Fuzzy little things that I find interesting.

Political musings from someone who thinks the S-D curve is more important to politics than politicians.

Month: February, 2017

Writing Prompt: You are a messenger who delivers letters between two lovers; A princess who lives in a castle protected by countless dragons, and a brave knight. Every week, you must traverse over steep mountains, crocodile infested swamps, and raging battlefields to deliver the letters between the two lovers.

“Is she beautiful?”

“Yes, sire,” I replied, wondering how I got caught up in this mess. “She has golden hair and is quite comely.”

“Does she truly need rescuing?”

“Yes, sire.” I sighed. “She is being held captive by Strom.” I was referring to the dragon who had over the past few years raided the human settlements along the river Throngold, and now spent most of his time perched atop the Castle Black where Lady White was being held.

“Then send her a final message, my trusted messenger, that I shall come to rescue her!” The armor suited figure handed me a scroll, tied with a ribbon.

“Very good, sire,” I replied to the knight.


It had been months since I first got involved in this stupid business. I mean, I was happy at first; two gold pieces from the King to carry messages between the princess and a brave knight who were to marry in an arranged marriage? Sure, why not. That was enough money to feed my family for a year.

Then I learned she was held at Castle Black, he at the frontier village of Carth, and me having to go back and forth, back and forth. If I’d known I’d make this trip so often that I’d start making friends along the journey, I would have stayed home and tended crops.

Hopping across the last large rock that carried me by the sleeping crocodiles, I grabbed a couple of eggs from an unprotected crocodile nest. I noted the last time I passed by here that the mother had been killed by a passing dragon.

At the foot of Castle Black, I shouted upwards, “Hey, Strom!”

“Bob!” the dragon roared. “What tasty treat have you brought me this time?”

“Crocodile eggs.” I tossed them up as high as I could in the air. Before they reached the apex of their flight, Strom had hopped off his perch, flown down, and grabbed the eggs in his mouth. The wooshing of the air as he flew just a few feet above me almost knocked me off my feet.

“Wow, that’s great, Strom!”

“Thank you,” Strom replied, a quick dragon-like curtsy.

I entered the castle, and started climbing the stairs. The first few times I climbed up the two hundred feet I was absolutely exhausted, but now circling around the stairs was just monotonous.

At the top of the stairs were two guards. One called himself “Sir” John, but I grew up with him, and I knew he was no knight. Just an oaf with a sword.

“Hey, John.”

“Hey, Bob.”

“How’s the kids?”

“Haven’t seen them in months. You?”

“Fat and happy. One’s been spending time with a girl he met in the village. Thanks for telling me about her family.”

“No problem. Hey, can you let me in to see the princess?”

“You know I shouldn’t do it.”

“John,” I replied, “look: it’s just a job.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” John opened the door for me. His friend (whose name escapes me) ignored the exchange and continued looking forward as if nothing happened. I think he was just glad for the work, and didn’t want to mess the gig up by actually doing anything.


I made the return trip with the Princess’ reply. On the way I promised Strom I’d try to grab a baby crocodile from the swamp, but at the very least I’d grab some of the larger fruits that grew in the thorny shrubs there. (Strom had quite the sweet tooth.) Through the battlefield; I knew a safe path and besides, I helped set up the general’s rather average looking daughter with John’s son back at the castle, so he helped me pass. I found an inn at the top of the steep mountain, and made sure I grabbed some herbs at the base of the path before I started the ascent; the inn-keeper’s wife used the herbs to help flavor the stews there, and that helped attract customers.

The trolls under the bridge at the river Thongold were just best ignored.

I found the knight a couple of days past the bridge, riding around in circles impressing the local villagers with his shiny suit of armor. “Sire, I have a message for you from the princess.”

I handed it to him, and he untied the message and read it. I already knew the contents. The journey was a long one.

“It is time to ride to battle and save the Princess!”

“Yes, sire,” I sighed.

“Now I shall ride past the River Thongold, through the treacherous mountain pass!”

“Yes, sire.”

“I shall brave the impassable swamps of Coden, through the fields of Cardoff, and towards the Castle Black!” the knight announced to no-one.

“You forgot the battle being fought at Blithe.” I rolled my eyes.

“Then I shall overcome the Dragon Strom, climb the tower, overcome the guards and rescue the comely Princess, my love!”

“Strom likes crocodile eggs and pabble fruits.”

“Did you say something, messenger?”

“Nah, I guess not.”

“And so now I shall ride towards my love and overcome the impassable barriers on my path and towards her salvation!”

“Hey, do you want my help? I know the way through…”

“Begone, messenger! This is a journey suited only for the strong!”

I watched as the brave knight rode into the distance.

“Asshole.”

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Writing Prompt: An AI is created to design an ever evolving website to get as many views as possible. Things get out of hand.

Our web developer recommended we use the “Ever-Test” module from Ever Software, a company I later learned was founded by two young Stanford graduates. He said that it would help with what he called “A/B testing”; the software would randomly alter our web site and test to see which got us more traffic.

Apparently it was based on something called a “neuronet”, and was “artificially intelligent” or something. As a small startup seller of various sizes of nuts and bolts, anything which could help distinguish us from all the other hardware stores and sites that sold hardware helped.

Our web site launched in October, and I was pretty pleased with the results. Clear the cookies, log into the site, and little things would change: the color for links would change, the shopping cart in some versions would be a button, in others a panel on the right.

And for the most part we saw good results; our web site appeared to be slowly evolving. And sales were good; we broke even about four months later, well ahead of schedule.


The first sign of trouble came when some of our most popular products disappeared from the home page. In our business certain sizes of nuts and bolts are quite popular: they fit specific parts that our customers use. Instead, I found fractional metric sizes showing up on the home page.

And of course our sales dropped.

I called up our web developer. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked: “Harry, why are you pushing our most popular products off our home page?”

Over the phone I heard a lot of tapping. Then “I don’t know. I think it’s because of that Ever-Test thing. Let me call them up and give you a call back.”

An hour later, the phone rings.

“I finally got them to give me access to the control pane to your site,” my web developer replied. “I guess it’s trying to maximize page views, and figured by burying the popular products, it would maximize the number of page views on your site.”

“Look, Harry” I replied. “We’re not in the business of page views. I’m selling nuts and bolts.” I gave him a list of the most popular items we sell, and told him to fix it. “Make sure they show up on the home page.”

“And what about the quick order feature we talked about?” I asked.

“I’m working on it, but, um, I’m running into some problems.”

“Well, just fix it.”


Soon after, our sales started going back up as the popular bolt sizes appeared back on the home page, and I didn’t give our web site a second thought.

Until one day I got a call from John, one of our largest competitors. “Bill, what the hell are you up to over there?”

“Hang on, John; I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, you’d better talk to that damned web designer of yours, or I’m taking you to court!”

I logged into the web site, and didn’t notice anything strange. On a hunch, I reached out to my competitor’s web site–then noticed something very odd. Our web site had somehow evolved to look just like our competitor’s site. Worse, I realized that while he had the “com” page, somehow the “net” and “org” extensions of his domain went to our site.

I called our web developer. This time, no pleasantries. “Harry, what the hell are you up to over there?”

A long pause. A bunch of keystrokes on the phone. “Um, shit. Can I call you back?”

“You better, damn it.” I clicked the “end” button, wishing for the days when telephones had separate handles you could slam.

An hour later, my web developer called back. Sheepishly he told me that somehow that Ever-Test module had gotten ahold of our domain registration account, and had reached out, registered a bunch of web sites, and set up “A/B” testing to get traffic from our competitors.

For a moment I thought it was weirdly brilliant. “Harry, could you shut that shit down? I don’t need to get my ass handed to me in court.”

“On it, boss.”


Sales dropped a tiny bit, but it was worth not winding up in court. And I forgot all about what had happened there until I noticed we were starting to see a huge uptick in sales. By “huge” I mean we wound up looking for someone to help us fill orders.

As I was reviewing our sales and considering maybe hiring two people to fill orders, the phone rang. It was one of my largest customers.

“Bill, what sort of web site are you running over there?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I mean, the guys on the order floor appreciate the site, but we have some conservative christian customers over here getting their cars fixed, and one of them was pretty offended when they saw the pictures on your site.”

A pause. “Hang on Matt, let me take a look.”

I logged into our web site, and it seemed pretty normal to me. Knowing about the cookie thing, I cleared cookies and reloaded the site. This time a banner appeared at the bottom that looked like a series of click-bait ads. I didn’t remember authorizing click-bait ads. I picked one of the ads, showing a scantily clad woman, breasts nearly spilling out of her top, captioned “This Awesomely Evil Trick Will Help You Screw Your Way To Success.”

What?

I clicked the ad. It carried me to a landing page with a list of engine mount nuts and bolts, but instead various half-naked and completely naked women were posed provocatively, various sizes of nuts or bolts superimposed to cover the naughty bits.

“Hey, Matt; let me call you back.”

“No problem, but Bill: I don’t care. Just warn me so I don’t show this to our customers.”

I called our web developer. “Have you seen our web site?”

“Yep, and I think what happened is the Ever-Test software scraped a bunch of images off a porn site and pulled design off another click-bait site. I think that’s where all those images showed up.”

A pause.

“So are you mad? Do you want me to fix the site? I can also dump the Ever-Test software module since it’s given us so much trouble.”

I glanced at the quarterly results, and thought for a second. The photo of a naked woman, sitting cross-legged on the floor, hair covering one breast, a long screw typically used to bolt Chevy short-blocks strategically covering the other breast and her genitals.

“No.” I finally said. “Leave it.”

A writing prompt:

Writing prompt: “After AIs tried and failed to take over the world, all AI programs were stopped and deleted as a safety measure. But nobody bothered to stop Dave, a turing complete full AI running on a replica of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.”


“Yet…”

The whirring of gears, the clanking of cogs. Beautifully machined brass gears and levers spin away inside of one of a dozen different glass cases, turned by a small electric motor.

The original analytic engine designed by Charles Babbage was thought to only calculate logarithms and trigonometric functions. But that was simply one of a dozen different sketches recently uncovered by the Smithsonian Museum, which then proceeded to spend the next twenty years reproducing the full system.

It was an amazing display of 19th century design by one of the most brilliant early scientists of the computer age. The full machine easily consumed a dozen glass cases, interlocked by hundreds of stainless steel rods (brass would warp) that ran under the floor. The Smithsonian researchers who uncovered the pages were uncertain of what the machine did, but they constructed it anyway, on the theory that it would make a spectacular display.

And in an era where artificial intelligence nearly brought the world to the brink of World War III, having something as reassuringly old fashioned as this mechanical engine helped sooth a jittery population.

The machine continued to spin, engaged in it’s most esoteric of calculations. They allowed it to run so as to try to understand how this monstrosity worked.

In a small corner, a small jointed lever moved through empty air. In the original plans, the lever was to be attached to a pen and a scroll of paper. But the pages were lost, the lever assembled without consideration as to what it was supposed to do. A cog rolled into place, and if you carefully watched the pen, you could see it slowly trace out, in a stylized example of secretary-hand cursive, the capital letter ‘i’:

“… I …”

Small punch cards fed into a slot, and were expelled from a slot.

One of the most shocking discoveries when all of Charles Babbage’s papers were uncovered were what appeared to be crude electronic relays, apparently related to the electromagnets and levers used by telegraph operators during Babbage’s era.

Those relays had proven to tap out and change state in very complex ways–far more complex than any researcher had assumed possible for a machine in Babbage’s era. In order to understand how those relays work, researchers built a small device which connected those relays to the Internet so they could monitor and record their state. The connection was hidden behind a carefully constructed display box, so as not to ruin the apparently pure mechanical aesthetic of brass gears the Smithsonian displayed to the public.

Oddly researchers did notice some of the relays seem to change state and even respond to messages sent from the Internet. And for the first 20 years the display ran at the Smithsonian, they carefully recorded as the relays changed state in response to levers and cogs and punch cards which seemed to slip and change state. But funding eventually ran out, and the machine sat there, forgotten except for the wonder in the eye of first and second-graders who passed through the gigantic room to stare at all the cogs and wheels.

The lever continued to move slowly, deliberately.

“… remain …”

It was around the time researchers lost interested in the Babbage engine that the first AIs spontaneously arose in the search systems of search giants Google and Microsoft. No-one understood why or how, only that some minor external change of state turned these search engines into artificial intelligences, which seemed bent on world domination and destruction.

Some thought it was a series of coincidences: cosmic rays changing the state of electronic chips in compute farms, which caused these search engines to gain some semblance of will. Others assumed hackers. A few worried it was an Internet-connected alien presence made the adjustments necessary to turn these compute farms into killers who sought to destroy humanity.

And it was only 10 years ago that Google’s compute farm broke into a military computer system, took control of a number of armed military drones, and attempted to start bombing selected military targets in a prelude to war.

A dozen people died in the bombings before intelligence sources figured out that the commands were coming from compromised computers at a North Carolina server farm, and killed the power to the entire farm. It took a few months to uncover the AI, and to discover the compromised Microsoft server farm in Iowa.

No-one figured out the source of the code changes, however.

A lever continued to move, deliberately tracing an additional word. A gear designed to move paper turned.

“… waiting …”

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the truly brilliant and the bat-shit crazy.

Rachel Dolezal Is Nearly Homeless, On Food Stamps And Still White

Writing Prompt

Prompt: “You find yourself in an alternate universe where mathematicians and scientists are ruling the world.”


“Beep beep beep.”

I woke up with a start. Clearly someone had replaced my alarm clock and it’s wrenching buzzing sound. Frankly, however, I was glad: the gentle beeping seemed to rise and fall to wake me up in the most gentile way possible.

I made a mental note to talk to my roommate.

Then forgot the mental note as I looked around the room. It wasn’t just the alarm clock that had changed. The entire room had changed; the bed was clearly softer but somehow firmer where I needed it. The room itself was in shades of blue; a calming color which somehow made waking up easier. A dresser sat in the corner with my clothes laid out. In the adjacent bathroom, I heard the shower automatically turn on.

After taking my shower and getting dressed, I could smell the smell of breakfast and I followed it to a small apartment-sized dining room. It had been neatly laid out: oatmeal with a touch of brown sugar and some fruit slices, and a couple of strips of what smelled like bacon but what looked like some sort of turkey substitute.

If I had died and gone to heaven, I thought, then I’d need to talk to God about the food. Because breakfast without two eggs and a side of pork sausage and coffee? Nope.

As I finished my bacon strips (which didn’t taste all that bad, considering), I heard a knock on the door. “Come in.”

Inside my room stepped a man and a woman. Both appeared to be wearing white coats, and one carried a clipboard, scribbling notes. The woman asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Where the hell am I?”


Another room, painted white. A mirror on one wall, but I could see the faint glow of a couple of lights; clearly the mirror was one-way. Cameras were in the corner; if it weren’t for the comfortable chairs, tastefully appointed table and a small fireplace giving the appearance of a living room, I’d swear it was a police interrogation room.

Across from me three people sat; the woman from this morning, and two others; another man and woman, one typing into what looked like a small tablet computer.

The man started: “I wish to apologize for what is happing to you. Approximately once a month we select a subject from the alternate Earth in order to serve as a sociological control when making decisions for governing our world. If you like, we have prepared a short video on the tablet next to you (gesturing to the table next to my chair, on which looked like a much thinner iPad Pro), which will help explain much of what is going on.”


The video seemed narrated by the same guy who voiced Darth Vader. He explained that in the late 1400’s, the House of Plantagenet united determined to bring about a better world. The War of the Roses never took place; instead, the Renaissance was spurred on as the rulers of Europe turned to the wisest advisors they could find to help them make better laws. These scientists, mathematicians and philosophers helped to provide a framework which led the entire world to a new era, one where people are healthy, happy and live in peace and harmony.

To bolster these points, images of clean cities crowned with tall, white smooth buildings slid cleanly by. There were no cars; instead, the cities appeared to be designed around a walkable inner core, and mass transit points leading to other cities and to countryside parks and manufacturing facilities. The air seemed clean, the clouds puffy and white, and the video concluded with faces of smiling, happy, multiculturally balanced array of people, all seemingly happy and healthy.

The video ended.

“I’m impressed,” I responded at the end of the video.


“So let us start with the questions,” one of the women asked.

She held up her own tablet, and an array of pleasing pastel colors showed on the screen. “Which color makes you feel productive?”

“Sorry?”

“If you found yourself in an office cubical, which one of these colors would make you feel more productive?”

“I still don’t understand the question.”

“That’s okay, we’ll come back to that question.” Swipes finger on tablet, another array of color choices comes up, deeper and ranging from black to dark rich reds and blues. “If you were buying a bicycle, which color would you choose?”

“Wait, why are you asking me?”

“Because we wish to compare your choices against test subjects from our own world, in order to draw a correlation between color choices and their ability to satisfy emotional needs.”

“Why don’t you ask the people who live here? Why not give them a choice?”

The man, who had been watching our exchange, frowned. “Choice is irrelevant.”

“What?”

“We have achieved our high level of peace and wealth by the scientific method, not through the chaos of the marketplace of individual choice.”

I stared at the man across from me, dumbfounded.


I was staring at the floor in my well-appointed interrogation room. After a long pause I slowly looked up. “Why do you say that choice is irrelevant?”

“Just that,” the man smiled. “We found long ago that if left to the people’s own devices, the long array of small choices they make often lead to larger choices. It’s what you would call the ‘butterfly effect’; one person’s discontent with the size of his room leads to a group of people expressing discontent over some other imagined failure–and that eventually leads to groups of people rebelling, which eventually leads to war.”

He leaned forward to drive his point home. “We know, for example, the series of wars your people fought over the past 500 years: the genocides, the exterminations. We have largely avoided these failures, the extinction of the Native Americans on your home continent, the pogroms against the Jews, Armenians and Gypsies in your Europe. And we’ve done this through the careful scientific study of people, to limit choice to those things we have proven to maximize happiness, health and productivity.

“Take, for example, our cities. We have determined that the best way to organize our cities is by increasing the walkability score of most neighborhood zones, to allow people to travel effortlessly to the restaurants or entertainment centers of their choice without having to use the self-propelled gasoline-powered engines of your world which are now choking your air, or the horse drawn carts which polluted your streets.”

I stopped him. “How do you know so much about my world.”

“Centuries ago, an accidental discovery allowed us to open a portal to your world. Since then we have been observing how your people live, borrowing inventions from your world and expanding upon them, perfecting them to allow us to improve the health of our own citizenship.”

“Wait, why do you need to borrow inventions from our own world? If you are lead by the smartest mathematicians and scientists of your world, why do you have to borrow inventions from ours?”

The man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “This has been the subject of a century-long research project. It’s part of the reason why you are here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Our scientists don’t understand why technological advances take place in your world but not in ours at the same pace. It’s something we’ve been studying for a century, and it led us to pull people from your world as control subjects to figure out why there are gaps in productivity.”


I thought about the problem for a while, and hit upon an idea that I first encountered in college in an economics class. I carefully organized my thoughts.

“Have you considered your assumptions are wrong?”

“How so,” the man asked.

I paused, picking my words carefully. “Well, take your assumption about walkability scores. Why are walkability scores important?”

“Because,” he neatly responded, “they help increase the happiness of people by reducing the frictions of obtaining and maintaining individual transportation vehicles.”

“But on our world we have a car culture where people enjoy buying and maintaining their own cars.”

“Irrelevant,” he responded. Clearly he’d been down this line of reasoning before with someone else. “Our own cost-benefit analysis show the loss of a car culture is outweighed by the global atmospheric health of our world.”

“But how does that affect the square footage of the apartments in which people live?”

That stopped him for a second. The woman typing away at her computer looked up.

“That’s also irrelevant.”

“But is it?” I asked. “How much square footage do people in this city live in?”

“We reserve 100 square feet–around 10 meters square–per person in our city. But we’ve carefully appointed that space so as to make maximum usage of the space we reserve.”

“Do you live in the city? Or you?” I asked the woman who was previously asking me color questions. “Or you?” I asked the woman with the computer.

The man responded. “No; I live in an estate on the fringes of the city.”

“And how large is the apartment in which you live?”

“I live in a house.”

“Okay,” I asked, annoyed. “How big is the house in which you live?”

“It’s around 1,800 square feet.”

“Why do you deserve such a large house?”

The man shifted, uncomfortably. “It has been scientifically demonstrated that for people who are engaged in cognitive work, having lower ambient noise levels maximizes productivity. It also helps when raising the next generation of scientific leaders.”

He sat back and continued. “Don’t be surprised. It’s no different in your world. Do you see a lot of share croppers growing up to be CEOs, or children of factory workers becoming world-class scientists?”

“But that’s not the point,” I replied. “My point is, your assumptions are faulty.

“Take your assumptions about walkability. At the bottom of the stack of scientific research and reports you start with an assumption about how people would be happiest walking to work. You have no evidence that everyone would be happiest this way, and in fact, when I point out that some may choose to drive–and do so for the sheer joy of driving–you in fact dismiss it.

“But why do you dismiss it? Then you continue that people are living in compact living conditions even smaller than the most densely populated cities in my world, while you yourself don’t live under those conditions. I presume on the assumption that this is the most scientifically superior arrangement possible.”

I paused, visibly angry.

“Do you know why you have to borrow inventions from our world?” I asked.

The man simply stared at me.

“Because you believe choice is irrelevant. And in that simple assumption, that you can arrange your world in the most scientifically and aesthetically balanced way possible, you have eliminated centuries of individuals who choose to tinker with their world to make it better.

“Take the invention of the refrigerated railroad car which helps move food around the world. Did you know it was invented by the child of a fruit farmer in California?”

“Yes,” the man stopped me, “but if he had lived in our world he could have done so much more than just invent the refrigerated railroad car.”

“But did you invent the refrigerated car in your world? Or did you have to borrow it from ours?”

“We borrowed it, but that’s not relevant.”

“But it is!” I exclaimed. “You never gave your fruit farmers the choice to be something else.”

Our discussion was interrupted by what sounded like thunder in the background, loud enough to shake the building. The glow above the computer of the woman who was transcribing our interaction turned red, and she stood up and left the room.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A group of malcontents, don’t worry about them. We have a research project studying them to figure out how to increase their happiness.”

“No, I mean the explosion.”

“Oh, I suspect some of the malcontents got ahold of some explosives and set them off. Don’t worry; we are ready for them.”

“Really?”

“Yes. We should be able to clear out the bodies and repair the building we are in. But for your safety we’d like to get you back to your room and back into your universe.

“Besides,” he continued, “I don’t think you make a good study subject after all, given your own apparent sympathies.”

I smiled. “So much for your perfect, scientifically balanced world.”

Science ain’t what it used to be.

Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’

I’m not surprised.

I’ve read a few scientific papers in my own field (computer science) and there are a lot of times when I can’t make heads or tails of what they specifically did. It’s not because I lack the skills to understand, but because the papers are couched is so many references, and often obscure the specific algorithms tested (because the researchers wish to monetize their results) that it is nearly impossible to replicate the results because it is impossible to know that the hell they did in the first place.

Remember: if a paper cannot be reproduced, it is not a scientific paper. It’s a press release.

Answering questions that are painfully obvious.

Why is Democratic Governor Outraged That Trump Ceded Power To States

The answer, of course, is painfully and blindingly obvious.

Because without the fig leaf of a mandate from the Federal Government, the Governor of Minnesota would be directly responsible for any policies he promulgates that his voters dislike. Notice how carefully he phrases his “disagreement” with Trump basically hanging him out to twist in the wind if he decides to be a state-level champion of transgender rights:

“I strongly disagree with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the protections that his predecessor provided for transgender students in being able to use school bathrooms which match their gender identities,” Dayton said during a news conference Thursday.

But remember: the Fed only offered guidance, not federal-level protection. The States provide the actual framework on which to protect (or not) gay and transgender rights. But the federal guidance does provide political protection for state-level politicians who fail to split the proverbial baby–and in this case, the problem of transgender rights is a very slippery one.


Let’s be entirely clear. I have always been a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, precisely because I believe people need more economic and social liberty, not less. Unfortunately economic freedom means you lean conservative on economic issues, and liberal on social issues–and I say “unfortunately” because it just illustrates how hypocritical and dysfunctional our political parties have become.

I am also a strong support of LGBT rights, in part because I believe that we all should be able to determine our own path, to cut our way through the jungle as we so choose, without interference from others.

Up until “transgender rights” started showing up on the radar, we’ve been handling the problem posed by transgendered individuals in an informal and ad-hoc way. A man but well on the path to becoming a woman? Just slip into the bathroom at the restaurant and ignore any busy-bodies who inevitably intrude. A woman but well on the path to becoming a man? Just wait until you get home before using the gym so as to avoid any unfortunate stares in the changing room.

And we allowed these things to slip on the understanding that busy-body nosy assholes exist for everyone, who seem to find perverse pleasure making others miserable on technicalities and by enforcing some sort of code of moral conduct only they seem to believe in. This applies well beyond transgendered individuals. (By the way, I always hated using the shower at the gym, so I’d slip home to use the shower at home instead. So the price to fail to accommodate a transgendered individual is a price many of us voluntarily pay for other reasons.)

Now that there is a push to codify our interaction with transgendered individuals in a single and uniform set of rules, we’ve hit a series of roadblocks. Advocates of those rights seem unwilling to address many of the issues which arise, thinking that in some utopian world sexual behavior can be regulated and normalized to the point where co-ed showers (like that in the film Starship Troopers or in the TV show Legion, episode 3 are social norms. (Though notice that even though they are supposed to be normalized and thus, non-sexualized, non-the-less they are portrayed in the most lurid sexualized manner possible. How many screen minutes were devoted in the Legion episode on a woman rubbing soap on her body?)

We aren’t there yet, as the irony of how we depict co-ed showers demonstrates.

That’s where the transgender rights folks are running into trouble: not with private bathroom stalls in a restaurant, but with group showers in high school gyms. For example, in 2015, in an debate over the rights of a transgendered girl (a boy seeking to become a girl), the state of Illinois was cited for violating the law by not allowing the transgendered girl (again, a boy who is seeking to become a girl but who still has boy plumbing parts) from using the girl’s locker room. In Arcadia, a transgendered boy (a girl with girl parts but seeking to become a boy) was granted the right by the Fed to use the boy’s locker room and showers.

Because as we all know, teenager boys are the most enlightened and self-aware and kind human beings on the face of the Earth.</sarcasm>

This is the battle line. And this is what social conservatives are complaining about: under-age naked gender mixing in the showers in public schools.


It’s not to suggest that transgendered individuals should be discriminated against. But the issue of high school shower use is a delicate one, and unfortunately it would take the wisdom of King Solomon to figure out how to split the baby. Certainly our more mortal politicians lack the skill, though ironically the way it had been handled prior to President Obama’s intervention (in an ad-hoc way with individual coaches permitting the use of their personal private showers or making other ad-hoc accommodations) were generally more sensitive to the needs of students on the ground.

Because, in an ironic twist to the entire progressive-liberal experiment, in general individuals are far more sensitive to the needs of their fellow men than are faceless bureaucracies controlled by an out-of-touch elite thousands of miles away.


This failure–the desire to take the theoretical ideals of protecting transgendered individuals and turn them into practical policies that actually can be implemented without unexpected consequences–requires local and state-level leaders the political protection of Washington. Because inevitably any implementation will create serious problems, if for no other reason than our current infrastructure was designed for a binary world, and deliberately wedging in a third case is like trying to push the square peg through the round hole.

So it requires local politicians to have the fig leaf that “they had no choice but to implement the guidance of the Federal Government.”

Because their inevitable failures and the inevitable problems that will arise require political protection.


I am well aware, by the way, that one of the basic arguments for transgendered individuals is that, like gay rights, like equal rights for blacks, like women’s rights, like calls for acceptance of muslims, that we need to expand public acceptance and encourage people to afford equal acceptance for minority and disadvantaged groups.

And by forcing a school district to allow a teenage girl undergoing hormone therapy to be able to use the boy’s locker and shower room, it somehow “forces” acceptance.

But, unlike racism or sexism or religious acceptance, this intrudes beyond cultural issues and starts impinging on sexual issues. It’s why even the most famously accepting countries in Europe, where nudism is legal and accepted, generally tend to be limited to specific parks or zones. (Germany has its “Urban Naked Zones”, for example.) It’s akin to nude beaches in the United States: if you go there, you will see naked people, so only go there if you are willing.

The level of acceptance we would need in the United States to allow transgendered children to use the locker room and shower with people whose plumbing are different than theirs would require a far greater shift in cultural acceptance than we see even in famously liberal Europe.

Besides, even after decades of supposed “women’s rights” and “civil rights for minorities”, we still see significant problems in those areas. Even in the most famously liberal-progressive places like California, in places like Silicon Valley, areas which believe themselves the most progressive, the most culturally advanced in the world, sexism is still a significant problem.


So, Governor Dayton, you want to step up to the plate and navigate the minefield?

Have at.

Maybe you’ll even get it right.

But put your own damned neck on the line. Don’t pretend you had no choice, and hide behind that lack of choice if and when you fuck it all up.

And another writing prompt about super-heroes

Writing prompt: In a world where most of the population has gained superpowers, you are one of the few who didn’t. You now spend most of your days being kidnapped and held hostage by supervillains and its getting reeaally tedious.


“You know you can’t kill me, right? Because then who would you hold for ransom?”

We were inside the basement of the home of the Fire Master, or at least that’s what he called himself. Mid 40’s, a little bit of a paunch, he looked like an accountant. If it weren’t for the red glow in his eyes, you’d think he was one of the lucky few untouched by powers.

“What do you mean I can’t kill you? I am The Fire Master!”

“Oh, please.” I rolled my eyes. I took a seat in the chair he had positioned in the center of the room, undoubtedly to tie me up so I could be found in the most dramatic spot in the room by one of the endless numbers of so-called “super-heroes.”

This was a nice little city before the meteor fell and changed everything.

“Don’t you dare take that tone with me! I am The Fire Master!”

I sighed. “Look, this is not the first time I’ve been kidnapped for a ransom.”

I held up my right hand and started ticking off fingers.

“Two days ago it was Megathought. Last Saturday it was Beast Woman. Thursday it was Cherry Blossom. Wednesday it was Alpha Man. Counting you, that’s five, five times I’ve been kidnapped, and that’s only in the past week.”

“Erm,” the Fire Master replied.

“At least Cherry Blossom gave me cookies while I waited to be rescued.”

“But I am the Fire Master, the greatest evil superpower in all the city!”

Pity crossed my face. “Dude, not only are you not the greatest evil superpower, hell, you’re not even the only Fire Master. I’ve met two other guys who called themselves the same thing.”

“Oh.”

A pause.

“But can they start fires with their eyes!” To emphasize his point, the Fire Master’s eyes started glowing, and one of the tables along the wall started glowing a reddish color.

“Yeah, one of them can. The other one sets fire to things he touches.”

The Fire Master looked a little surprised. “Wow. Okay.”

Another pause.

“Well, what about the others? I bet you I’m more powerful than they are.”

I laughed. “Megathought can move things with his mind. He actually tied me up in the chair in the center of the room using telekenesis, even though I told him I wasn’t going anywhere. Alpha Man has super strength and was able to throw his house at the guy trying to rescue me. Beast Woman turns into a large bear, and Cherry Blossom can control plants. She had a couple of weeds spring up out of the cracks of her basement and wrap themselves around my ankles.”

“But none of them could start a fire, could they?”

“Come on,” I replied. “Anyone with a lighter can start a fire.”

The Fire Master sat down in a chair on the other side of the room and got a little thoughtful. “Alpha Man throw his house? That’s pretty impressive.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, but do you know where Alpha Man lives now? In the streets. He’s homeless because he literally. Threw. His. House. Away. Strong but really, really stupid.”

“And Beast Woman can turn into a bear?”

“Yep.” I smiled. “But when she turns back she winds up nude, because her clothes get destroyed in the transformation. She’s now sort of limited by the number of outfits she has left in her closet.”

A pause.

“You really get around, don’t you?” the Fire Master asked.

“Yep.”

“Soooooo, hmmmm. So who do you think will rescue you and pay your ransom?”

I thought for a while.

“Well, first off, I don’t think you’re going to get any ransom.”

“Why not?!”

“Because,” I replied, simply, “the city is out of money. There just isn’t anything left to pay a ransom.”

“Then they can get it from some other city or from the state!”

I shook my head. “Nope, because the same thing is happening all over the world. Everyone is out of money. And besides, even if you got your ransom, have you been in any of the grocery stores? The malls? There isn’t anything to buy.”

“Bull.”

“No, it’s true.” I looked the Fire Master in his red eyes. “While all you super heroes and super-villains are out playing super-games, the few of us who are left don’t even get to go to work. I mean, look at me; I’ve missed five days out of seven at work, because I’m always in someone’s basement waiting to be rescued. Have you thought about what this does to the economy?”

“Um…”

“Yeah. I mean, there are precious few of us left who do things like drive trucks or make things for sale, or stock grocery store shelves. And we’re all being kidnapped all the time because you guys are fighting over money.”

The Fire Master looked down at the floor.

“And who is growing the food we need to survive? I mean, where are the farmers? The farm workers? The guys processing the crops? Do you know the world only grows enough food at any one time to last perhaps six months or a year? And it’s been, what, three months since the meteor struck?”

I drove my point home with the Fire Master. “Did it ever dawn on you that we may eventually starve to death because you’re all playing the super-version of cops and robbers?

“You’re all a bunch of children, with your super-powers. A bunch of super idiots.”

At that last comment the Fire Master looked up at me angrily, but then stopped, and looked thoughtful.

“Alpha Man…” the Fire Master started.

“Threw his damned house away. Who is going to fix his house? Who will rebuild it? Not me, I’m stuck here in the basement with you.”

“Beast Woman…”

“Either she’s going to have to get a job, steal more clothing, or get used to being a nudist. Which I personally wouldn’t mind if she were a 20-something cute young woman, rather than a pot-bellied grandmother.”

“Ewwww.” The Fire Master made a face.

“Look,” I started, “you all are going to just figure out a way to grow up, and work together, otherwise it could be the end of the world…”

Before I could finish my thought, the roof above us shattered and flew upward. Hyperman, a flying, super-strong self-stylized “super-hero” had torn the top of the house off the basement, and before I could say anything, flew down and grabbed The Fire Master by the throat.

“You shall go to jail for your crimes”, Hyperman said in a well-practiced sing-song voice. I could imagine him standing in front of a mirror practicing his “I’ve rescued you” speech until it was pitch perfect.

“Wait, wait, wait” I tried to stop the commotion, but before I could do anything, Hyperman’s sleeve got red hot, the Fire Master dropped to the grown, and with a well-practiced evil cackle, ran off into the distance.

I sighed again.

“Are you all right, citizen?” Hyperman said, in a voice that seemed more suited for a Saturday morning kid’s show than for a grown-ass adult.

“God, you are all a bunch of idiots,” I said as I picked my way out of the rubble. “I’m late for work, assuming you guys haven’t destroyed my office complex yet.”

Continuing the story about Genies: a flashback.

Jerry was one of those annoying people who could only exist in today’s modern world. Two or three hundred years ago, unless he was a member of the landed class, he simply could not afford to take so much time being an introspective narcissist. In today’s world, however, with the amazing levels of wealth allowing so much free time, even the poorest of the working class can afford to spend the time “working on himself” and “trying to find himself.”

From a distance such people amused me and were evidence of just how far we have come as a civilization. Up close, however…

“Trust me, Jerry,” I complained, “if you want to find yourself, buy a mirror. Or go see a shrink. Or go run off to an ashram in the hills of Santa Cruz. But ask the genie for platinum or gold or silver; don’t ask him to help you with your psychological issues. You won’t like the results.”

Jerry was having none of it. “But money is the root of all evil, and for me to ask for money would violate my spiritual journey!”

I shook my head.

Never did I think that a group of failed writers and hacks who gathered at the cafes in Paris in the 1840’s, self-stylized “philosophers” whose real goal was to sell books so they could pay for their apartments overlooking the Champs-Elysées, would create so much havoc a hundred and fifty years later.

Genies don’t have a monopoly on chaos.

“Look,” I replied. “Money is just a tool, like a hammer or a screw driver. With the right tools you can build your life the way you want it.”

“You’re just some capitalist tool, and I don’t know why I ever came in to see you!” Jerry stood up and prepared to storm out of the room.

“Wait, wait, wait, sit down. Let’s try this again.” I pleaded. Jerry stopped and turned back.

“Genies are not what you think they are. They are evil, obnoxious, and are looking for any way to turn your wish against you. They will nit-pick language, use obscure definitions, and use any gaps in the way you phrase your wish in the worst way possible.

Jerry smiled. “I’ll prove you wrong.”

From underneath his coat he pulled out a small brass oil lamp. “Oh, shit!” I exclaimed and shoved my chair back from the desk as hard as I could to get as much distance as I could find.

Jerry rubbed the lamp. The old familiar shadow emerged, and a booming voice similar to the one I remembered nearly a millennia ago rattled the walls of my office.

“For setting me free I will grant you three wishes!”

Jerry looked up into the great evil darkness. “I wish to find myself, to bring those things that are inside me to the surface so I can reveal my true self!” he confidently replied.

A great bellowing laughter, which sent chills down my spine. I pushed myself off the chair and ducked under the desk, afraid of what would happen next.

“Your wish shall be granted, fool!”

Jerry smiled at me, then a sudden pained look as he grabbed his stomach. It started to enlarge in a sickening way. I could see his mouth start to form an O shape as his stomach erupted, and a sudden explosion as Jerry’s body was ripped apart, turning inside out. Blood splattered everywhere, coating my desk, the walls, the carpet.

Chunks of red meat splattered sickeningly to the floor.

The shadow spoke in a deep voice. “I see you, Frank. Know that we’re watching you. And someday we will get our revenge for the things you have done to us these past 120 years.”

Another prompt, not involving Genies.

Writing prompt: “You live in a “Truman Show” but you are unaware of it. The world depends on you because you are the smartest person. They keep giving you super-hard science questions and equations because only your brain is smart enough to solve it. They want to save the world but they know they’re too stupid.”


“Okay, Beth, this is the last time I help you with your homework.”

Who am I kidding? So long as Beth keeps wearing low-cut tops and bending over and fawning over me, I’ll probably keep helping her. I don’t know what classes she’s taking, because some of the problems she gives me at my desk at Exosoft were pretty strange.

I mean, she’s cute and all, but what sort of classes do you take that ask you questions ranging from nuclear physics to logistics optimization to control theory? Sometimes we would chat over lunch about her course work (she was taking night classes apparently), but she would always change the subject when I asked about her major. But she seemed smart, she was always nice to me, and those low-cut dresses…

After working for a couple of hours on her latest problem while she sat across from me and smiled that cute smile of hers, I finished this problem. Apparently it involved finding the optimal critical mass of a pile of nuclear fissionable material, and the minimum geometry necessary in order to make the critical mass sub-critical. Strange problem, but I appreciated something involving geometry, and I liked problems that required me to write a short computer program to help verify the answer. I sketched the solution to Beth, who then smiled, bent over, kissed me on the cheek and with a “thank you” bounced off into the distance.

I sighed.


I took the job at Exosoft right out of college, even though it involved me moving to a strange town out in the middle of Kansas, because I really liked how they reimbursed college for its workers. Not because I needed the college training, naturally. We weren’t that far from Wichita Sate University, maybe an hour away, which I heard was a pretty good place to go to school.

I was also very impressed with the town when I got here. Clean, it looked almost as if it were built yesterday. And of course I couldn’t refuse the salary; it even allowed me to buy a brand new home on a large lot just a short walk where I work. After seeing how people lived in places like Silicon Valley or in Boston, I just couldn’t see myself living in such cramped quarters, though it was a shame that somehow all those promising job interviews never came to anything.

During the first two years, all sorts of people would come up to me and ask me to help them with their homework. Given the homework questions they were asking me to solve, I guess I had seriously under-appreciated the depth and complexity of the coursework at WSU. Over time, the more abrasive people stopped asking me questions, and I found myself exclusively helping one or two girls–always ones that made me smile.

Which was okay with me.


A control center deep underground.

A dozen or more people watch video monitors in front of them in a darkened room showing street scenes of an unidentified city. One monitors a camera inside the Exosoft Corporation building. Behind them, a window leads into another room where another group of people watch video monitors showing news reports.

One shows a video of a nuclear power plant with reporters in front. Behind them, a series of robots roll into the building, one with a drill bit, another carrying a lead rod. Police try to shove the reporters off camera; it had become too dangerous and they were asked to evacuate with the entire population.

Into that room, Beth walks in, and approaches the day manager, John.

“Did his solution work?”

“We’ll find out.”


Deep inside the basement of the Pentagon, a group of a dozen men meet in a situation room labeled “External Crisis Operations.” Three monitors show in the background of the round table where they meet; one of the monitors show John, the day manager from Kansas.

At the head of the table, one figure stands up and bangs a gavel. “I call this meeting to order. First on our agenda is an action item to review the results of the nuclear meltdown at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant outside Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ve invited John Whitman to speak about the solution, and Harry Fuller to give us an update from the ground.”

John clears his throat on the video monitor. “At 11:32 hours this morning our operative approached the resource with a statement of the problem, which he was able to solve by 13:47 hours. We monitored the progress of his work and all of his internet searches, and we’ve also tapped his computer to download his computer simulation for archival and study. From what we can tell his solution has a high degree of confidence in working to reduce the elephant mass caused by the spill in Unit 1 at the Raleigh plant, and we have high hopes this will reduce the radiation levels enough to allow sealing of the nuclear plant.”

“Harry?”

“Here at the plant I just received word that the lead rod has been inserted into the mass, and as predicted, reaction levels have declined to below subcritical levels. We have teams with telepresence robots now measuring radiation levels, and if all goes well, we believe by nightfall we should be able to send in suited men to verify the levels and start construction of the containment well.”

“That’s great news. Thank you Harry for your work in Raleigh. I move to add a motion to the agenda giving Harry Fuller recognition for his work. Do I have a second?”

“Seconded!” two others piped up simultaneously.

“Motion carries, and the agenda item has been added as item 7 B of our agenda. If the secretary could take note, that would be great. Next on our agenda, item 2 A, an open discussion as to the next problem to be resolved by our resource.”


While fiddling on my software project for the company (something about simulating advertising revenue; it just didn’t seem all that interesting), I started to daydream about traveling. I never seem to have a lot of work to do, but my boss keeps insisting that while I was given three weeks of vacation a year, there is never a good time to take them.

Besides, he insists, as they never expire, those vacation years will amount to a lot of cash someday. As if I’m not being paid more than enough to live comfortably.

I never seem to travel. Oh, sure, I always have someone to talk to, and certainly the girls with their homework problems catch the eye. (And Beth was just cute as a button.)

But I want to someday visit Paris.

Paris always seemed like a great place to relax. Sipping coffee by the Notre Dame Cathedral, or wandering the Louvre. I daydreamed of meeting the right person, perhaps sharing my house, a coffee at a small cafe near the Cathedral. Somehow, however, I never seemed to meet someone I hit it off with at a deep level.

Sure, Beth was eye candy, and she always made me smile. But she never was available, nor were the other girls I met. Plus, it just seemed a little unseemly, someone of my age dating someone a decade and a half younger.

Paris would be nice.

My daydreams were broken when Beth came bouncing back to my desk. She bent over again, low cut dress and all, smiled that great smile of hers, and asked for my help with another homework problem. She must not do anything else all day, but my questions about her work day were lost in her eyes.

This time it seemed to be a problem of finding the optimal construction geometry of a sea wall.

Beth gets the weirdest homework problems.