Three Kings

When I was in college, I got help from three black men, at different times and in different places. Each time the help was merciful. It was more than I could pay for, more than I deserved.

On my first flight home from college, I didn’t understand how checked baggage works. I got off the first of two flights and instead of going to my connection gate, I went down to the baggage claim. I thought I had to get my bag there, and then check it in again for the second flight. Of course my bag never came. I missed the second flight. I went to a ticket agent to ask what to do. He could have told me that missing the second flight was my fault and that I had to pay a change fee. But he just looked out at the tarmac and wordlessly rebooked me on the next flight.

Later I developed a hobby of breaking into buildings late at night and going up as far as possible. From the roofs of Georgetown’s buildings, you can see the center of Washington: The monuments, the avenues, the Potomac. A beautiful sight; and I loved to sit on a roof at night and watch the city. One night I was making my way up the fire escape of the Jesuit Residence when a voice called me back down again. It was Campus Police. The officer took me down to the station. He sat me down and talked to me as he filled out a form. After a while, the officer told me that God loved me and that I would be alright. He gave me the form and sent me away. There was no follow-up from the police.

In Fall of 1984, the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series. After four games, the Tigers had a 3-1 lead and one more home game, Game 5. They could clinch at home. On the morning of Game 5, I walked out of my GRE test at Georgetown and directly into a cab, which took me to the airport for a flight home. I met my brother and some friends and he drove us down to a bar in the center city to watch. The Tigers won. It was raining. There was a riot. At first it was fun, but it started to get ugly. I didn’t want to go home, so I separated from my group. After awhile, though, it really was time to go. I had $15. I went to a public phone I couldn’t get through to any cab company. I saw a cab, though, and asked if he would take me back to the suburbs for $15. He let me in. As we were leaving on Woodward Avenue, he pointed to a group of young black men and said “They’re up to no good now.” The cabbie drove me all the way out for just $15.

I often think about these men and I’m grateful for what they did for me. Three kings, they set a model of mercy I’m still hoping to match.

Wile E. Coyote and the Computationally Simulated Roadrunner

After yet another colossal failure, Wile E. Coyote came up with his best idea yet: To research the Roadrunner. RR being notoriously hard to catch, Wiley knew he couldn’t study it directly. So he ordered a computational simulation package from Acme Computer. With it, he built an automaton and named it Runnerbot. Wiley carefully calibrated Runnerbot so that its behavior exactly mimicked the real roadrunner. He recreated all of his greatest hits: The coyote cannon, the fake wall, the explosive bird seed. He re-ran each catastrophe again and again, so as to program Runnerbot to destroy him exactly as the real Roadrunner had done.


Four years and $5 million later, Runnerbot was finally finished. Wiley began to study it, searching for clues about the best way to capture the real roadrunner. Sure enough, a pattern of vulnerability began to emerge. It was this. At the end of every disaster, as Wiley sat smoldering on the ground, Roadrunner inevitably dashed up, went “beep-beep,” and tore off again. This was it! A regularity! An actionable insight from a computational social simulation!


Wiley immediately set to work. He built a bomb and ordered from Acme Baby Goods, Inc. a baby monitor. Wiley modified the baby monitor so that the words ‘beep-beep’ activated it. When activated, the monitor sent a signal to the fuse of the bomb, which then lit, leading shortly thereafter to a massive explosion. Excellent! Wiley strapped this bomb with its monitor to his stomach and hid it with a hair shirt. Finally, the crafty coyote built a rockfall trap above the road with the triggering mechanism just downhill from the rocks. He put a pile of bird seed in the road and crept behind the rocks to wait.


cd2cb03321bcb39d7dd8e38a9fc150e5.jpgSoon enough the Roadrunner zoomed up and came to a screeching halt at the birdseed. As he happily pecked away, Wiley pretended to have trouble triggering the rockfall trap. He came grumbling around to the front of the rockpile and pulled the trigger. The rocks began to fall on him! Madly, he ran down to the road but – too slow! – the rocks crushed him anyway. His torn, crumpled body came to rest in the roadrunner’s shadow. A disaster. As expected.


But the battered canine was overjoyed. “This is it!” he thought. “Roadrunner will say beep-beep and try to run off. But his song will trigger the bomb strapped to my stomach, and BOOM! Roadrunner roadkill!”

The Roadrunner, however, did no such thing. He looked at Wiley and noticed his bulging stomach. Responding creatively to the data, Roadrunner said, “You finally figured out how to eat. That means our story is done. I can leave you alone now.” And he sped cheerfully away, never to be seen in those parts again.

Wiley was astonished. How had he gone so wrong? How could his inferences from Runnerbot be so inaccurate? He looked to the skies and moaned, “But … but … the Roadrunner always says beep-beep!” And with that, a sizzling sound was to be heard from around the poor lad’s midriff. Seconds later: KABOOM!

The End

The Stigma Game

Back in the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about stigma. He identified three categories (behavioral, physical, and group) and analyzed how stigma happens.

That decade was the start of a cultural shift away from stigma, and we live now in a time where stigmatizing others is considered rude. Actually, recently it has gone past that. Shaming another person for behavior, body, or buddies can get a person yelled at, fired, or even beaten up. Stigmatizing behavior is the only behavior stigmatized without regret any more, it seems.

It is a good thing. Nobody likes to be bullied, and our world is better when innocent differences and quirks are let alone. And yet, in reflecting on a stigma-free society, it has occurred to me that in losing stigma we are losing a social tool that does have its values.

What made me hesitate was a consideration of the young and the old and the harsh lessons of life. Say you are an old person who has learned said lessons. If you are a nice person, you might want to communicate them to younger people, so they don’t do the stupid things you did. However, simply saying things to people rarely works. “Don’t drink too much beer” results in ‘Yeah, old man, I get it. I’ll keep it down [to 16 or 20 hahahah]…” You can’t tell other people what to do.

Shame works, though. If you have a culture where drinking too much is shamed and stigmatized, you’ll have less drinking. Lots of game theory experiments show that you can get people to be nice to the group if you let group members punish them for being a jerk. If you let players punish others, everyone can be made to conform to behaviors that the group likes. If you let old people punish young people for drinking too much, through stigma or shame or something, you’d definitely have less binge drinking.

These thoughts led me to wonder, what if we compared a world where binge drinking is heavily stigmatized to a different world where “you be you” is the reigning response to it. Benefits and costs, of course, as always. In the YBY world, young people binge drink a lot, and a bunch of them learn later that it was a mistake. They learn the harsh lessons of life in the School of Hard Knocks, as they say. However, nobody has to deal with being ashamed of themselves. In the shame-the-drunk world, in contrast, lots of innocent young drinkers have to deal with bad attitudes from old people. Some drinkers on the road to serious problems respond to the stigma, control their drinking, and avoid the School of Hard Knocks. Some others, though, get a huge thrill from making the old people mad. They drink just to be different.

This gets into the weird dynamic of social rebellion. Everybody wants to be different, to show their individuality, especially when they are young. Young people will rebel against the world, no matter what the world is like. But in a YBY world, nobody cares what a rebel does. It doesn’t bother anybody. You can’t rebel against a system if the system says “Do whatever you want, we don’t care.” In that kind of world, a rebel has to do things that are super crazy to stand out as a rebel. In the drinking example, you have to nearly kill yourself with alcohol in order to stand out from the masses of “normally” binging people. But in a world where boozing is stigmatized, you’re a rebel if you drink more than a few beers. Well, that’s a safer rebellion. Stigma makes rebellion safer.

After thinking about all that, I wondered whether it might make sense to bring back stigma about a few things. The cost would be, some innocent people would be shamed for no good reason. And, old people would have to be sticking their noses more into the affairs of the young. Chaperoning and stuff. (I’m at a college campus, so I’m imagining a rule where any big party has to have two faculty there. Two SOBER faculty.) But the benefit would be, fewer people who learn things the hard way, and, young people could rebel without taking their lives into their hands.



What does DNA mean?

After several decades of gradual formation, a deep understanding of evolution was first published in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859. The ideas in the book then gradually seeped into cultural, social, and political consciousness. After forty years of this seeping, some began to write about competition for survival among human types. Twenty years later, serious support emerged for proposals to cull supposedly “weak” people from the human herd. Twenty years after that, notions of racial superiority led to mass genocide. The ideas of Darwin were then banished to the social and political wilderness. Yet the 1980s and 1990s saw new arguments and evidence for the concept of a “human nature,” features that have been hard-coded into us by the evolutionary process. More than a century after the book that brought evolution to light, with lots of mistakes on the way, we are still processing the idea in its social, cultural, and political dimensions.

The example of evolution tells us that discoveries about the fundamental nature of existence can take a very long time to make their way into the world of our daily lives. We are about forty years into processing the reality of the Big Bang, the fact that our universe actually had a beginning at a discrete moment. We’re only just beginning to work through virtual reality. There are many examples, discoveries that may take centuries to unpack.

03_avery_puWhere are we with DNA? Most of us credit Watson and Crick with the discovery of this curious acid in 1953, but they did not so much discover it as identify its structure, the double helix. Watson and Crick were also not the first to associate DNA with heredity. That honor goes to Oswald Avery, Colin Macleod, and Maclyn McCarty, who reported in 1944 that the hereditary information in bacteria was apparently transmitted by the cell’s DNA, not its proteins. The work of these scientists has led, over the ensuing decades, to a richer understanding of the genetic basis of the human person.

We now understand that DNA is code.

This is rather profound. It means that a person is not the matter of his body. The matter changes all the time. What keeps the person as the person he is, is not a constancy of matter, but the constancy of the code that builds the matter. That code is contained in his DNA.

DNA holds the code of a person, a single person, and no two people have the same code. This means that no two people are the same. Moreover, we have learned that the environment can affect which parts of the code express themselves. This means that even clones are unique. They may bear the same code, but the code will operate differently due to different circumstances.

What makes a person, then, is the interaction of his unique DNA with the world around him.

human_zygote_two_pronuclei_02Our world is still trying to process what this means, culturally, socially, and politically. These scientific discoveries make it completely clear, for example, that a new person is created whenever a new DNA is created. A person is not primarily made of matter; a person is a code acting on matter. Once a new code starts acting on matter, a new person exists. Life begins at conception. Our world is still not ready to accept what this means.

Code is immaterial. Infinite. Immortal. In the case of DNA, the code that makes us is a set of instructions rendered on a piece of matter, a harmless acid. The particular piece of matter can be destroyed; cells die. But the code is forever. It is notional, conceptual, intangible. It does not live here in this world; it is only rendered here. Code lives in the Platonic realm of the forms. If we are real at all, we are real in our combination of code and matter. A person is the rendering in the physical world of a code that exists outside the physical world. Our bodies are born and they die, but our code, our unique selves, existed before our bodies were here and will continue to exist long after. In fact our code does not participate in the time-world at all. The thing that makes us unique is immortal. Again, our world is still working on what this must mean.

A person is code acting on matter. This means a person is neither pure spirit nor pure matter. Many philosophies say that the material world is worthless, that all important things are part of our minds. Many others say that only the material world matters. Still others admit that the human person has spiritual and material aspects, but they are distinct and, according to some, at war with each other. Science now tells us that none of these views are correct. The human person combines the material and immaterial. But in our world, we still hear voices saying that our minds create who we are, or, conversely, that we are nothing but particles. Or, that we have a good, spiritual side and an evil, material side. We may take many decades to understand that we are a fusion of matter and spirit. We may take a long time to recognize that our physical bodies are fused with and partake in the eternal.

We partake of immortality, being dignified in spiritual and material personhood from the moment of conception. May this scientific knowledge continue to seep into our world.



Ancient wisdom, common sense


A cool kid plays the choking game.

Lately the two terms in the title of the post have been running through my head quite a lot. When you have kids (and students), you find yourself searching for simple ways to express deep thoughts, and I have been trying to think of a simple way to explain why one shouldn’t necessarily go along with the popular movements of the day. It seems as though – especially where I work, at the university – that the minute someone labels an idea as being on the “right side of history,” there is instant pressure to demonstrate support for it. You know, put a sticker on your car, change your Facebook portrait, wear the correct T-shirt, avoid using certain words, and start using others (but not too much or it’ll look fake). What if you don’t go along? What does it mean? There may good reasons to object to any particular movement, but I think there are good reasons to stand back, at least for awhile, from any movement like this. It’s not always good to go along. If you’re asking me to put my heart behind something, it’s not enough to say that “everyone” believes it is on the right side of history. It’s important to have high standards about the things you support.


Highly effective.

To put this more simply, two standards that have come to my mind recently are ancient wisdom and common sense. The ancient wisdom idea says, check the claim that a certain movement is on the right side of history. How much history are they talking about? It seems to me that many of the ideas labeled this way have come about only since 1950, although a few of them date to 1800 or 1700. Well, humanity has been around for a lot longer than that. Take for example the proposal of a truly secular society, one where religion is available only in private places and has no voice in the public square. I don’t know of a society where that has happened naturally, and recent attempts to impose it by force have not ended well. Churches thrive again in Albania, as though Communism never happened.

Common sense says, keep the theory to no more than a couple of steps. What I mean by that is, if your train of reasoning contains more than one or two “which implies that” phrases, the conclusion is probably unreliable. I’m talking about human affairs here, of course, not mathematical proofs. Purely conceptual thinking about human affairs dries up after a couple of implications. An example: Factory owners are selfish, therefore they will pay their workers the lowest wage possible, therefore the workers will do better if they own the factory themselves. That’s one too many therefores. Common sense says that running factories to the benefit of the people who work in them isn’t a simple matter of putting employees in charge. Which employees? Who owns what? What is the correct wage? Theory can’t answer these questions, at least not definitively. Common sense tells you that the situation is too complex.

Is this a conservative way of thinking? I suppose so. But conservative voices have their place in the conversation; it’s not terribly bad if a few people say, “Hang on a second.” I admire the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has done so much to clarify the differences between conservative and progressive ways of thinking without condemning either. The current election could certainly use some ancient wisdom and common sense. Who knows? Maybe the follies of our time will bring more people around to this way of thinking.