Secular Solstice Eve Speech: Stories

This is one of two speeches I wrote for this year’s Secular Solstice in Seattle. “Wrote” might be a strong word – there were a bunch of notes and ideas and scribbles and then I went up with some index cards and talked for a bit, but I probably ended up saying something like this.

We humans are creatures of stories. They’re how we understand a world never meant to be understood. There are true stories, and fiction – and then there are the stories untold. Stories lived, but never heard, never written. Tonight, I want to try telling some of these stories – imperfectly, but as best I can. Because they deserve to be told.

This is the story of an fifth century farmer in the ruins of the Roman Empire, cold, sick, worked nearly to exhaustion, and powerless to any armed factions roaming the countryside. At night she gazes in uncomprehending awe at the stars, the Gods, and she when she has the energy, she desperately hopes for a better life for her children, or her children’s children. For a world where hunger is a distant memory and her children spend every night in a soft bed, where they are warm, even in the winter. For a world where her family is safe. But that is an impossible dream, beyond hope. How could there ever be a world like that?

This is the story of a girl in thirteenth-century India, sold into an arranged marriage at the age of twelve. At best, she will spend the rest of her life as property to a man she has never met. But – ff the dowry is not paid, she will be killed on the spot. And if she should survive her husband, she will be expected to commit suicide via self-immolation for him. Her voice, her will, her life is ripped away by a world that refuses to acknowledge her fundamental status as a human being. She has dreams that she dares not to speak, of a life that is hers to live, of a world where women know freedom and cruelty knows justice. And though she may never see that world, maybe her daughters, or their daughters, or – someday…

This is the story of a man in the 18th century, born in slavery, tormented and tortured until one day, through cunning and courage he bests his captors and escapes. His dream came true, in his time, and he could have kept it – but there was an opportunity. A chance to enlist, to risk his life and freedom, to fight for three million still enslaved. So he does, because he can’t bear to do anything else.  At the Battle of Poison Spring he sees Confederates slaughter his brothers in arms rather than take them prisoner – because that would acknowledge them as human. He survives, but the nightmares never stop. When he wakes up in a cold sweat, he prays for a world where freedom was a right, rather than a distant dream guarded by bloodshed and evil.

There are three lessons to take from these stories:

First, that simply by being here tonight – together, safe, warm, well-fed and at-peace – a million desperate wishes, from every era and every continent of our collective history – are answered. I shouldn’t exist. My father was supposed to have an arranged marriage; and too recently my white mother would have been prohibited from marrying him; A century ago, the complications of my birth would have killed my mother and I both. Tonight, we are living an impossible dream, and to every ancestor who lived and struggled and sacrificed for that dream, I say: Thank you.

The second lesson: that our great-grandchildren, should we be so lucky, will tell their own stories, and as best we can we should make them good ones. We are not so different from the heroes or the villains of the stories I just told. To the litany of now-obvious historical mistakes, of slavery and cruelty and bigotry, we must discover our own, so that the next generation can do better. I want our descendants to tell stories of Old Earth, how their ancestors faced the horrors of malaria and war and cancer and animal slaughter, of a humanity whose survival rested on a single fragile planet, of a time when extinction was a very real possibility. I want them to tell the story of how the world was saved, and to turn to the stars in search of the next tale.

And the last lesson is this: Stories are how we comprehend a world not meant to be comprehended. But the universe is not a story, and it is not compelled by any narrative force or convention, even a tiny bit. There is no guarantee that there will be anyone to tell any stories a hundred years from now, and the final story may be that of the last survivor, desperately wondering what they could have done differently – if there is time enough even for that. The universe is not fair, and it does not owe us a happy ending. We have to build it – not because we’re heroes, or chosen, or destined for greatness. We are flawed, and confused, and very often weak. But we have to build the future anyway – because there isn’t anyone else.

Let’s Make a Trade

I’m breaking my typical schedule of posting nothing while hoarding half-finished posts to ask for help: Specifically, I’m looking to make a trade for a presidential vote in a swing state. If you are in a swing state and were not previously planning to vote for Clinton, I will cast my ballot in Washington State for the candidate of your choice in exchange for you voting for Clinton. I will also, with your permission, sing your praises as a person who is Good At Cooperation (or, if you prefer, I promise to protect your anonymity forever and ever).

Your third-party candidate gets just as close to the 5% threshold they need to get federal funding in 2020, and Trump becomes less likely to destroy the world.

Relatedly: There is a reason the title of this blog includes the word “Almost”, and for the first time in decades it seems like someone who genuine deserves the title of “villain” (rather than just “someone who has vastly different ideas, priors, and opinions than me”) is on the verge of acquiring massive power, up to and including control of almost half the world’s nuclear weapons. Donald Trump is about as far from Stanislav Petrov as you can get, and I would consider it a dear favor to me, as well as my species and the continued existence of sentient life in the universe, if you did what you could to prevent that future from coming to pass. Please vote, and ask friends and family to vote for The Continued Survival of Humanity. If you live in a safe state, consider trading your vote on or (though I obviously have not had success there – I got a match, but they haven’t responded to any chats and repeated requests to confirm their humanity – still, worth trying).

If you’re interested in vote-trading with me or anyone else reading this, please leave a comment.

Thank you, from one human to another.

The Thing You Can Change

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Everyone wants to make a difference. But it so often seems impossible. So much of the world appears intractably broken. There are wars you cannot stop, diseases you cannot cure, wrongs you cannot avert, pain you cannot relieve, people you cannot persuade, problems fueled by sheer overwhelming inertia. And it is easy, faced with a world broken in a million, million ways, to despair.

But –  if you’re reading this, there is probably something in the world you can change. Something big.

You have a secret power that you can start using immediately.

You can save someone.

And you can do it yourself.

You can do it right now.

And you won’t be alone.

You’ll be joining a legion of people who have also uncovered this power hidden in plain sight, pooling their resources in a global effort to defy the natural order and protect their fellow humans.

This power goes by many names: tithing, donation, charity. It can transcend space, spreading your will to protect to where it’s needed most, even if it’s thousands of miles away. It can be fueled by any profession. Waiting tables, creating art, constructing buildings, programing, driving, performing surgery, practicing law, plumbing, cleaning, performing – all of it can be converted into protection, into hope, into life by the alchemical process of donating money.

Between now and January 10th, hundreds of people are going to take the Giving What We Can Pledge: 10% of their future earnings to save, protect, defend, rescue those who need it. To enable them to live their lives and follow their dreams and overcome the million million evils of this world. And, if you so choose, you can join them. You can fight back against everything that is broken in the world.

I know that not everyone can do this. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. But if you’ve been fortunate too, you can start spreading that fortune to others. I took the pledge last year and gave 10% of my pre-tax income in 2014. This year, I gave 17%. And most of the time, I didn’t think about it. I woke up, I went to work, I struggled with frustrations, I talked to friends, I learned, I played, I made mistakes, I loved, I lost – I lived my life. But always, in the background, that pipeline, and the comfort of knowing that however broken the world was, there are people working on making it better, and I’m a part of that global effort. In 2016, I’m aiming for 20%.

According to Givewell, approximately every $3000 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation saves another human life. An. Entire. Human. Life. Decades of living, hoping, dreaming, friendships, love, learning, beauty, art, mistakes, laughter, tears – an entire life, instead of the sorrow and emptiness of a life cut short. If you can donate that much or more a year, then you can save someone. Every. Single. Year.

Maybe this isn’t something you can do right now. And that’s okay. But – if you can, and it you want to – then you can change the world right now. You can choose to live in a world where one fewer person dies for want of a bednet. You can tip the scales just a little bit more in humanity’s favor.

You don’t need to wait.

You don’t need to ask for permission.

You can fight back against everything that is broken and wrong in this world, right now, and protect that which would have otherwise have been lost.

You can make a New Year’s Resolution whose effects will be felt across the globe for decades to come.

You can change the world.

You are filled with determination.


Foes Without Faces

I. The Bargain

Imagine a fantasy world inhabited by both humans and ancient, unspeakable evils. The ancient evils ravage hundreds of kingdoms every generation, taking countless millions of lives year after year. Eventually, the humans learn to protect themselves, lessening their casualties, driving the ancient horrors back. Some are even vanquished entirely. But it is slow, and uneven, and a single mistake can undo decades of grueling progress. Millions still perish, but fewer each year, and bit by bit humanity inches towards victory.

One day, a band of human renegades attacks the kingdom, slaughtering thousands of innocents. The kingdom retaliates and hunts the renegades across the world for years, dedicating a substantial fraction of their resources to wiping the enemy out. But the leader eludes them – even years later, when the renegades have been all but completely crushed, the once-leader still taunts them from the shadows, and the citizens cry out for vengeance.

One of the Ancient Horrors, on the brink of total annihilation, hears of this, and senses an opportunity. From corrupted shadow, a broken whisper hisses in the ears of the kingdom’s leaders: “I offer you this exchange, mortals of the kingdom: I will give you one chance to annihilate your sworn enemy, the one whose blood you so crave – and all I ask in exchange is that your clerics lower their defenses in the human lands where I yet remain.”

The leaders confer among themselves.

“Er, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” says one. “This horror has killed millions, far more than the mere criminal we hunt, and we are so close to wiping them out entirely. Best case, we lose years of progress and hundreds of victims that we could have saved. Worst case, we’ll risk a full resurgence and millions of deaths if the horror comes back into its full power. Do I even have to say this? It’s obviously not worth allying ourselves with an ancient unspeakable evil whose voice is the essence of death just to kill one lousy human, no matter how awful they are. Right? We all agree, that’s just obviously stupid, right?”



II. Revealed Preferences

The US spends $16.6 billion on counterterrorism efforts every year. This only counts federal spending, within the intelligence agencies, explicitly marked “counter-intelligence”. It does not count, for example, increased costs from waiting in TSA lines and missing flights, increased costs, injuries, and fatalities from people driving instead of flying, wars, or any military spending. The actual number is probably much higher. Terrorism, in turn, kills fewer than 10 people in the US most years. Once every…actually, just once, there’s a 9/11, which kills 3,000 people.  But maybe this is misleading (it’s probably not) – maybe all that counter-terrorism money is incredibly effective at countering terrorism, and stops one 9/11 every single year. That comes out to about a bit over five million dollars per life saved.

Motor vehicle accidents have killed more than 30,000 people in the US each and every year since 1945usually way more. The entire budget of the National Highway Traffic Administration is $815 million. That’s for specifying, inspecting, and approving every car part and every stage of manufacturing, shipment, delivery, and maintenance. Let’s say that all of those things – all the crash tests, all the inspections, the entire license plate system, reduce the number of traffic casualties by 1/10 of what they would otherwise be, and that there are no other positive effects from this agency, and we’ll use the lowest recorded number of fatalities since WWII as the baseline. That comes out to about $250 thousand per life saved.

I’ve tried to bias these estimates towards counterterrorism effectiveness as much as possible, but I still ended up spending 20x as much per life saved on terrorism rather than traffic safety. It seems like we treat being killed by terrorism as at least 20x worse than being killed in a traffic accident.

Why? What makes us so much more determined to fight terrorism than traffic accidents?


III. Anthropomorphism

Enemies are fun.

Fun might not be quite the right word – but enemies are certainly more interesting.

We have a cultural rule that stories almost always have to have an antagonist to root against. Oh, that guy gained spider powers and can now swing around the city stopping crime and improving the world? I guess that’s pretty interesting, but it’s not really worth seeing unless you also have an insane scientist with giant metal octopus arms to fight against. We’re wired to find enemies to be fun. Protagonists fighting against something that’s broken isn’t nearly as engrossing as protagonists fighting against evil. That’s why we get really into sports rivalries. That’s why outrage addiction is a thing.

It’s easy to imagine a good game-theoretic reason for this. When we do have enemies, we want them to know that hurting us is a bad idea. One way to do that is to make them believe that if they attack us, we will fight back way out of proportion compared to how we would handle other threats – their belief that we will overreact is useful to us. And the best way to make people believe that is for it to be true – to really be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to fight back against and thwart our enemies.

And beyond that, having enemies is memetically adaptive. But there’s more than just a feedback loop between two social groups going on – you can get similar effects with an enemy that doesn’t actually exist.


IV. The Enemy That Wasn’t There

You know how humans tend to see faces on everything, even when there isn’t one?

Coffee Face Martian_face_viking_cropped marytoast

It’s because we’re all walking around with these hyper-sensitive face-detectors in our heads, and it’s really easy to give them a false positive. Detecting faces was and is a key part of surviving as a human. And so for enemies: Knowing that someone is out to get us is an incredibly important skill to get by day to day. And sometimes we’ll get false positives on that, too. If it happens constantly, we call it “paranoia”. The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980s gave millions of people a horrifying, if imaginary, enemy to unite against, and it was extremely effective. The entire “Witch Hunt” pattern is basically this – desperately seeking out an enemy who you believe just has to be there.

Having extremely-sensitive-enemy-detectors in our brains makes sense: Enemies are motivated to conceal themselves, so we put extra effort into detecting them – and early humans who were bad at detecting the growing conspiracy to cast them out of the tribe probably didn’t have amazing life expectancies.

Combine this with the aforementioned adaptive overreaction, and things can go very wrong very fast. There’s no amount of overreaction you can give to scare off an imaginary enemy. And this gets way worse when your enemy detector is dealing with a miniscule signal-to-noise ratio, as in an outcast arms race.

So, in a shocking twist for this blog, I’m claiming that a lot of things are broken.

How can we put this to work for us?


V. Giving the Enemy a Face

If we could ask knowledgeable experts in human behavior modification how to get people to pay attention to a neglected area, what would they say?

The “Mayhem” series has won over 80 advertising awards, Since launching in mid-2010, Allstate’s stock has more than doubled.

This blog’s thesis is that our truest, worst enemies do not have faces. They are the incentives and systems that optimize for things that we don’t care about. It’s disease and coordination problems and maladaptive thought patterns. It’s bad defaults and broken perceptions. The enemies that hurt us most, we pay the least heed to – as evidenced by our stories and our budgets.

It’s hard to change how minds work.

It’s much easier to change our narratives.

Meditations on Moloch names the perverse incentives that chip away at happiness and freedom and everything we truly value – and gives it a face. What was an abstract conception of broken systems becomes the evil god who will give you a slight momentary advantage if you just sacrifice what you cherish most. By trapping the abstract evil in a (metaphorical) anthropomorphic form, we can level all of our mental enemy-attacking machinery at it, confronting it as the monster it is.

The pattern is known. I’m just making it more explicit, and asking you to apply it to the problems you find in the world. Does your opinion or approach to a problem change when you face it as an enemy? Are you facing the vast and formless villains of the world with the same resolve you reserve for mere mortals?

Would the plan to compromise polio eradication to hunt down Bin Laden have gone forward if our leaders treated faceless enemies with the same weight they afford human enemies?

Think of someone you really, truly despise. Someone who has hurt people, who makes the world a worse place. Now imagine they killed 600,000 people every year, injuring hundreds of millions more – and you knew how to defeat them. Would you ignore it – or would you…


VI. Fight Back

The enemy is out there. The enemy does not know love, or hope, or anything of what it is to be human. The enemy does not mourn its countless victims. The enemy has outlived a thousand empires, and never paused in its ceaseless campaign of suffering and despair. The enemy murders children.

The enemy can be weakened.

The enemy can be killed.

You have this power. You have this choice.

Fight. Back.