Words to Live By

There are various sayings which one can come across expressing the same basic idea, such as “the only real tragedy in life is to not be a saint” or “the saddest thing in the world is that not everyone is a saint.” All excellent sentiments, especially because they’re quite true.

There’s an interesting saying from Mark Twain, though I suspect more properly from a character he wrote, which proposes an interesting sort of goal because it gets at the same sort of idea, though by being secular in a very narrow and lacking sort of way:

Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.

–Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

I find it a very evocative quote for two reasons. The first is that the undertaker profits by death, since he’s paid to bury people. When a man would rather not earn his living this way, it says something.

The other reason the quote is evocative is that since the undertaker is a professional, he cannot help but become used to his profession. It is not easy for a man to feel much about the two hundred and thirty first person he’s buried this year, especially if he buried five hundred and seventeen last year.

A Note on Jonah & The Great Fish

In my recent video about Jonah and the Great Fish, I used a great white shark in the thumbnail for the video. Here’s the thumbnail:

The book of Jonah does not identify the species of fish that swallowed Jonah; heck, the Hebrew doesn’t even distinguish between fish and whales, as modern people are obsessed with doing. Realistically, how important is it that whales nurse their young with milk? Is anyone planning to try keeping dairy whales?

How we think of the great fish that swallowed Jonah has a real impact on how we think of the story, though. I think a lot of people think of it as a baleen whale, which makes them think of it as a relatively comfortable experience. Something like this:

And, admittedly, the fin whale, the second longest whale in the world, does live in the Mediterranean sea. There’s a real problem with this version of the story, though—baleen whales are designed to eat krill, not large things. The blue whale (which doesn’t live in the Mediterranean) has an esophagus that is normally around 5 inches in diameter and may be able to expand up to about 10 inches in diameter. That couldn’t fit a child of ten, to say nothing of a grown man.

There is a cetacean option for the big fish in the Mediterranean, but it’s not a comforting one: sperm whales. Sperm whales have a lot of teeth and they are best known for using them to kill giant squid half a mile or more under the sea. To be fair, they probably do use suction to pull food into their throat but we’re not talking about gentle suction. If you’ve ever been hit by even a moderate size wave, you have a sense of just how much water suction can rip limbs off of a body. No matter which plausible enormous sea-dwelling critter you consider as the great fish that swallowed Jonah, merely the swallowing itself will normally kill you.

I don’t want to get into the argument over whether Jonah died and was resurrected on the third day—that takes too long here, and I went over it in the video—but I just want to emphasize that even if you really want to hold that Jonah miraculously survived being eaten by a great fish and being in its belly for three days rather than Jonah dying and miraculously being brought back to life, appreciating the degree to which Jonah should have died is necessary to understanding how miraculous the story really is.

If you’re interested in the video, here it is:

Chesterton on Holidays vs. Rest

In his book The Utopia of Usurers, G.K. Chesterton has a fascinating essay on the difference between holidays and rest. In the chapter The War On Holidays, he lays out the distinction:

The general proposition, not always easy to define exhaustively, that the reign of the capitalist will be the reign of the cad—that is, of the unlicked type that is neither the citizen nor the gentleman—can be excellently studied in its attitude towards holidays. The special emblematic Employer of to-day, especially the Model Employer (who is the worst sort) has in his starved and evil heart a sincere hatred of holidays. I do not mean that he necessarily wants all his workmen to work until they drop; that only occurs when he happens to be stupid as well as wicked. I do not mean to say that he is necessarily unwilling to grant what he would call “decent hours of labour.” He may treat men like dirt; but if you want to make money, even out of dirt, you must let it lie fallow by some rotation of rest. He may treat men as dogs, but unless he is a lunatic he will for certain periods let sleeping dogs lie.

But humane and reasonable hours for labour have nothing whatever to do with the idea of holidays. It is not even a question of ten hours day and eight-hours day; it is not a question of cutting down leisure to the space necessary for food, sleep and exercise. If the modern employer came to the conclusion, for some reason or other, that he could get most out of his men by working them hard for only two hours a day, his whole mental attitude would still be foreign and hostile to holidays. For his whole mental attitude is that the passive time and the active time are alike useful for him and his business. All is, indeed, grist that comes to his mill, including the millers. His slaves still serve him in unconsciousness, as dogs still hunt in slumber. His grist is ground not only by the sounding wheels of iron, but by the soundless wheel of blood and brain. His sacks are still filling silently when the doors are shut on the streets and the sound of the grinding is low.

(Important to remember is that in Chesterton’s time, “capitalism” did not mean “not communism” as it has come to mean after the Cold War, but rather a theory that men should stop aiming at virtue and instead aim at greed, but harness greed to do the work of virtue. This is rather unlike the more modern idea of aligning incentives so as to support men being virtuous rather than mis-aligning incentives so as to tempt them.)

A holiday, he goes on to say in a less direct route, is about a man directing himself to higher things than work or more generally the maintenance of the body. A holiday is about remembering that the world is really about God, not about itself.

I’m actually not much concerned with Chesterton’s remarks on employers, here, because the exact same attitude applies to the men themselves. If one regards Christmas as being about family and Sundays are about watching football, the man who regards them this way only rests, he has no holidays. In effect, a holiday is only a holiday when it is a holy day.

What Chesterton doesn’t describe in this essay, but which is true none the less, is that a man will have no holidays if he thinks that the purpose of leisure is leisure just as much as if he thinks that the purpose of leisure is work.

How To Get Gorilla Tape Off of a Snake

For some reasons which don’t involve me being the most clever I’ve ever been in affixing a thermostat probe to the inside of my snake enclosure (hint: don’t use tape), I’ve discovered how to get gorilla tape off of a snake. This should also work for duct tape and other kinds of tape, too.

One of the problems, here, is that snake skin turns out to be, under the scales, much thinner than human skin. The smoothness of their scales and lack of skin oil also seems to produce a much stronger bond to the tape than it does to our skin. Put those together and you have a dangerous situation: if you pull too hard—or if the tape gets stuck on something and the snake pulls on it—it could rip the snake’s skin since the tape is stronger.

Based on advice I got, I poured some mineral oil into a dixie cup and then used a q-tip periodically dipped into the mineral oil to rub the mineral oil onto the tape where it contacts the snake. This required a great deal of patience. It took me about an hour and a half to get the tape off of my snake and it was only about a half inch long strip (2.5″ wide, IIRC). What I found especially helpful was to rotate the q-tip (sideways) between the tape and the snake. This applies very gentle pressure to pull the tape away from the snake and at the same time works the mineral oil into the very edge of where the adhesive is contacting the snake, which is the place where the oil needs to get in order to dissolve the adhesive. It takes time, and it takes patience, but it does eventually work.

NOTE: there are many kinds of mineral oil. Look for the one sold as a laxitive, because that won’t be poisonous if it ends up getting a little in the snake’s mouth. This is very much not true of some other kinds of mineral oil, or of other oils like goo gone. (When in doubt, look at whether it’s meant to be swallowed or whether it tells you to contact poison control if you swallow it.)

Artistic Interpretations and Eisegesis

I recently saw an interesting commentary on my video about the validity of multiple artistic interpretations:

(If the embed is broken, Joseph Dooley said, “The danger of interpretation, or theory, is in eisegesis: the eschewing of shared reality and embrace of subjective lensing.”)

If you’re not familiar with the term eisegesis, it’s the opposite of exegesis: instead of explaining what is in the text, it is explaining things into the text. That is, rather than helping people to get more out of the text, one tries to supplant the text and claim its authority for one’s own ideas. This is more relevant to authoritative texts than to fiction, of course, but the analogy there is fairly clear. And Mr. Dooley is correct, that one danger of artistic interpretation is that two people may get different things out of the same work, which in effect removes it from being part of their shared culture. This danger is minor in many if not most cases.

Before I explain why, I want to give a super-brief recap of my argument for why multiple artistic interpretations can be valid: artistic works, being made by men and not by God, are always under-specified. Key information necessary to understanding the meaning of the work is missing and must be supplied by the viewer. To pick an example at random, we assume that Hamlet is an only child because no siblings of his are ever mentioned, but we are not told this. Many things in the play would be strange, but nothing would be contradicted, if Hamlet had an older brother or a younger sister or was the fourth of eight children. How many siblings we assign to Hamlet is a question of artistic interpretation, and each answer we give changes the meaning of other things in the play. Such interpretation is valid when it does not contradict anything and, critically, when it yields some truth about real life. That is my conclusion.

Differing interpretations will, by their nature, produce different insights into real life; as such when two people prefer different interpretations, they get different things out of the work, and it is not a shared experience. This is not, however, an all-or-nothing proposition. Very few works are so under-specified that artistic interpretations completely change them.

The danger of two interpretations resulting in the same work being taken in two entirely different ways is probably greatest in the interpretation of songs, since songs are so often oblique, minimalist, and often intentionally under-specified even by human standards. An example which comes to mind is the song Can’t Feel My Face by The Weekend. One interpretation is that the song is about a romantic relationship. Another is that the singer is singing about cocaine. The latter is probably the intended interpretation; cocaine is a topical anesthetic and is actually used for that purpose within medicine to this day where its other property of being a vasoconstrictor is helpful, such as when an incision is going to be made. These are essentially two different songs, depending on whether you want to take the song to be addressed to a human being or to a recreational drug, personified.

Most works don’t have this property, though, at least for interpretations which aren’t trying to outright change the meaning of the work. It’s pretty much always possible to begin with “what if this is a dream visited to a person by a demon trying to trick him”. The universality of this possibility tends to make it uninteresting to all but teenagers trying to prove how clever they are. Apart from such intentionally perverse interpretations, most interpretations involve supplying unspecified details which change far less about the work. Given that, if two people have different interpretations they will still have much that is common to both of their interpretations and thus they will still have a large part of the work as shared culture.

The other problem is that you can’t avoid artistic interpretation. When a character says that a meal is delicious and the scene is not about finding out whether he really does enjoy the food, you have to either assume that he’s telling the truth or that he isn’t. If you conclude that he isn’t telling the truth, you must further assume whether he’s intentionally lying to manipulate people or merely being polite in order to avoid offending. The only alternative to making some sort of interpretation about what happened is to forget that it happened.

This need for interpretation is perhaps made clear by how all performances of a play are interpretations of it. When MacBeth says, “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out! Out! brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” how does he say it? Is he angry? Sad? Resigned? First angry then resigned? Resigned then angry then resigned again? If you ever try reading this speech aloud, you will find that there are many convincing ways to say it which fit in which the character of MacBeth. Each way means something a little different, and if you say it out loud, you have to pick some way of saying it because you can’t read it without some sort of expression. If you were to read it in a flat monotone with no variation of pacing, like a computer from fifteen years ago, that would turn it into comedy, which is, after all, just another interpretation of it.

This same problem obtains when you merely read the text to yourself, though. You have to read it somehow or other, and however you read it, it probably won’t be the same as how somebody else reads it. In the end it doesn’t really matter that there is the danger in artistic interpretations that they take one work and make it several, doing less to bridge the gap between people than we might wish. You can’t do without artistic interpretations; the best you can do is work to pick a valid interpretation. That and share your preferred interpretation in case it helps others.

The Problem With Ex-Hominem Arguments

In this video I talk about the problem of ex-hominem arguments, that is, arguments “from the man”. These are arguments in which the person making the argument uses himself (or, more often, some trait of his) as a premise in his argument. The classic example is “I did X as a kid and I turned out all right” but it’s surprisingly common once you watch out for it. It’s not invalid to do, but it does cause some problems when a person does it, namely, that an ad-hominem argument becomes a necessary and valid response. In the example above, if the guy didn’t actually turn out OK, then how he turned out is not proof that the X was fine to do as a kid.

Chemical Composition, or, Substance and Accidents

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation means that in the Eucharist, when the priest speaks Christ’s words of consecration (“this is my body”, “this is my blood”) over the bread and wine on the alter, the power of Christ is invoked, by the authority he gave to his apostles and they delegated to their successors and they delegated to the priests whom they consecrate, and it changes the bread and wine on the alter to become the body and blood of Christ. (This is sometimes called the “real presence.”) Much difficulty arises over exactly what is meant because the bread doesn’t turn into muscle tissue and the wine doesn’t develop red blood cells.

The Eastern Orthodox basically just say “it’s a mystery” and leave it at that. (I liked the styling I saw someplace, “eeeet’sss aaaaa myyyysssterrrryyyyy”.) The Catholic Church says that it’s a mystery, but it gives a few helpful details. You can actually see this in the word “transubstantiation.”

“Transubstantiation” is derived from two words: “trans” and “substance”. “Trans” meaning “change” and “substance” being that part of being which is not the accidents. Accidents, in this case, not meaning “something unintended” but rather the properties a thing has which, if they were changed or removed, would not make the thing something else. A chair might be made out of wood, but if you made it out of plastic it would still be a chair. The ability to hold up someone sitting is the substance of a chair, the material it is made out of is an accident (again, not in the colloquial sense of accident but in a technical sense). You can also do the reverse. You can take the wood a chair is made out of and rearrange it into a collection of splintery spikes protruding up. It has the same accidents (the wood), but the substance has changed. “Transubstantiation” just means that the accidents (the gluten, starch, etc. in the bread and the water, sugar, alcohol, etc. in the wine) remain the same but the substance—what it is—is what has changed.

Or, to put this more simply: in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ has the same chemical composition as bread and wine. Something to consider, when trying to understand this, is that a living human being has exactly the same chemical composition as a human corpse.

Cabin Assignments

My progress on The Corpse in Crystal Lake has been slow, but at least I’m up to chapter 4. Then I suddenly realized that, while I have a guest list of the people staying at Crystal Lake, and I have a map, I haven’t actually put the two things together and assigned people to cabins. Argh.

It matters, too. Which cabin someone is in will influence what they see, who they’re likely to run into on their way someplace else, etc. It will even tend to influence the order in which the brothers talk to them. So, officially, argh. The amount of background work required for murder mysteries can be really frustrating sometimes.

Oh, and I need to figure out if I have to put the assignments on the map somehow. I do have the cabins numbered, so maybe I don’t have to. That would certainly be more convenient.

Playing pretend as a grownup sure is a lot of work.

If Real Socialism Has Never Been Tried

One sometimes hears the claim that real socialism has never been tried. The many things that have claimed to be socialism—German National Socialism (Nazism), Italian Fascism, Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism, East German Communism, North Korean Communism, Vietnamese Communism, etc. etc. etc.—were not socialism, they were authoritarianism. I’m not, here, interested in debating the point, though I can’t help but note that defining socialism to be, roughly, “a system where people voluntarily share things rather than selling them” makes it not a political system but just a free market with impressively effective preachers of the gospel and extraordinarily receptive listeners to it (since it would be pretty much exactly how the early christian community operated in the pagan world, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, before the church expanded much outside of Jerusalem).

No, what I propose to do in this post is to just grant the proposition that no one has actually tried real socialism and see what follows from it. If we grant this premise, we come to some pretty strange conclusions. Well, perhaps not so strange.

The first question we must ask ourselves, if no one has ever tried real socialism, is: why did all of the people who set out to try real socialism fail to try it?

This is a very important question. We have had many people in many places throughout the last 100 or so years who have tried to set up socialism. People like Vladimir Lenin, Adoplh Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung and Hồ Chí Minh, were not joking. They thought that capitalism was evil and that the government and the economy should exist to benefit the people, not a rich minority or the well-born or an elite of any kind. There are plenty of others who thought the same thing, too. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg formed the Communist Party of Germany, which merged with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (itself a merger of other, earlier parties) to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was the ruling communist party of East Germany. They weren’t kidding. Hugo Chavez formed the Movimiento V República, which went on to join with other socialist parties to become the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He wasn’t kidding. Does anyone think that Fidel Castro was joking?

By hypothesis, all of these people—and others—failed to try real socialism. They tried to try real socialism but just couldn’t succeed enough to actually give it a try. So what is so difficult about trying socialism that, so far in human history, every single one of the many people who have tried to try it have all failed? And they didn’t just fail a little bit, either. They have generally produced the worst hell-holes that the world has ever seen. Some of that is, undoubtedly, owing to the more advanced state of technology in the world when all of these people tried to try socialism and failed to try it. Still, they didn’t try to try socialism and end up trying multi-party democracies with thriving free-market economies. A bit like trying to catch a bullet someone shot at you with your teeth or riding a unicycle over a rope stretched across the grand canyon, failure has a pretty high cost.

So we must ask the person suggesting that we give real socialism a try because it’s never been tried before—how does he know that he’ll actually be able to try it, unlike all of the other people who have tried to try it and plunged their nations into misery when they accidentally tried something else instead? Has the world simply been waiting around for someone as great as this kindly intentioned person, that finally the human race has produced the pinnacle of evolution, with all of the multitude of powers required to actually try real socialism?

Now, supposing that the answer is yes, a further question arises—and I don’t mean how can we find out if this lovely soul is correct that they can do what so many others failed to without giving them the power necessary to try to try real socialism—supposing this wonderful fellow is right and has that rare combination of qualities necessary to try real socialsm, what happens if trying real socialism doesn’t work? The human race has finally produced a member great enough to succeed at trying real socialism—what if he really tries it, but fails to achieve it? I can really try to throw a three-point shot in basketball, but most of the time this very real attempt fails to succeed in actually putting the ball in the net. What if really trying socialism and failing is even worse than trying to try real socialism and failing to try it?

Let us, however, assume that this greatest human being ever is sufficiently great not only to try real socialism, but even to succeed at real socialism. What if real socialism is awful? Remember that, by hypothesis, real socialism is completely untested. What happens to the millions of souls who would live under the result if it turns out that, say, real socialism is even worse in practice than fake socialism, or whatever you get when you try to try real socialism but fail? No one’s ever tried real socialism, so how on earth do we know what will happen if that attempt were to actually take place?

Another curious problem is introduced by the fact that it requires the pinnacle of human evolution to succeed in trying to try real socialism—in order for this attempt at an attempt to work, we’re going to have to put this most magnificent achievement of our species in charge. If they shared responsibility with anyone, they, being inferior, would drag them down, and then how would we possible succeed at trying to try real socialism? I suppose that the magnificent one could be so great that even as one among a large group of his inferiors he would lift them up to the heights required to succeed at trying to try real socialism. That seems like asking a lot of evolution, though. We so far haven’t produced one human who can bring about real socialism and all of a sudden we have one that can turn a group of people who can’t try real socialism into a group that can? How could that much incomparable magnificence possibly be achieved in just one generation?

There is a further problem, though, even if we just assume for some reason that real socialism, if attempted, will be good instead of even worse than fake socialism—and I, for one, would much rather drink fake poison than real poison—and that this pinnacle of evolution is so magnificent he doesn’t need to be a dictator but can, by his magnificence, make an entire parliament of people who cannot, on their own, succeed even at trying to try real socialism not only succeed at trying to try real socialism but actually achieve real socialism, too. If we assume all this, what happens when this pinnacle of evolution comes to die? It happens to all of the descendants of men, after all. How are we to replace the greatest human being the world has ever produced? And if we can’t, what will happen to this real socialism now that it is run by people who, left to themselves as they now are, could not succeed even in trying to try it? Are we to suppose that this thing which is so difficult that no one has hitherto succeeded even in trying to try it will go along merrily when run by ordinary people who, in the whole course of history, have never gotten anything right until now?

And, if so—if we are to suppose that real socialism is so difficult to get going that no one has yet succeeded in trying to try it but so easy to keep going that anyone can do it—can I interest the person claiming this in buying a bridge? It’s a real nice bridge. Very popular. Tons of people drive over it. I hate to part with it.

He doesn’t even need to keep the tolls for himself. He can use the money he’ll get from it in order to fund his local socialist party.

What YouTube Subscriber Numbers Actually Mean

I recently made a video called Why I Keep Going Even Though My Channel is Small. I’ve run into a few people who objected to the description because I have almost 3,000 subscribers. There’s a sense in which this is true, and I actually address that in the video. The video was answering a question that someone asked me about why people with small channels like mine keep going. I started with describing the proper perspective and moved on to the point is to give to others knowledge and understanding that I’ve been given and there’s a division of labor here: it’s my job to make the videos and tell people about them as best I can, and God’s job to figure out who should actually see them and arrange the world such that they do. However many or few people that is God knows, not me.

That said, the number of subscribers to a channel like mine that’s been around for years can be misleading. You might think that this is the number of people who want to watch my videos, but it’s actually the number of people who, at some point over the last several years, thought for at least a moment that they would like to see more videos like the one that they just saw. Thus if you look at the view counts for my recent several months of videos, you can see what I mean:

The view numbers tend to range from 100 to 300 views. In round numbers, that’s around 4%-10% of the number of subscribers. But this is not telling the full story, because the view numbers are of people who watched the video at all, not of people who watched the whole thing. Here’s the audience retention graph for the video on why I keep going even though my channel is small:

I can get specific numbers by highlighting the graph with my mouse, which is why there are no y-ticks. Giving approximate numbers, only 75% of the audience is still there by about 15 seconds in. The audience is down to 50% about about 1:35 in. After that the audience leaves more slowly and 22% watch to the end. So of the 2969 subscribers my channel had at the time of this writing, only 1.8% actually watched the video in its entirety. But wait, there’s more!

Viewership of a video is not entirely from subscribers. Here’s the numbers on where traffic came from:

“YouTube recommendations” is a bit ambiguous, since YouTube often recommends videos from channels one is subscribed to, but that’s not going to be all of the recommendations. So we know that at least 37% of views came from subscribers, but adding it together it looks like maybe 70% did. So that 1.8% of subscribers who watched the video may be more like 1.3%.

Here, by the way, is a list of the videos that my video was recommended after, that people actually clicked through for (or autoplayed from):

Of those, 3 are my own videos, though one of those has no view time on the video it referred to (I’m not sure why the ones with 0 impressions are on this list). Frankly, I don’t think this list tells one anything, but it does, at least, give a sense of how little control one has as there’s nothing actionable here. I don’t know whether YouTube is more likely to recommend videos from channels one subscribes to, but just looking at the recommendations it gives me, it doesn’t seem big on that. (On the other hand, channels that one found from recommendations are more likely to have other videos show up in recommendations, I think because many of its videos seem recommendable for roughly the same reasons. Which, if true, makes subscriptions that much less important.)

There’s also the weird problem that subscribing to a channel doesn’t actually get you notified about all of the videos from the channel, which is contrary to what most people expect. Instead, one has to “ring the bell” i.e. click the bell icon next to the subscribe button and set the notification preferences to “all”. This goes some of the way to explaining why so (relatively) few subscribers actually watch a channel’s videos.

Please bear in mind that none of this is meant as a complaint. As I said in my video, it would be worth it to make a video for 1 person if I couldn’t just talk to him in person and it’s God’s job to figure out how successful I should be. That my videos reach dozens of people who watch to the end and often a hundred or more who watch halfway is a bonus. My only purpose to this post is to illustrate how misleading the numbers YouTube presents to the public can be if you don’t understand them. Like most things in life, the reality is not as impressive as the surface glitz, but reality is what it is and, taken properly, being realistic should not be discouraging. In a sense, that’s what the video about why I keep going with a small channel is all about.


If you haven’t seen it and are interested: