Monday, February 28, 2011

You gotta break some eggs

The old saying goes roughly along these lines:

To make an omelet you have to break some eggs.

The idea being, of course, that sometimes you have to do some bad things to get a good result.  Sthenno came over the other day and told me about a quote from a modern philosopher he likes, which goes roughly like this:

You can break an awful lot of eggs without ever making an omelet.

Essentially this is trying to convey that you shouldn't expect that just because you are trying to do something useful that it is okay to do a bunch of bad things - sometimes you will end up doing the bad things and get nowhere.  Of course all of this is just a rephrasing of the more famous and straightforward lines:

The end justifies the means.

The end does not justify the means.

The trick, like many old sayings and maxims, is that the statements are utterly useless and can be safely discarded.  Anyone that tells you that they believe the second one is crazy - cutting people open with a knife is bad, but you would find that not many folks actually believe that surgery to save a patient with a burst appendix is bad because you are cutting him!  The first one is also ridiculous as I would be comfortable saying that making a pie is a good thing but uncomfortable suggesting that it is fine to slaughter 10,000 people in order to make said pie.  Practically nobody (there are a few crazies who break the rule, presumably) actually believes either of these stupid statements.  What they do believe is somewhere along the line between those extremes.

The important thing to understand is that we need to do bad things sometimes to achieve good results.  There can be no debate about that.  The challenging part is the weighting function.  We need to figure out exactly how bad things are and how good things are and then do a lot of math and comparison.  People don't agree on those numbers, of course, so we end up fighting over how to spend money, make laws, and other such things.  The second major component of the function that people largely ignore or don't understand is the probability portion. We need to be sure that we don't do something bad for certain when the good result is very unlikely.  Killing someone in a philosopher's imaginary world to save two other people is a fine thing but in the real world we usually know that killing somebody is bad and we aren't sure that we are actually going to save two people.  What if they would have been saved anyway?  What if they are going to die anyway?  What if we are just being tricked by someone into doing something bad?

People really need to get their heads around the idea that you cannot sum up all the complexities of decision making with simple phrases like the ones above.  Real life is deadly complicated, we need to make guesses at probabilities and results and go with them and reducing those complex and important choices to catchphrases isn't helpful.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Just how helpful do I want to be?

(Bear with me, this starts off speaking about games but it is really a psychology post.)  I do a lot of work supporting and designing games.  The reasons I do this are varied - sometimes I do it simply because I really want to maximize my own performance and I don't feel like other people do things well enough for me to rely on their tools, sometimes I just enjoy the process of creation, sometimes I want to assist a community by improving a game or tool and sometimes I can see a beautiful game shining through the drek that someone else has fashioned.  Regardless of why I build things I have gotten by far the most attention for my work on WOW where I support a substantial spreadsheet used for tweaking Retribution paladins.

Some attention is really good and makes me happy.  I am sometimes contacted by people who are designing other tools to get information or point out flaws in my own methodology, which is great.  Collaboration to improve understanding feels great and I very much enjoy technical discussions with people who understand the things I do.  However, one problem I have is that I get a lot of people randomly messaging me with dumb questions.  Now it is very common for experts in a field to deride any question that is easy for them as dumb.  This isn't really reasonable as you can't expect everyone in the world to have the same depth of knowledge as a noted expert - that is delusional.  However, I use a pretty straightforward definition of a dumb question, that being "If the question is clearly and completely answered by the publicly posted guide then questioning it based on a gut feeling is dumb".  More and more when I log on to play WOW I get people pestering me in game about the work I have done and unfortunately most of those questions are simply a waste of time.

"I know everyone says I should *do the right thing*, but it doesn't really feel to me like that is a good idea."

Well, I guess I should set aside the very complex and precise simulators the community has that all show clearly that we should *do the right thing* and all the math showing that *doing the right thing* is the best because you personally have a gut feeling otherwise.

In a lot of ways what I do is like what a scientist does.  I collaborate with other experts, do experiments, perform statistical analysis on my data to be sure it proves what I think it does, share my results, publish significant findings and build tools to simulate the reality I am working on.  I wonder if real scientists get a lot of regular people questioning their results and methodologies with ridiculous questions like the ones I get that basically assume that a uninformed hunch by a random bystander is just as useful as a rigorously tested and confirmed theory by an expert.  I also get a lot of:

"Can you look over my character and tell me what to do?"

Argh!  The information required to maximize your character is well organized, trivial to find and very easy to understand.  There is absolutely no reason to doubt it and no way for anyone who speaks english to misunderstand it.  There is *no* need whatsoever for me to step in and do all the work, unless you count 'the person asking is lazy' as sufficient need.  This stuff drives me crazy, particularly when I find myself doing it against my better judgement.  There is an implicit assumption that my time is much less valuable than other people's time, which is the part that is incredibly frustrating.  Me helping to improve my simulator helps thousands of other people.  This is something I am very happy to do, not least because most individuals simply can't do this themselves; it is up to me to do it or it can't be done.  People can easily read the public information themselves and don't need me - they just want handholding because it is less work for them.

It is quite the conflict because I do like helping people.  I am more than willing to do things that efficiently use my time to improve the lot of the group.  I have this little voice inside me that wants to assist people when they ask but I need to take a step back and think about what I hope to accomplish with my work in a game.  Specifically want I want to do is to provide the tools necessary for motivated people to maximize their performance.  I don't mind at all if some people with minimal motivation use my 'fast and dirty' summary to get better but if the truly lazy can't even be bothered to read what I have created then I am happy for them to crash and burn.  After all, the worst case is that they play badly in a video game and perhaps learn a little about the results of being lazy.  This might sound as if I am against people who play badly, and that is not at all the case:  Some people are fine with playing poorly, and I hope they have a grand time doing so.  I just object to people who figure that it is somebody else's duty to make sure they play well; entitlement isn't something I have a lot of respect for.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Being a Legend

To understand this post you first need to read this:  It is a comic strip about Elan, a slightly clueless bard who is most decidedly a Good Guy and his father, a general, who is most decidedly a Bad Guy.  The best part of it by far is the 4th last panel:  "If I win, I get to be a king.  If I lose, I get to be a legend."

Most people in the real world that can really be considered bad guys don't see themselves as such.  They see the world as being full of fools who deserve to be exploited or they see it as a confrontation that somebody must win:  why not them?  Also in the real world people don't sit around thinking that if they manage to carve out an empire for themselves they stand a really decent chance of having a paladin walk into their throne room and chop them up in a fit of righteousness... that is really more reserved for fantasy worlds.

I LOVE this series.  The whole story from start to finish is awesome if you are a gamer and can get all the in jokes but even if you aren't much into fantasy gaming this particular comic is something you can appreciate I think.  The very idea of a villain sitting on a throne just waiting for the final confrontation with his son and not being particularly worried about losing is excellent.  Not that he is certain of victory of course, it is just that the very act of having a final climatic battle and dying after years of nefarious deeds ensures the villain a place among the great ballads of good vs. evil.  Being the king has all kinds of hedonistic benefits and most people who fight their way into power on the backs of dastardly deeds end up partaking of those benefits and seeing that as the point of the whole affair.  This villain though has the long term covered; he knows that someday no matter what he does he will die and he might as well try to arrange his death to be something everyone will remember.  Since you can't take it with you you might as well make it a glorious death.

It is a real departure from the classic setup where the bad guy is all about survival and the good guy is all over 'do the right thing regardless of the danger.'  In your average action movie the bad guy wants power, money and the associated benefits but isn't at all interested in being killed for a cause, must less the cause of 'make a great story'.  The opposite is true of the average action movie hero who is willing to put their life on the line to save the world / rescue their relative / protect the environment / stop the evil plot.  At the very end of the comic Elan runs away in horror, obviously unable to handle this discussion.  He clearly expects anyone with the bardic tendency to value the best story over their own life to be a good guy and cannot deal with that lust to be a legend from a villain, much less his own father.

I look forward very much to when the confrontation between Elan and his father finally reaches its climax.  If the author fulfills his promise at all it will be a battle the bards will sing for a thousand years.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creating jobs. Or not.

The local library closed for construction just over a year ago.  The sign on the door said that it would be closed until summer.  Summer came and went and the sign said that the library would open at the start of winter.  Winter came and still the construction was not done and the sign claimed the reopening would take place in the spring.  Finally 2 weeks ago the library reopened with a new layout, new carpets, new everything.  The place seemed nice enough and some of the changes were excellent:  The children's section bookshelves are now short enough that children can actually reach all the books and the children's videos have a nice section for themselves instead of just being on a random cart.  The best change from the perspective of a child though is the change to checking out.  Instead of lining up to get checked out by a person we can just flash our card to a scanner and then place all our materials in a stack on a special pad.  The pad registers everything we want to take out and when the screen shows green we can take everything home.  I don't know how it works but it seems to work well and certainly eliminates the need for several people to stand at desks to do the utterly mindless job of checking out books for people.

The thing I found amusing was that when we were leaving I saw a sign talking about how this library change was creating jobs for Toronto.  Now last time I checked when you set up a machine to do the job a person used to do you aren't creating jobs!  Certainly there must have been people employed in the construction (given the ridiculous lateness I question whether anyone involved was competent) but long term the library has neatly slashed a number of jobs.  They have done so in a way that is good for the users of the library since they have several machines available which gets people through much quicker than the old system but talking about making jobs seems a bit deceptive.  As usual of course the jobs that get cut are the ones that a machine is best at:  simple, repetitive and without any creativity necessary.  Of course the people that get cut from these positions are those that end up in simple, repetitive, noncreative jobs, so they are also the people that have trouble finding work other places.

Not that I object to automating jobs!  Lots of people get up in arms about jobs being cut without really understanding how that affects society as a whole.  If cutting trivial jobs just pushed up unemployment we would have massive unemployment now and society would be crumbling around us.  The fact is that when we free up trivial tasks people find other things to do and other ways to spend their money.  More of us end up designing websites, cutting hair, making sales pitches and doing all the other things people do to provide services to one another.  This change from people doing repetitive physical tasks to more complex social tasks has been taking place for nearly all of human history and has been dramatic in the last few decades in particular.  Having more jobs around is all well and good but we should recognize that the natural progression of people working on different tasks will involve removing jobs just as we add new ones.  Also, how the heck does a 4 month construction project to renovate a building turn into a 10 month project?  Construction drives me absolutely nuts.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dictator is gone - yay?

Mubarak is no longer in charge of Egypt.  The country managed to oust a dictator who had imposed 30 years of 'state of emergency' powers with really minimal death and destruction, which is a good thing by all accounts.  The trouble with turfing the megalomaniacal autocrat is that fairly often what replaces him (it doesn't have to be a him, but it turns out it pretty much always is) is worse or no better.  There are plenty of countries in the world that had revolutions against really terrible governments which ended up being utterly disastrous in the long run.  If you look at basic Communist ideology you might assume that they would be much better for the common person than a ruler born into a lifetime of power and privilege and yet look what a disaster communism turned out to be in Russia.  Never mind the gradual economic decline, environmental disaster and cold war antagonism that came out of Russia, you can just look at the things Stalin did in the earlier years and shudder.

The trouble with booting out a dictator is that you have to replace him and the normal structures for choosing people to lead and curbing their power are not in place.  You also have to face down a society where corruption is the norm which makes it very difficult to have fair elections.  That same corruption also makes it exceptionally hard for any new leader who is actually trying to do a good job because they must end up directly at odds with their bureaucracy, police and military as soon as tackling corruption becomes important.  There are plenty of people too who are in privileged positions under the dictator who will retain those positions after he is deposed; they will often resent the new order and actively work to undermine any changes to the old ways that were so profitable to them personally.  Even people who are behind a newer and better form of government don't all agree on how things should go and who needs to sacrifice to make the necessary changes happen.  There is always a lot of work and pain to go around when restructuring a society and nobody wants to the one paying the price.

This is not to say that revolutions aren't worth having or that we should all just suffer whatever indignities a dictator may shove down our throats.  Moreso I think it is just a note that the unrestrained optimism and celebration that follows the toppling of a leader is usually overblown and often heralds much worse things to come.  More than anything when you finally get rid of a despot you induce change.  If the despot was bad enough while in power then nearly any change may be a good thing but in many cases that change actually makes things worse.  Imagine if North Korea suddenly lost the top 5 most powerful people:  Would it help?  I think the answer is no as someone else just as bad would end up seizing power.  The trouble is that it is so devilishly hard to predict just what is going to happen next.  Especially in countries with very powerful religions I think it is rough to know what is going to happen as the difference between a very religious organization taking power and a secular one is extreme in many cases - Iran is a good example of a country that had a revolution that ended up leaving the country ruled by a totalitarian religious group and destroyed much of what had been accomplished in the country in the preceding decades.

It is good that Mubarak is gone and that Egypt has the possibility of really seeing big improvements for its citizens.  However, when I see that the military has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution I wonder if things are just going from bad to worse.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sticking it to the Man

If you consult the picture above you will see a sign that tells us that the hill we are standing on is a sledding and snowboarding hill.  Strangely this is in a city park and the sign is a bit amateurish, but since I fully intend to sled on this hill regularly I will believe the sign.  If you look at the picture below you might be able to see what the sign used to say.

"No tobogganing or snowboarding allowed."

Somebody went to the trouble of painting over the old sign and used a stencil to put up a new message.  The new sign is much more appropriate for the park because on this particular hill we see people sledding and snowboarding constantly.  I go there regularly on weekends and there are usually between 10 and 50 people using this one to get some thrills and exercise; mostly families with small children of course.  Initially I cheered for the artist who decided to get rid of the ridiculous signs but then I noticed that they did not stop there.

The brave freethinker suddenly began to transform into a punk intent on causing trouble.  Using that same stencil to spraypaint random walls with the same "Designated snowboard and toboggan hill" message isn't sending a targetted message at ridiculous, ineffective 'safety' precautions but is instead just making a mess that is going to have to get cleaned up.  What I began to wonder is whether or not I should have had sympathy for the painter in the first place.  Painting those signs, while hilarious, is just going to cause the park to have to paint over them again or replace them entirely.  While sending the message that these sorts of precautions are a complete waste of time and money is good, doing so by wasting the time and money of the park staff isn't helping anything.  Obviously spraypainting the walls is far beyond that and is just destructive graffiti - a targetted, topical message of rebellion can sometimes be useful but wrecking up the place just to get attention is not.  There are plenty of ways to try to deal with the overzealous protection of children our society seems bent on supporting but this isn't an effective one.

I guess like most people I make my snap judgements very much based on who agrees with me.  I despise the 'no sledding here' signs and I particularly despise the fact that they are actually a legal necessity for the park.  The artist/punk who defaced them obviously agrees with me and did so in a clever way so I feel a kinship with them and support their actions even though normally graffiti just makes me shake my head in disgust.  Apparently I am willing to set aside my values in a moment for someone sending a message I agree with.  This is clearly pretty much the norm as anyone who has been to a big rally can attest - when someone shares some values with you you are often ready to accept anything they say even if it is not something you otherwise agree with.  I don't know that there is much to be done about that though; snap judgements are not going to be perfect and so long as I do take time to reconsider all aspects of a thing before committing to it seriously I am probably doing the best I can.

Friday, February 11, 2011

More sledding woes

I noted in a post a short while ago that I got a new sled for Elli from Canadian Tire.  I was very pleased with how they didn't give me grief about exchanging a sled with no receipt and I was happy with the new sled.  That was then, and things have changed.  Not that my experience with Canadian Tire was any different, but my experience when I took the new sled out for a second run did not go well.

You can see here that the sled has 6 handles, each attached by two plastic knobs that go through to the bottom of the sled.  You can also see, if you look closely, that one of those plastic knobs appears to be missing.  This is because it was constructed of a small, not particularly strong cylinder of plastic with a plug at the bottom of the sled and that cylinder snapped when we were going down a normal snowy hill.  After examining the broken bits it became clear that they were simply not built strong enough to endure the punishing duty of sliding down a hill and it is inevitable that the rest of them will break over time.  So now what do I do?  I dislike taking things back to stores and at the moment the sled is still pretty functional but I also dislike paying for shoddy merchandise and eventually the handles are going to just break off entirely and I will be left without them.

I now have the irritating choice of spending yet another 5 dollars on transit fares to go back to Canadian Tire and exchange this new sled for something or I can just decide to accept its fate and use it for awhile.  I find it interesting how some people take great pride in returning items to stores and complaining to get compensation while others refuse to do that and just suffer through, most likely never going to that particular vendor again.  I buy things rarely enough that I don't often have any cause to complain about merchandise, though I do often have cause to be irritated at prices.  Merchants usually won't take back items with the reason "It is too expensive" however...

Then I got to thinking that I should try to evaluate the sled without taking into account what somebody else thought it should do.  In particular, if I had seen this exact sled and it had no handles, would I have purchased it in the first place?  If the answer is yes, then there is no reason at all to return the sled since I am clearly satisfied with it whether or not the handles break.  If the handles are critical, however, then I should return it to get another sled that is less likely (we can hope!) to break after just a few short outings.  After a bit of mulling I came to the conclusion that the sled is fine without handles.  It will certainly make the rides a little more crazy and 'fall off the sled' prone but I don't think that actually reduces the quality of the sledding.  I have a ton of fun on crazy carpets and holding on to them is extremely difficult unless you happen to be in front and people riding crazy carpets end up falling off them constantly.  Despite, or because of, this they are great fun.  Given that I guess I should set aside my frustration with cheap, poor quality goods and just accept that the sled I have works fine and even should it continue to break in the way I expect I will still enjoy it, albeit slightly differently.

Be happy with what you have, the Stoics say.  Perhaps I am learning from them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cheese and insanity

I am slowly working on eating cheese.  I talked about this a little while ago and at the time I was hoping to slowly acclimatize myself to cheese by eating a bit each day.  I have failed at that and have only done so a handful of times.  I suspect it is a bit like dieting in that it really changes my attitude towards food.  I know in the long run it will be better once I convince the deep, dark, primitive part of my brain that there is nothing wrong with cheese but eating things that are gross is a challenge to do when the reward is so questionable and so far off.  I have found one very strange thing going on when I eat cheese that I did not expect however:  I can really feel the two halves of my brain wanting and thinking different things.

By this I don't mean left and right brain, or indeed nearly any division we might normally assume, but rather the logical, conscious part of my mind is actively repeating that cheese is fine and I only dislike it because of 'the incident' and some other part actively screams

Warning warning, Danger danger!

In the past I always experienced my dislike of cheese as a gut reaction to the smell but now it is actually taking the form of a warning, or fear, instead of revulsion.  Somehow the back of my brain still desperately does not want me to eat cheese and has decidedly changed its tactics over the past few weeks.  The desperation and the strength of the warning has not decreased at all though, the only difference is that it takes an entirely different form.  It is utterly bizarre to me that somehow my logical understanding of the situation has transformed the type of reaction I have to it but has not changed the severity of the reaction.

I have not yet tried to incorporate cheese into food I would normally eat.  Thus far I have been spreading cheese on a cracker and choking the mess down at fairly random times.  I still dislike the idea of cheese enough that if my choice were to not eat a meal at all or eat it with cheese in it I would choose to go hungry and as such I don't think eating regular food with cheese in it is a good idea.  I don't want to be subconsciously avoiding meals or developing additional food insanities if I can avoid it so for the moment I will continue eating cheese on crackers whenever I feel up to a bit of a challenge.  I will step into the kitchen with a bit of trepidation, spread the cheese on the cracker with a resigned frown and chew it up with far more clenching of jaws and glowering than is normally associated with such a simple thing.

And eventually, presumably, I will get to like the stuff.  If not, at least I can hope to tolerate it.

Now it is time for me to go eat some cheese.  Unfortunately.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ireland is a mess

The fate of nations hinges on the last minute decisions of single individuals.  Some time ago, when the financial collapse of 2007 was still just beginning, the prime minister of Ireland at the time ended up agreeing to back the three big Irish banks.  They were in dire straits with their stock prices having dropped 15-30% just the previous day and they convinced the prime minister that if he would guarantee all of the banks obligations that suddenly they would be in good shape again and no collapse would take place.  Ireland could have simply guaranteed the deposits of Irish citizens, which would have been costly but not disastrous, or it could have done nothing, in which case the banks fold and their obligations (mostly to foreigners) go largely unpaid but Ireland itself is not desperately troubled.  Instead he believed the bankers instead of the markets, common sense, or the warnings of many people around him and signed away the country.  3 years ago Ireland was running a surplus and was one of the wealthiest nations in the world.  Right now Ireland's deficit is at 32% of GDP, where 3% is considered riskily high and clearly unsustainable.  It looks like in the near future the IMF will have to move into Ireland and take over their finances per EU rules as the country will be unable to pay its bills at all and will be entirely bankrupt.

This is obviously a pretty incredible transformation.  There are plenty of remarkable things about the whole situation but the one that strikes me the most is how this displays for all to see just how utterly impossible it is to predict the stock market.  There are so many people out there with funds of various kinds that claim to be able to beat the market, to predict changes and trends and figure that they should find lots of folks and convince them of the ability of their fund to grow faster than anyone else's.  Of course if you look at Ireland and the mess there it becomes entirely clear that nobody can predict the market.  It is by far the most obscene and extreme situation I have seen where a single individual's decision warps world finances in ways no one could predict.  How could you know whether or not those banks would collapse and be worthless or whether a country would take the fall for them?  Moreover, how in the world could you predict the vagaries of such a complex system significantly better than all the other 'experts' out there who are trying to do the exact same thing?  There are plenty of people and plenty of funds that beat the market, the trouble is in finding ones that can beat the market in a consistent, statistically meaningful way year after year, particularly since they don't exist.

There are plenty of other examples of course, particularly in the mess that occurred over the last few years.  There are innumerable bank presidents, CEOs and fund managers who made decisions that destroyed companies, lost billions, or made fortunes.  Not everyone lost money in the collapse as there were some people betting on it happening and they ended up richer than anything.  (See the book The Big Short if you are interested, it is a fascinating look at how the collapse occurred and how a few people made a killing off of it.)  No matter how big companies become, no matter how complex the system is, there are always opportunities for single people to make big decisions and shape the world, economically and otherwise.  Because of that our ability to predict the sweep of future history is weak indeed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sledding and Canadian Tire

I bought a sled for Elli 2 years ago.  Although she had just turned 2 I thought that we could go out sledding and it would be a fun diversion.  I was wrong.  It turns out that 2 year olds aren't much fun to take sledding by yourself as they can't climb the hill or in fact do anything at all in their bulky snowsuits so you end up carrying an unhappy toddler under one arm and a sled under the other while trying to get up the hill.  It is good for getting a serious workout but not much good for fun.  This year though things are going a lot better.  Elli is actually able and willing to climb the hill by herself and often will pull the sled up too.  It is an amazing change to go from carting everything myself to just standing around watching her go.

Unfortunately over the intervening 2 years I left the sled sitting on our balcony.  The sun and weather slowly beat it down such that it broke under pretty normal usage in early January.  The front handle smashed, cracks were spreading across the bottom and it was clear it was not long for this world.  That sled took a final run into the recycling bin and we went off to find a new one.  This was harder than it would seem since our first stop, Toys R Us, was totally out of sleds.  I was pretty surprised that they would simply give up on selling sleds halfway through the winter, but that seems to be the way it is.  I went to Canadian Tire and found they had 3 kinds of sleds remaining, and only a few of each:  Snow Racers (above), baby sleighs and Marvel Superheroes boogeyboard type sleds.  I decided to buy the Marvel sled despite some misgivings about the quality of the product and took it out on the hill.  After just two times out the bottom of the sled had peeled 1/4 off and it was clear the rest would go almost immediately.  I had tossed out the receipt for the sled and was cursing myself for a fool since now I would have to go and buy another.

Canadian Tire, on the other hand, was better than I had thought.  I brought in the broken sled with no receipt and they, without any hesitation, told me to go ahead and pick out another sled and they would apply the full value of the old one towards the new purchase.  I had figured they would just tell me to sod off without any documentation but we went ahead and picked out a new sled (a much better one, at 50% off instead of regular price no less), paid the difference and took off.  The new sled does not have the hideous engineering flaws the old one had and is unbelievably fast, so much so that I have to brake for the whole run if I want to avoid flying into trees or buildings a fair distance from the end of the hill.

I guess I underestimated people.  Obviously if everyone was running around trying to rip big companies off they would have to be very stringent about receipts and paperwork and such but clearly the majority of people simply don't try to cheat.  It probably has to do with the sum involved since $33 isn't really enough to be worth a scam but I bet people mostly only try to return things that they legitimately bought at the store and which really broke.  I often end up telling people that the average person is really quite helpful and almost never dangerous when stranger kidnapping come up for whatever reason but I think it goes further than that.  Most people just don't commit real crimes, even small ones.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Still Stoic?

I finished my book on Stoicism and it is clear that although many of the ideas and goals behind Stoicism are especially applicable and appealing to me there are some real problems with me adopting it entirely.  To start with many or most of the ancient Stoics were really anti sex.  They generally seemed to believe that sex is the source of innumerable troubles (true!) and greatly disturbs one's tranquility (not as much true).  This was true to the extent that once when someone asked Seneca in his old age if he could still make love to a woman he answered that he could not and that he was quite thankful to no longer have to deal with that sort of thing.  Some of the ancient Stoics believed that sex was acceptable and advisable as a means of procreation within a marriage and was inappropriate in all other circumstances; mostly they seemed to be very much for marriage and children but against sex for recreation.

As much as I am interested in adopting many of the practices of Stoicism I am not remotely interested in removing sex from my life.  Firstly this would result in a very great loss of tranquility when I tried to tell Wendy about this new set of rules and secondly I can't even see a good reason for it.  Sex is good for the health, both mentally and physically, and although it is certainly possible to take lust to unfortunate extremes I cannot fathom how total abstinence is an improvement over regular, monogamous sex within a relationship.  There is no denying that many people cause themselves great distress by having extramarital affairs and clearly spending your life chasing some hot young thing in a bar night after night isn't going to give the tranquility the Stoics seek but I doubt you would find a lot of people suggesting that those are good ways to life a happy life.  Perhaps many of the benefits of sex were not viewed in the same light back then, after all, getting enough exercise has not been a challenge in times before the modern day and the other health benefits of sex have only been documented and proved within relatively recent history.  Also of course the risks of STIs and unwanted pregnancies are now something we have mostly within our control while the ancient Greeks and Romans did not.

I won't deny that lust has a distinctly powerful effect on my actions and emotions.  Being male, young, and in a relatively normal state of mind I lust after women constantly.  I have the self control and perspective to not act on that lust inappropriately but I suppose to some extent sex is always disturbing my tranquility in small ways.  That said, refusing to have sex would not make those feelings go away, in fact I am fairly certain it would increase and exacerbate them so I cannot fathom celibacy as a solution to sexual desire.  Generally speaking the people who are the most laid back about sex are the ones that are having it regularly and can expect to continue to do so.    My feeling is that to increase tranquility and reduce the effect lust has you should find someone who is happy to have sex with you regularly for most of the rest of your lives and then go about doing that.  While I am generally very impressed with the instructions and ideas of the Stoics in this case I am going to go to Dan Savage for my advice and not so much Cato.