my followers adhered to the principle that bashing people’s kneecaps was a sign of respect that had to be exercised fortnightly, would performing this act constitute an exercise of “religious freedom”?

What if my religion mandated the regular consumption of children? Embezzlement? Insurrection? Speed limit denialism?

It seems to me that there is no principled way by which one can distinguish such a hypothetical religion from whatever religion that Navarro is referring to. In each case, the religion plainly conflicts with law — and if we’re not all to be ruled by fringe beliefs, then this is unacceptable.

On the other hand, exercising religious freedom is compatible with civil rights, if one’s religion doesn’t provide for infringing upon said rights. Accordingly, “religious freedom” cannot be understood as absolute — but contingent upon not causing harm to others, or otherwise breaking the law, which is to be expected so long as joining some club shouldn’t give one carte blanche.

Those who are worried about their religious freedom might do well to reconsider their views on freedom generally, gaining some appreciation of the interaction between one’s personal freedom and the freedom of all those around them. Without a reasonable understanding of this interaction, society itself is surely impossible.