Two Patterns

I describe two patterns here, one from the domain of the social, the other from the domain of the sacred. I discuss them together because they are of the same shape; the shape, or form, that they share is also shared with the human self.

Holy Ground

This is the visual form of the shape: [my drawing, adapting Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977), Pattern 66: Holy Ground (p. 334)]


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Ask Tosomitu About House Elves

I’m going to interpret Daniel’s first question narrowly (or else we’ll be here all day), as “Is it more or less ethical to create a house elf, relative to a human?” where by ‘house elf’ I mean a conscious, sentient being of approximately human intelligence with a psychology built around an essential need to serve humans and the enjoyment of doing so. (See Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)

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Variations on a theme: heroic protectiveness

Tiffany Aching has heroic protectiveness:

All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!

Sometimes, there is danger in the world – the welfare of things and people beyond oneself is threatened. Depending on how globalized your society is, it could be a threat to a family, tribe, institution (like a school or large workplace), city, country, planet, or universe.

A hero is someone who:

  1. observes this threat, where others fail to notice it or ignore it;
  2. does their best to eliminate this threat, where others accept it or hope that someone else will eliminate it.

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The NPOV Strikes Again

From Wikipedia (

Planned Parenthood receives about a third of its money in government grants and contracts (about $360 million in 2009). By law, federal funding cannot be allocated for abortions, but some opponents of abortion have argued that allocating money to Planned Parenthood for the provision of other medical services “frees up” funds to be re-allocated for abortion.

“Some opponents”.

As the saying goes, all money is green. In other words, money is fungible – a concept Wikipedia helpfully links to. If you give me a $10 bill and tell me not to spend it on booze, what are you really saying? That that particular serial-numbered bill should not be used in a liquor store? Okay, I’ll use the two fivers in my wallet for booze, and spend “your” $10 on the food I was eventually going to have to get anyway. And what about electronic money? Dreams about dreams.

Literally the ONLY constraint “no federal funds for abortions” puts on Planned Parenthood, is that the dollar sum of their non-abortion services must be greater than or equal to the dollar sum of federal Title X money received (assuming no other donors restrict where their dollars go). It obligates them to play a little accounting shell game, but in the counterfactual world where PP does not receive federal money, they almost certainly perform fewer abortions; thus, federal funding causes more abortions to occur.

(No comment implied on whether that is good or bad. It is certainly bad from the point of view of abortion opponents this provision is supposed to mollify.)

Ideological Agriculture, Preamble (An Excerpt From the Sermon of a Known Lunatic)

In this most exciting of times – as your god is reawakening, as the portents of conflict appear in the east and the west, at our cities’ edges and at their centers – it is increasingly vital for a true believer such as yourself to be prepared for the worst sort of situation. I’m speaking, of course, of those times you find yourself in dire need of your god’s intervention but without the necessary tools to request it.

It matters not how well you know the ritual, whether your altar is pristine, nor whether your knives and sconces are sharpened and lit – if you haven’t a good offering to bleed dry before the ever-watchful eyes of your divine master, your cries simply will not reach him. We know this, since it follows the oldest laws of humanity, passed down to us from the old ones in the most ancient times. We know that a thing of value must be destroyed when we commune with the divine; it allows us to open the otherwise sealed channel. And while we know this is inconvenient, we cannot help it; it is simply the way our world works. As such, as members of the devout we should never find ourselves without something of value on hand, should occasion for sacrifice arise.

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Science Journalism Marches On

The claim that bacteria in the human body outnumber human cells by an order of magnitude or so has become a popular observation among Science Fans. A 2008 article in the ghastly New York Times states:

The bacterial cells also outnumber human cells by 10 to 1, meaning that if cells could vote, people would be a minority in their own body.

This is misleading. A single bacterium masses something on the order of 10-13 – 10-12 grams, while a human body cell is in the neighborhood of 10-9g — 1,000 to 10,000 times larger. By weight, bacteria therefore compose somewhere between 1% and 0.1% of you, depending mainly on how recently you went to the restroom. Thus, the Important and Popular Fact presented in the NYT and other sources is technically true*, in the sense that Vin Diesel is outnumbered by a small bag of crickets.

*: The claim also skips over the fact that the largest fraction of the bacterial population in question consists of symbiotes, which could be designated honorary human cells under the mitochondrial grandfather clause, but that’s a whole other post.

Beauty is Fit

[E]very design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context. Good fit is a desired property of this ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context.

There is a wide variety of ensembles which we can talk about like this. The biological ensemble made up of a natural organism and its physical environment is the most familiar: in this case we are used to describing the fit between the two as well-adaptedness. But the same kind of objective aptness is to be found in many other situations. The ensemble consisting of a suit and tie is a familiar case in point; one tie goes well with a certain suit, another goes less well. Again, the ensemble may be a game of chess, where at a certain stage of the game some moves are more appropriate than others because they fit the context of the previous moves more aptly. The ensemble may be a musical composition — musical phrases have to fit their contexts too: think of the perfect rightness when Mozart puts just this phrase at a certain point in a sonata. If the ensemble is a truckdriver plus a traffic sign, the graphic design of the sign must fit the demands made on it by the driver’s eye. An object like a kettle has to fit the context of its use, and the technical context of its production cycle. In the pursuit of urbanism, the ensemble which confronts us is the city and its habits. Here the human background which defines the need for new buildings, and the physical environment provided by the available sites, make a context for the form of the city’s growth. In an extreme case of this kind, we may even speak of a culture itself as an ensemble in which the various fashions and artifacts which develop are slowly fitted to the rest.

Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, pp. 15-16, Citations removed.

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The problem with Old Ones is that you can’t second-guess them.

Formula for creating a perfect immortal being

i. The being must either decay at an absolute rate of 0% or it must take energy from its environment, use that energy to replicate at a rate that will not exceed that environment’s capacity.

ii. The being must be highly adaptive and resistant to external threats, resolving them either by coercion, co-option, or mimicry.

iii. The being must be even more highly adaptive and resistant to internal threats, and the result of any engagement must be the victory of whichever internal components optimize its survival.

iv. If for any reason there is a critical failure in stages i – iii, the being must be able to enter a state of dormancy until it is ready to make another attempt at permanent, active existence.

Critiquing “Vulgar Morality”

Adam Gurri’s piece on rejecting what he calls “Telescopic morality” (also see here and here) has been on my mind a lot lately. I happened to come across this writing at a time when life was already forcing a near-mode orientation onto me (so on the outside view, this philosophy is rather self-serving). I will join in calling the philosophical/practical orientation under discussion “vulgar morality”.

What does it entail? In a nutshell: your ethical life would improve if you focussed your attention on local (i.e., close to you in time/space/relationship) & concrete questions, at the expense of global & abstract questions.


  • Study basic personal finance before debating macroeconomics.
  • Join your condo board and change their pet policy before weighing in on geopolitics.
  • Help out a relative with their leaky toilet before trying to solve The Middle East.
  • Get out of the habit of snapping at your spouse before pontificating about optimal gender relations.
  • Make something someone is actually willing to pay you for, before saving the world for free.

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Local and Global and the Terrible Telescope, Part 1

In the comment thread for my previous post, I remarked that

I don’t know of a good theory that bridges the chasm between individual justice (where I think free association is an important fundamental right) and global justice (universal behaviors like [modes of systemic oppression]). I don’t pretend to have one.

What I’d like to do in this series is try to convince you that you probably don’t have one either.

  • Local and Global William Lane Craig is Terrible  Kant is Also Terrible
  • the Repugnant Conclusion is Neither Telescoping Considered Harmful
  • You Are Not God, You’re Not Even President of the Galaxy
  •  The Can’tegorical Imperative Further Reading

1. Local and Global

One hard lesson every student of advanced mathematics learns is that a construction that seems easy and obvious locally–for instance, in a small region of a space–can be very difficult, or outright impossible, to make meaningful globally–eg, over the whole space.

For example, think about the direction ‘North’.  Which way is north? Wherever you happen to be reading this, you probably know already; if you don’t, your phone can probably tell you. ‘North’ is an easy local concept–we can all check which way north lies. We can find ‘north’, no matter where we go. Right?


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