West Texas Wildflower Survey

There is a trail near my house where I like to walk, and there has been so much rain this season that there are more wildflowers in bloom than usual. I thought it would be fun to take a survey of the wildflowers while on my walks, and identify as many as I could.


Devil's Bouquet
Devil’s Bouquet aka Scarlet Muskflower (Nyctaginia capitata choisy)
Dayflower (Commelina erecta)


Slender Stem Bitterweed
Slender stem bitterweed (Hymenoxys scaposa)
Copper globemallow
Copper globemallow (Sphaeralcea augustifolia)
Another Copper globemallow in a slightly different shade.


Prairie Fleabane
Prairie fleabane (Erigeron strigosus)
Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium)
Meadow Beauty
Meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana)
Wild Sunflower
Wild Sunflowers (Helianthus Annuus)
Brown Bitterweed
Brown Bitterweed (Helenium badium)
wild quinine
Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)- I think…


bastard cabbage
Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum)

I will probably do another survey in the spring. There should be a greater variety, then, and hopefully I will be able to find some bluebonnets.


Weirdos Wanted

Epistemic Status: Tentative. I think there may be the seed of a good idea in here, but it needs a lot more thought. How could I test whether it is true?



“I haven’t gone insane; I’m trying to disprove time-travel. If I were trying to prove it, then I would be insane.”

I say this almost every time I tell someone about my time-travel experiments. When the person I’m speaking to says the usual vague “mmmm, cool” before trying to change the topic, I will further explain that I’m a science fiction writer, and that the whole project was something fun to put on my blog. That statement usually seems to help, and we can go to the next conversation topic having firmly established that I’m not a weirdo.

I’m just someone with a quirky sense of humor. It doesn’t matter that you don’t get the joke. The experiment is still just a joke, and that makes it safe.

There is a certain set of people who do get the joke. These are the people who enjoy watching corny 1950s scifi movies, where the villain proclaims, “everyone called me crazy. Everyone laughed at me. Well who is laughing now?” Many of the people who get the joke are actual scientists who know how actual science works, and they know that scifi villains have it all wrong.

I’m not an actual scientist, and I’m certain I’ve gotten a lot wrong.

As I work on designing my next set of time-travel experiments, I wonder why I can’t find much substantive work to guide me. What do actual physicists know that I don’t? It seems like the experiments I am designing are simple and obvious, yet I can find very few people doing anything similar. Why isn’t there an organization analogous to SETI that seeks to contact extra-temporal intelligence? Even Stephen Hawking’s attempt to contact time-travelers seems to contain a subtle wink.

In my initial post, I posited that time-travel was impossible. The laws of physics don’t really seem to prohibit it, however, so I decided to use what limited resources I had to test the idea. There are a million potentially confounding factors, but performing practical tests is the first step to narrowing those confounding factors. Even so, attempts to detect time-travelers have been sparse. Perhaps actual scientists take the dangers of creating alternate timelines or being deluged in an infinite number of time-travelers more seriously than I have, but I doubt that is the case.

Given the weird looks and mumbles I’ve had to endure, I would guess that others think I’m taking the dangers, and my own experiments’ importance, too seriously. I’m not a scientist, I have no formal training in physics, and yet I have the hubris to think I can do experiments on time that they have not done. Therefore, I must be crazy.






21st century scientific work requires years of specialized training and meticulous work. It seems of the low-hanging fruit in science was mostly picked in the 19th and early 20th century. Current evidence suggests that research productivity is declining, despite the advantages our current technology has brought. The big discoveries are fewer and fewer.

But the world is so vast and the horizons are so wide that it seems intuitive that there are still discoveries waiting all around us. Perhaps those discoveries seem so difficult to find because we are only looking where we’ve already trod. The scientists of the past established their fields where they already picked the low-hanging fruit, and today’s scientists return to those venerable fields to gather fruit of their own. It is seen as abnormal- even taboo- to wander outside of the established fields of science and into the unknown.

People sometimes give lip service to the idea that scientists of the past had to wander into strange and unusual territories in order to establish the fields of science that flourish today. After all, everyone laughed at ­­­-insert scientist here- before he was proven correct. However, science is a respectable endeavor now, and has therefore become complacent. Fewer and fewer people are willing to stake their professional reputation by wandering into strange areas. No one wants to be rejected by their peers, and it is much harder to build respectability from the ground up than to enter an already-respected field of study.

To make matters worse, many people demand evidence that a path of inquiry will yield fruit before taking it seriously. Others may roll their eyes and complain that resources are being wasted on researching things that have no obvious practical use. This unfortunately sets up a catch-22. After all, how is one supposed to find evidence before one looks for it? How can one prove that something useful will be found where no one has ever gone? There may be nothing there, but there may be ground-breaking discoveries lying in wait to be found. Every result, positive or negative, gives us a better idea of the territory.

Given the size and scope of the territory, and how little time humanity has spent making a serious exploration of it using the tools of the scientific method, I predict that we are overestimating how good our map actually is.

I have no professional reputation at stake. That is why, despite the social discomfort, I will continue to write weird stories, do weird experiments, and seek unusual ideas. While it is important to build on work from the past, we have plenty of people willing to do so already. Right now, the world needs weirdos.


Time-Travel 1.0: A Post-Mortem

In order to ensure that my second round of experimentation is constructive, it is useful to examine the conclusion of the first run of time-travel experiments in greater detail.

There are several possibilities why my attempts to contact time-travelers failed. The first few have been discussed a great deal already, so I will discuss them briefly.

1.      Alternate timelines: It is possible that when a time-traveler goes into the past, their actions to alter the past create tangential timelines. The original timeline, in which they did not appear to alter events, remains. My main objection to this hypothesis was that my actions, by inviting a time-traveler to come to visit, have already created this chain of events.  In other words, the cause of the time-traveler’s actions- my invitation- remains in timeline A, so it follows that the effect of the invitation would also occur in timeline A instead of timeline B.

There is another, less-often discussed objection to the alternate timelines hypothesis, and that is because time-travelers (from their perspective) have unlimited time in which to meddle, the number if alternate timelines they have the capacity to create is without limit. Only the prime timeline will be free from encounters with time-travelers, and the possibility that we live in that timeline is infinitesimal. Practically speaking, there is no way for me to control for the alternate-timeline possibility experimentally (if I am wrong about this, please let me know.)

2.      The temporal prime-directive: In my initial assessment of the temporal prime-directive, I was dismissive due to the fact that rules are not airtight- people, given enough time, find reasons to bend or break rules. A time gate, or a Chronology Protection Agency, will also be broken eventually if created by people- even if these people are godlike. After all, the people trying to break the time gate will likely also be godlike, if this is the case.

I assign a higher probability to the idea that nature itself acts as a time gate. The laws of physics appear to have put a hard limit on speed at 186,000 miles per second, and they have surrounded stable singularities with lovely little event horizons, and I think that these types of limits would be far more difficult for people to crack, unless we utilize very specific subatomic particles to send information backward in time. (It would be really awesome to find a way to find or even send such information. Perhaps we could do this with the clever use of time-crystals? Maybe we just need to do the same thing we’ve been doing with SETI, and look for strange patterns, primes etc.)

3.      Informational noise: The informational noise hypothesis has been less-discussed. Anything that can be communicated, measured, and described in any quantitative or qualitative manner can be considered information, and as long as time and entropy exist, new information will be generated and subsequently lost. The information generated so far is finite, since the age of the universe is finite. But if time-travel happens, then time is no longer finite. From the time-traveler’s perspective, the amount of time that the time-traveler has to gather information is infinite, and the amount of new information that they can generate within their own timeline and by re-visiting and changing the past is infinite.

Therefore, the information that the time-traveler has access to and the time in which the time-traveler has to access said information is 1:1.



This remains true whether the timeline branches into a tangent when new information is generated or not.

4.      Unimportance: Even if a time-traveler could find the information I’ve generated amongst the noise, they have the whole of time and space to explore. I’m probably not cool enough to warrant a visit. Perhaps even a person we call a giant in our own time, such as Stephen Hawking, is not cool in a cosmic sense. Greater minds are sure to come in the future; even if humanity destroys itself, another more brilliant species will surely replace us, even if we don’t have infinite time to work with. We have a LOT of time to work with, and if a civilization gets access to time-travel, then they can generate people infinitely cooler than anyone I’ve ever known or heard of.

5.      Information degradation or sabotage: I dismissed this possibility in my initial conclusion, as well, because there was a window of time in which I could observe my information remain unchanged, and that should be enough time for a time-traveler to access it. However, if time-travel invitations are going to have a better chance of being noticed among all of the informational noise, then the invitation should be available at as many points on the timeline as possible. This leads me to the next points.

6. Time preservation: how can I make sure that the information is available for as long as possible- to give it a greater chance of being seen for far into the future? The internet seemed like a good plan, but though the maxim states that whatever is on the internet is forever, it’s only been around a few decades- the internet may be a fleeting technology if we find a way to send information through time using time crystals or neutrinos or wormholes. Plus- we’ve already looked for evidence of time-travelers on the internet, and haven’t found much. At this time, the only other copy I have of the dice roll results is a paper journal written in ink, which is obviously a poor preservation method.

7. The “parking” problem: I gave a week’s window between pre-commitment/announcement and the dice rolls. Given he infinite nature of time, what if a week’s space of time is too narrow a space of time to “aim” one’s time machine toward? How accurate would a time machine be? How wide of a space is necessary?

8. Blinding: If I receive a set of predictions before I roll the dice, this knowledge will unconsciously or consciously affect how I roll the dice. This will, of course, produce a paradox. In my next set of experiments, I need to get someone who does not check the social media channels for results to roll the dice, preferably using a dice tower. We need to then preserve as well as we can.

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been searching for aliens for a very short period of time- a blink of the eye, in the cosmic sense. Yet the question remains; if extraterrestrial intelligence can arise, why haven’t we found aliens, yet? It’s difficult to work out exactly how likely it is for intelligent life to arise, since we only have one example in one place from which to extrapolate, and so we continue to search. Likewise, it’s difficult to work out how likely we are to encounter a time-traveler, or to gain the ability to time-travel, so the only thing to do is keep looking. I’ve conducted my first practical experiment on time-travel, and the results have given me a lot to think about for the next experiment

I consider the lack of data on my first time-travel experiment to be invaluable. I’ll see you in the future, better prepared and a little bit wiser.

Time Travel, Part IV


               This morning, July 15, 2018, I officially declare my time-traveler experiment complete. Below are the results.

      I have not been contacted by any time-travelers or prognosticators with the results of the dice rolls I made this morning at 8:30 am, CDT.

      1d12- 9

      2d6- 6,4

      2d20- 16,9

      1d30- 8

      1d8- 2

      1d100- 50

      1d6- 6

      1d4- 3

      1d12- 12

      1d12- 7

      1d20- 5


      In summation- no paradox-enabled time-travelers met me at the designated meeting place on week one. One person guessed the result of one of my paradox-safe dice rolls on week two, after I had already made the roll, and did not guess any of the other rolls. No one guessed the results of my rolls on week three after I’d offered them a lost sonata written by a singularly unaccomplished musician.

      I had planned to offer ever-increasing incentives until I reached my highest possible bid, and then declare the time-travel experiment closed. Unfortunately, earlier this week I came across the following story.

      Stephen Hawking and the time-traveler party.

      Stephen Hawking had already conducted an experiment similar to mine- he threw a party for time-travelers and sent the invitations out afterward. There was also an open invitation for time-travelers to attend his memorial. According to reports, no time-travelers came.

      I had actively been trying to avoid seeing the results of experiments similar to mine because I didn’t wish to grow discouraged, and that may have been wise. I know that I will never, ever be able to offer a time-traveler anything better than the chance to party with Stephen Hawking, or the chance to pay their respects him. I cannot compete with a giant. Therefore, my experiment is closed.

      Conclusion: Either there is no time-travel, time-travel is guarded by a secure gate or temporal prime directive, there is too much informational noise in the infinity of time for time-travelers to find invitations from the past, or the time-travelers can only reply to Bridgetts in tangential timelines. (Edited to add- someone has let me know that another possible confounder is that someone may tamper with my experiment or dice-roll results in the future. They have, after all, infinite time and opportunity to do so. This is less of a problem because there is a window in which I have already observed the results remain the same.)

      Things I wish I had considered: the possibility of my local starbucks being overrun by an infinite number of time-travelers, the possibility of my blog or twitter being overrun by an infinite number of messages from time-travelers.

Time Travel Part III

Last week, I issued a challenge to time-travelers (as well as any prognosticators who may be reading) to foretell the results of a series of dice rolls I was to make today, 07/08/2018 at 9:30 AM CDT. I promised to post the results of the rolls no matter the outcome of the experiment, in order to avoid any potential paradox. The results of the dice rolls are as follows.

1 d10- 5

1 d20- 18

3 d6- 6,2,2

3 d6- 5,2,5

1 d100- 73

1 d20- 13

1 d4- 4

1 d4- 4

1 d12- 1

1 d6- 4

2 d20- 2,8

Result: 1 person guessed 1 dice roll- the 1d20 (18) during a d6 dice roll. I assign a probability so low that it is negligible that this person is a time traveler. I hereby conclude that this experiment is a successful failure.

The person who made the guess has expressed to me the doubt that 1) a time-traveler would ever see my posts, considering the infinite informational noise contained within time. Even if time-travelers have infinite time to find your posts, they say, more information is being added in the meantime. To a time-traveler with unlimited time, I am infinitely unimportant.

I have no way to combat this effect experimentally, except to say to myself that an infinite subset of infinity seems to approach one, instead of “undefined” as they say. However, I cannot deny my cosmic unimportance does approach infinity.

I only have one incentive to offer any time-travelers, and it is a mere trifle. I am going under the assumption that some time-travelers will become collectors of sorts, and seek out lost treasures in the time stream. To that end I am willing to offer any time-travelers a quaint little sonata I wrote when I was in college. I never wrote down or recorded the sonata, and it only exists in my brain. If and when I go, the sonata goes, too. If any time-travelers would like a copy of the sonata, send me the result of next-week’s dice rolls @bkkawaii on twitter or https://projectdxm.wordpress.com/ . I will roll early next Sunday, 07/15/2018, at 8:30 AM.

Time Travel, Part II

A few days ago, I issued an open invitation over twitter to time-travelers.

“… I’m willing to test my theory. If there are any time travelers out there in the future, please meet me. I’ll know it’s you because you will already know the time, place, and password.”

I am writing this at the appointed meeting place, at the appointed time, and so far, no one has approached me with the password. There is a thirty-minute window, and after the window closes, I can officially call this experiment a successful failure, and enjoy my latte in peace.

It occurs to me, however, that my first time-travel experiment has invoked a paradox. By demanding that the time-traveler know the time and place of the meeting as evidence of their ability to time-travel, I’m creating a situation where the time-traveler will have already have had to met me in order to tell their past selves where to meet me, creating a closed loop. If the universe is hostile to such paradoxes, I will need to construct a paradox-free time travel test… if such a thing is even possible.

Time, it seems, creates enough paradoxes on its own.

However, I am willing to try to minimize potential paradoxes. Next Sunday, at 9:30 am, I will make a series of dice rolls and post the results to my blog, whether anyone replies to this post or not. If anyone from the future is reading this, please post a reply to this post with the dice-roll results before 9:30am on Sunday, July 08, 2018 either in the comments on this post at https://projectdxm.wordpress.com/ , or on twitter @bkkawaii.

I realize that one needn’t be a time-traveler per se to pass this test. One could be a prognosticator with either a type of “time telescope” that allows one to see into the future, or they may own a computer that can model the state of the physical world to such detail that it can predict how events will play out. Even seemingly random events, like dice rolls, follow predictable physical laws, after all. Such an ability is impressive enough in itself for me to entertain.

It is also possible that anyone who passes this test will have just gotten lucky. Even if it is really improbable that anyone will guess the dice rolls by random chance, this may still be more probable than time travel. I’ve already declared time-travel to be impossible, so it’s difficult for me to work out a number of dice-rolls to satisfy my standards of evidence. I figure I’ll just subject anyone who passes this test to further dice-roll challenges until I get bored with rolling dice, and then interrogate the subject further about their means.

In either case, the experiment continues. If it fails, I’ll be able to congratulate myself on a successful prediction, and if it is a success, I am bound for an awesome adventure. Either way, I probably look like a lunatic, which I am becoming more and more comfortable with.

Update: It is now 10:01 and no one has approached me with the password. The first experiment was not only a successful failure, but the experiment’s paradox did not destroy the universe. To my knowledge.

Time Travel (Sorry, but we never get it.)

Let’s not worry about physics, right now. Instead, let’s discuss how humans work and fail to work.

Humans fight, and when the stakes are high we use our intelligence to weaponize the tools that are available. This strategy worked very well for our ancestors on an individual or tribal level, because it is extremely difficult to destroy the world with a sharpened stick.

With time travel, however, the destruction of existence is guaranteed.

At first, everyone involved with time travel research may have nothing but the best of intentions. However, it’s just a matter of time before a serious conflict breaks out, and side A- desperate in a struggle to survive- decides to go back in time to fix the outcome of a battle.

Perhaps side A goes back in time to assassinate side B’s brilliant young general while he is in the bath, or perhaps they travel to the future to steal weapons from a more advanced age. If side A really wants to win, they will do both. Afterward, side B either sends their spies into side A’s camp and steals the secret of time travel, or side B gets the secret of time-travel from their descendants, who gained the secret of time travel during a period of peace with side A and then decided that peace was boring.

Either way, side B manages to retaliate against side A by going further back in time, fixing battles in their own favor, and bringing their past-selves technology- including time-travel technology. Side B’s past selves go backward to do the same thing, whose past selves also go backward, and on, and on, etc.

The best-kept secrets will be spilled, and the most important rules will be broken- including the temporal prime-directive. Given enough time, there will inevitably come a point when this seems necessary. Due to the way time war is waged, destruction and death will spread throughout the timeline, until there is nothing left.

In the beginning, Man destroyed the universe.

A universe with time-travel is fundamentally unstable. We exist, and therefore we do not ever get the ability to travel through time.

The first objection to this reasoning that I’ve thought of is that we may transform into some post-human species that is more enlightened than we, and can better resist the temptation to misuse time-travel. In such a case, I can only assert that given enough time (and with time-travel availability, time is no longer a limited resource) it is most probable that the technology will either fall into the hands of a less-enlightened species due to sheer accident, or that post-human enlightenment will evolve into post-post-human barbarity. Thus, no matter what species holds time-travel technology, instability is guaranteed.

The second objection I’ve anticipated is that perhaps, instead of looping into the same timeline when we time-travel, we create alternate branches of reality that fall apart when touched by time travel without tainting the main timeline. In other words, if side A travels back in time to fix the outcome of a battle, the future they return to is an alternate timeline where they win, and the original timeline continues untarnished. My response is that, in going back to fix the outcome of the battle, side A creates a paradox. Side A would only go back in time to fix the outcome of a battle if they originally lost or felt they had a poor chance of winning, and when they tamper with the timeline they destroy the conditions of them going back to fix the outcome of the battle to begin with. Thus, time travelers who originally lose the battle are transported to the timeline where they win, and the versions of themselves who win are duplicates of the versions of themselves who saw no reason to travel, and therefore stayed where they are. One of the timelines must be erased by the time-traveler’s actions; otherwise, multiple timelines are filled with time-duplicates, which creates its own sort of instability.

In either case, I suppose I don’t need my time-clone password anymore, which I created to recognize messages from my future self. My password wasn’t secure, anyway, because it exists somewhere in time and space.timewarp

Humility is not a Virtue, But Caution Can Be

I don’t have a breakthrough ethical system to present. I cut my teeth on Kant and Mills, and I haven’t come much further since. I prefer utilitarianism when working out difficult moral quandaries, and I try to make sound ethical choices in my everyday life. In one respect, however, I have been neglectful, and that has been in my behavior toward myself.

I am a sentient being who feels pleasure and pain; my happiness should carry as much moral weight as anyone else’s. Unfortunately, my moral intuition tells me something very different- that it is virtuous to treat myself badly.

It is altruistic to deprive yourself of pleasure to ease the pain of others, or to suffer pain in someone else’s stead. However, my moral intuitions do not seem capable of honestly judging when my pain or lack of pleasure will really help others. It feels as though, by always putting myself last, everyone around me should benefit, but that is far from the case.

Imagine living your whole life like this.

To show where my intuition is failing, consider the following scenario- Bridgett decides to go on a drive through her happy town one sunny day. She stops at a four-way stop, and there is a truck that rolls to a stop there as well. Bridgett knows she has the right-of-way, but she is feeling humble and deferential, and decides the nice thing to do would be to wave the truck on. She doesn’t lose much time that way, and the driver of the truck may be in a hurry.

Unfortunately, Bridgett failed to check her rear-view mirror, and misses the car that has stopped behind her. This car will also be inconvenienced by her act. In addition, the rules of the road have been muddied a little, and the more Bridgett adopts this behavior- the more everyone adopts this behavior- the more awkward pause-and-wave exchanges will happen at four-way stops.

Bridgett and the car behind her were mildly inconvenienced in this scenario, but let us move her off of the sleepy exurban street and onto a freeway. Bridgett usually avoids freeways, especially in cities, because she does terribly on them. In the dark corners of her mind, she has acted in a deferential manner so often that the state of Texas handbook might as well state “Bridgett never gets the right-of-way.” Bridgett knows that she has to get onto the ramp, speed up, and merge with freeway traffic, but her ingrained instincts are screaming at her to slow down and let everyone else go ahead.

Today there is a lot of traffic, and a zipper merge is required. Bridgett wants to let everyone ahead, but it seems there is a wall of cars without end. Bridgett hesitates on the gas- the merge lane will soon end, and she isn’t up to speed. Cars are whizzing past. The situation has become dangerous, and traffic is piling up behind her. This can result in a traffic jam in the best case, and an accident in the worst case.

There are unending situations in everyday life in which deferential habits can cause more harm than good. It’s a popular fact that depriving oneself may make one unable to help others at all- “put on your own oxygen mask first.” But in addition to this, when you lower yourself on the social hierarchy, you create a disparity that the unscrupulous are tempted to exploit. In a sense, you unbalance a social order that requires a good deal of fairness to operate. Zipper merges prevent accidents and traffic jams only if you are willing to go ahead when it is your turn.




Truth is something that exists outside of our notions of social hierarchy. Fire burns, and it will burn the hand of king and peasant alike, even if the king decrees that he alone is allowed to touch the flame.

Unfortunately, my intuition is unwilling to consider this in its reckonings. I have an unfortunate habit of apologizing for being right when I am shown to be correct in a factual disagreement, and sometimes I will even stay silent when I have knowledge that I should share.

My spouse is an uncommonly intelligent person who has the ability to notice and remember far more details than I can. I space out, and my memory is inconsistent. However, after a lot of introspection I’ve finally concluded that, though my brain may be quirky, I’m not actually stupid. I can keep up with my spouse on an intellectual level at least enough to carry on very interesting conversations, to banter point and counterpoint with him on complex topics, and to be an interesting and entertaining companion to him.

Even so, I still have a hard time stepping out of my self-appointed deferential role. To give a fairly mundane example- not too long ago my spouse was returning a product to the manufacturer, and we went to the UPS store to get a box and label for shipping. The manufacturer requested that the product code be written on the box, so my spouse wrote it on the side in sharpie. He was filling out the label when I noticed a missing digit on the product code he had written.

It took me a few moments to work up the courage to point it out, and even then, I did so in a little faltering voice- “um, I think the five is missing?” I had no reason to add the question mark- I knew the five was missing- but I added the question mark to the end of my sentence anyway.

My spouse, being the reasonable human he is, checked the number and corrected it. I apologized for correcting him as we left the UPS store, but he insisted that he was of glad I had pointed out the error, and thanked me for my help.

Had he not been so understanding- if instead of being a nice person he’d been an arrogant jerk- he might have sneered at my correction. He might have insisted he was right, and pointed out both my astigmatism and my short attention span as evidence that I must be wrong. In fact- he might have just insisted he was smarter than me, and therefore I should shut my mouth. After all, why would a smart person deign to check the number on the box per the mere word of a bespectacled goofball?

If he had acted so, would his arrogance have been the opposite of the mistake I almost made when I hesitated to point out the product code error? In other words, if the jerk version of my spouse had felt less sure of himself, would be have been more willing to check the number? Or would he have fought to maintain the status differential between us, and been less willing to check? From what I’ve seen in arguments between people who view themselves that differently, I believe the latter- a person of very high status, and who finds their high status to be important, is less willing to check an error pointed out by someone of a very low social status.

Conversely, if I had been the one to write the number on the box, and someone else had pointed out an error to me, I would have instantly re-written the number without checking what I’d written. I assume I am wrong, and do not seek to justify myself before altering my behavior to suit others.

I propose that the evil version of my spouse and the current version of me are two sides of the same coin- that we are actually making two versions of the same mistake instead of different mistakes altogether. We are using our sense of relative status as the standard to determine the reliability of information instead of making an analysis of the information itself.

You might argue that relative status can be used as a heuristic to analyze the source of information, but such a heuristic can actually blind one to making an honest examination of the information source- and an excuse to ignore it altogether. If the evil version of my spouse cared more about knowledge than status, he might have considered the fact that, while I do have an astigmatism, my glasses were clean and my prescription up-to-date. He might have considered that, while I usually walk around in a fog, the very fact that I pointed out the error was an indication that I was paying more attention than usual. If the evil version of my spouse had thought about the matter further, he might have realized that product codes are generally long and confusing strings of characters, and that it would be helpful to have a general policy of double-checking them, just in case.

In other words, status hierarchy is an inadequate and outdated technology for analyzing anything truly complicated. It is more useful to ulitise caution instead of humility- to check for mistakes in one’s self regularly not because you think that you are stupid, but because you know that you are a buggy system who deals with complex information.

If I am a buggy system, does that necessarily make me a bad system? If I am, does thinking I am ‘bad’ tell me where I am going wrong? Will calling myself a fool fix my errors? No, it won’t. In fact, this kind of self-flagellation tends to increase my errors. Feeling humble and deferential has held me back, kept me quiet, and made me hesitate to contribute to a society I could otherwise help. At the very least, it has caused me to neglect my own moral worth. Reminding myself that automatic deference will not help anyone is an effective way of countering it. I imagine that thinking overconfidence will not help one’s self may be similarly helpful in overcoming that error.

Santa Claus and Modest Epistemology


There are four kinds of children. The first kind never believe in Santa Claus, the second kind believe at first and then work out the truth about Santa Claus for themselves, and the third kind continue believing until someone else reveals the truth.

The fourth kind of child makes an honest attempt to question the Santa Claus paradigm, utterly fail in their reasoning, and never understand where they went wrong until they are 37 and Eliezer Yudkowsky writes a book called “Inadequate Equilibria.

I think I may be the only person in the last category. If not, I hope you find this enlightening. If so, I hope you at least find this entertaining.




When I was five or six years old, I began to question the Santa Claus paradigm for the usual reasons. I had a rough idea of the size of the world- namely that is was really big– and I understood the difficulty with a single man visiting every house in the world in a single night. My own father was a pilot, and I was familiar with how long it would take for him just to go to Little Rock and back in a learjet. Even considering the fact that many people don’t have children, and many children don’t celebrate christmas, it seemed like an impossible task. My parents and my sister explained that Santa solved this problem using magic.

My second problem was a petty one, but it was still a problem. I knew many children at school who were not only naughty- they were huge jerks, and all of them got what they wanted for Christmas. In fact, many of them would brag very loudly about what they got for Christmas, and why it was better than what everyone else got. In the back of my mind, I excused this as their parents being nice enough to take the coal out of the jerk’s stocking and replacing it with a present that they’d bought before the kid woke up.

More troubling, the adults around me would often tell me about the importance of charity and of remembering those who were less fortunate during Christmas. But if Santa Claus was real and had magic powers to enable his generosity, why didn’t he bring poor children all of the clothes, food, money, and even toys they would need for the entire year?

(I’m not the only one who was troubled by this. Watch this- it is the best Christmas movie ever made.)


Soon, even the magical explanation for Santa’s impossible Christmas journey began to crumble. My own experiments with magic had not yielded any fruit. I was unable levitate objects by snapping my fingers, twitching my nose, or concentrating very hard. I wasn’t able to curse people no matter how angry I got. I poured salt in my bath water, but this did not give me a mermaid tail. (I was a big fan of the movie Splash.)

Anyone reading this may think that, at this point, I was one step away from rejecting the Santa hypothesis. However, when I sat down and thought about the problem, my brain argued that there were a lot of big, smart grownups who endorsed Santa Claus, and not just my parents. There were grownups who made movies about why we should believe in Santa Claus (like Miracle on 34th street.) There were grownups who used satellites to track the progress of Santa’s sleigh on TV every Christmas Eve. Santa Claus himself was in the Macy’s parade every year, and then he went on a tour of the nations malls to gather intelligence about all the children. Sure, there was the odd grownup who did not seem to believe, but my parents explained that these grownups were merely “grumps” and “grinches” who were unhappy, and therefore wanted to ruin Christmas for everyone else.

In the end, I decided that even though Santa Claus seemed unlikely, the idea would require a worldwide conspiracy to perpetuate (I didn’t have this vocuabulary at Five. What I actually thought was ‘everyone in the whole world would have to be in on it.’) Really- a worldwide conspiracy, just to trick me into believing in a jolly man who brought presents? Yeah, right. Even if I, a little five year old, didn’t understand magic, all of those big smart grownups probably did.

I will usually joke, at this point in the story, that when I found out about Santa Claus I almost became a conspiracy theorist. Becoming paranoid was obviously not the correct lesson to draw from Santa Claus, but if not, where did five year old me go wrong?




My First mistake was that I didn’t question the system that produced the Santa Claus story. I assumed that the only reason for creating the worldwide conspiracy would be just to trick me, and I didn’t consider that it was me and every other 2-10 year old (roughly.) I didn’t consider that one of the reasons why everyone might go along with this is that they were incentivized to tell children about Santa Claus. It is really fun to tell young children fantastic stories and have them believe it. In retrospect, I should have realized the incentive to trick gullible kids for fun- I did have an older sister, after all. I also failed to consider how many people follow traditions without ever questioning why, but I give myself a pass for this one. I had no idea grownups did that at even seven years old (when I was told the awful truth.)

My second mistake was not assigning a low enough prior probability on magic. I assumed magic a priori, and left my experiments to disprove the magical hypothesis. This made me accept very weak evidence for magic, such as rudolph’s teeth marks in the carrot we’d left beside the cookies and egg nog for Santa. The teeth marks seemed too large to belong to my Dad, but if I’d examined them more closely I’d have seen they were the same size. Even if the tooth marks had been too big, it would have been easy to fake. Finding a mechanism for magic, however, was impossible. Magic is, by definition, that which has no mechanism. Because of this, the improbability of magic should have had a much larger weight in my mind, and not only were my failed magical experiments enough- they were more than sufficient to invalidate the hypothesis.

My final mistake was that I was terrified to test the null hypothesis. I wasn’t just afraid of getting no presents, I had grandparents after all, but I was afraid of being naughty. I conceived of myself as a nice girl- not the kind of girl who dares to question nice men who give you presents every year and only ask that you mind your parents and not bother him. The type of people who question Santa are mean grinches. I did not want to be a mean grinch.

Even though the final mistake is the most difficult for me to correct, even now, I don’t give my younger self a pass. This mistake is a reflection of my greatest fear, but it’s the one I long most to break free from. The desire to be “good” has made me hold myself back for no reason time and time again. Now that I’m a little older, I’ve learned that the truth doesn’t mind being examined, and to do so doesn’t make you a mean grinch. In fact, examining the truth only makes it stronger.*

The last gift Santa gives to children who believe is the gift of skeptical inquiry. Whether the children discover the truth for themselves, whether they are told, or whether they discover it by accident, they come out on the other side with a +1 to WIS- an increased ability to question the  world around them. It’s the first grown-up step into a world that is much bigger than the world of magic.


Merry Christmas

*I’m keeping this line because it sounds nice and feels right, and because I’m going to tear it apart in a future post.