Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


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HTC U11 Review: The Phone Worth Not Waiting For

With the 10th anniversary iPhone looming, with a second Google Pixel coming soon, with Andy Rubin’s debut of the Essential Phone, and with the release of the Galaxy Note 8, little attention has been given to the HTC U11, other than a few obligatory reviews that range from “hey this is great” to “this is good but I don’t care.”

That’s a shame, because people are overlooking a great device. I know this because after a year with my deteriorating Galaxy S7, I was ready for a new device, and I picked the U11.

The red one.

I could have waited to see what was in the offing with all these other big-name releases, but I didn’t need to. It was pretty clear that the U11 was the one for me. And now that I’ve had it for a couple of weeks, I feel even more certain I made the right call. In no particular order, Here are some reasons why.

It’s so red.

Oh my god it’s so red. “Solar Red” is the name HTC gave this particular variant of shining, liquid, blazing red. The other colors available also looked fantastic, but good god damn, that red.

I mean come on.

The software and performance.

HTC’s Sense skin on Android has been shaved down so thoroughly, that if you use a different launcher than HTC’s, you’d almost never know it wasn’t stock Google. And mercy me, it is fast. Now, the Galaxy S7 I had used to be fast, but it never felt as crazy-fluid as, say, my Note 5 did for a time. But the U11 is in a different league altogether. It’s such a pleasure to just zip through transitions, animations, app launches, share menus, and the rest.

The display.

It’s quad-HD and LCD, which is just what I needed. Yes, I’m a stickler for 1440p over 1080p if the screen in big enough to notice, and at 5.5″, this one is. (Would I notice the difference in normal use? Probably not. But I’m not normal, and when it comes to making imperceptible a display’s pixels, I check. Up close.

The fact that it’s LCD and not AMOLED like Samsung and OnePlus use means that the colors aren’t super-saturated and my eyes aren’t put under as much of a strain in just, you know, absorbing all that color. HTC’s LCD screen looks gorgeous, bright and crisp and easy on my eyes. It lacks the ostentatious pop of a Samsung display, which can be quite nice, but it’s truer to life and more akin to an iPhone or iPad display. But, of course, with much higher resolution. It does suffer more under direct sunlight and heavy glare than a rich AMOLED, but I’m cool with that.

It has bezels.

Yeah I said it. I like bezels on my devices. I like that I can actually hold a phone with my human hands made of meat and then operate it without the constant worry that I’m inadvertently making contact with the touchscreen on the sides. The U11 has just enough of a border around the conventionally-proportioned screen to look awesome and remove accidental-touch anxiety. Which sounds dirty now that I see it typed. Hm.

Oh, and HTC was kind enough to include a clear case with the phone, but it’s crap. I’m using, and would recommend, the Spigen Liquid Crystal case.

The fingerprint sensor.

It’s so fast! It’s almost too fast. With the S7, making contact with the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone was all like touch, wait, click sound, unlock, whereas with the U11 it’s more like touchHOLY SHIT IT’S READY TO GO! It may even be too sensitive, waking the screen when any part of my hand comes near it.

The squeeze gimmick.

If you heard of the U11 at all, you probably heard that it is equipped with something called “Edge Sense,” wherein was literally squeezes the phone to activate certain functions. Most reviews have been critical of this feature, but it seems to me that they’re either not making good use of it or were simply predisposed to think it was silly before they ever tried it.

I think it’s default setting is to launch Alexa, but you have several additional options for what a squeeze does, and you can differentiate between short and long squeezes. Me, I chose the function that seemed the most useful and, frankly, the most obvious.

I made it turn on the flashlight.

I know, right? You’re like, damn, Paul that IS a good idea! I have the long squeeze activate Alexa, but I might even turn that off, since Alexa is also activated by the usual voice command.

The camera.

This is the feature that is being most lauded by folks like Vlad Savov and Daniel Bader, saying the U11’s camera rivals or even bests the Pixel. I have to say, it seems great, I have no complaints, but the S7’s camera was pretty great, too, and it doesn’t seem to my untrained eye to be obviously superior, but that’s fine.

It’s also a lot faster than my previous phone, especially when HDR is turned off, and that makes a huge difference, especially when you have squirrelly kids.

The sound.

I saved this one for last because it’s the area where the phone both enrages and delights me.

Let’s get this out of the way: It does not have a headphone jack.

I always thought this would be a deal breaker for me, the thing that solidified my alienation from the iPhone. I still think it’s stupid and needless to omit the headphone jack, and it will prove, I have no doubt, a pain in the ass for the length of my ownership of this phone. No headphone jack is a strike against it. Yes, it does include a USB-C adapter dongle for wired headphones, but still. (And third party adapters won’t work because of HTC’s proprietary DAC technology. Double-grumble.)

But also included with the phone is a pair of USB-C earbuds. But not cheap EarPod type earbuds (though I think EarPods sound fine for what they are), but truly great sounding earbuds that – get this – have active noise cancellation built in. Now, this is not Bose-level noise cancelling. I think it’s fairer to call it “noise dampening,” but it nonetheless makes for a fantastic listening experience. Ambient noise mostly melts away and the music has the space and depth it needs to shine. I still think I like the sound of my Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds better, but not enough to make me miss them when I have the U11’s included headphones.

(There’s always a lot of attention paid to HTC phones’ hardware speakers and how loud and full they sound for teeny tiny phone speakers. And they’re fine, but I don’t think they’re anything to get excited about.)

The bottom line.

As I said at the beginning, I was pretty sure I was going to like this phone, and while I may be engaging in some post-purchase confirmation bias, fine. The fact remains that not only did I wind up being happy with it, but it delighted me far more than I expected.

The tech press has been pretty unanimous in its warning to consumers to refrain from buying any new phones until the big release season is over. I’m sure the next Pixel and iPhone are going to be stellar, and that the Galaxy Note 8 is a technological wonder to behold. I would simply add to that warning, “unless you plan to buy the HTC U11.” As much as I’ll gaze in a awe at the devices to come, I’ll be happy to do so from afar, cradling my weird and wonderful U11.

And it’s red.

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These Horrible Epiphanies

A couple of weeks ago, when the President of the United States went off script and out of his way to defend the white supremacists in Charlottesville and invent fantasy left-wing marauders, I experienced a palpable panic, a panic that surpassed that of election night. Yes, literally almost everything about this presidency has been morally reprehensible and existentially frightening, but the sights and sounds of the president defending the motivations and violent actions of Nazis pushed me over a psychological line I didn’t know existed.

Yes, we always knew that Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot, but I think many of us took it as a kind of casual, passionless, bigotry of ignorance. Few of us who weren’t regularly on the receiving end of his hostility considered that Trump ever actively thought about how much he disliked non-whites or that racial minorities were something to be scorned because of their race. (We don’t presume he actively thinks about anything other than himself.) Many of us assumed, I think, that it was thoughtless. “The criminals” were killing people in Chicago, “the illegals” were committing violent acts and taking jobs, “terrorists” were sneaking into America, “elites” were keeping us from saying “merry Christmas,” the “politically correct” were policing language to the point of censorship, and “real Americans” suffered as a result of it all. The fact that the members of his selected out-groups tended to be black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, or LGBTQ, and that the people he claimed to represent were almost entirely white, was (to him) coincidental and beside the point. He was a bigot who didn’t know he was a bigot.

But then he made up the “many sides” excuse for the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. His overdue, scripted condemnation of the Nazis and KKK was lifeless and grudging. He asserted that many of those marching along with the Nazis and Klansmen were “very fine people.” And he didn’t just toss out the thought or quickly muse on the possibility that there might have been a shred of merit to the Nazi violence. He forcefully, gleefully, and repeatedly insisted on it.

So I panicked. I experienced a literal fight-or-flight biological response to this conclusion I could not escape, that the President of the United States was a defender of Nazis. And as Chris Rock pointed out, “If 10 guys think it’s ok to hang with 1 Nazi then they just became 11 Nazis.” The sentence that rotated through my consciousness like a news ticker marquee was, “The president’s a Nazi. The president’s a Nazi.” Over and over again. My heart rate accelerated, and some part of my brain began constructing plans to spirit away my family and hide them from imminent danger. “The president’s a Nazi.” I felt trapped.

While not at peace, I’ve of course come out of my panicked reverie. And as I’ve thought through the events of the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that the panic was in a way unwarranted, but not because I was wrong about the situation, per se. It was unwarranted because Trump’s hostile and shameless racism is nothing new. Not new for Trump, and not new for the society in which we live.

I was helped to a dose of perspective from my Point of Inquiry interview with James Croft. He’s now a leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, but I knew him before from his appearances at CFI events and his excellent writing. Not only did I suspect he’d have a helpful secular humanist perspective on current events, but I knew that he’d had first-hand activist experience, having begun his work in St. Louis just weeks before the uprising and military-style crackdown in Ferguson. As a fellow nontheistic, well-meaning, smarty-pants white guy, I hoped he could help me process these horrible epiphanies.

James reminded me that “the system” as it is constituted is not only unfair to racial minorities and other oppressed communities, it’s outright hostile, designed from the ground up for the benefit of one particular group, of which he and I happen to be a part, and to grind down all others. Resentment, blame, and violence against minorities is baked into our society, and even someone with my liberal cred, who considers himself to be among those who “get it,” was blind to far too much of it. It is a problem that is staggering in its proportions and implications, so much so that to downplay it in one’s own mind is almost a form of self care, where denial is the only thing keeping you from, yes, panicking about how bad shit really is.

But then the president defends Nazis, and you can’t deny it anymore. And you – well, I – panic.

It’s not even that simple, of course. Ferguson, though it exemplified the degree to which the white establishment will go to contain, vilify, and terrorize resistant minorities, also amplified the injustice in action, broadcasting it, such that it could not be ignored and could not be denied except by the most cynical. People like me, who know so little about what these communities endure, now knew a little more.

Charlottesville was different. Rather than begin a new conversation about race and injustice through the courageous actions of the oppressed, it made explicit the intention of injustice that the police crackdown on Ferguson only illustrated. It spoke it out loud. It was a defiant declaration of racial hate and resentment, cynically and absurdly couched in the parlance of victimhood.

And those who turned out to march with torches in Charlottesville were just a tiny sample of the legions of (mostly) men across the country whose animosity is actively being stoked by Trump and his cult members. The Charlottesville Nazis were just a single spurt of molten rock, a volcanic warning shot, indicating that just barely below the surface there is an ocean of volatile magma, ready to erupt across vast territory, incinerating the landscape, poisoning the air, and blotting out the Sun.

Trump’s election was one of those eruptions. The cult that has formed around him is the lava flow that won’t cool, and won’t allow anything else to grow.

If we pretend it will all be worked out, that things aren’t really so bad, that America isn’t really so hateful, we simply won’t get through this. It’s about far more than the violation of political norms. We have to recognize that what put Trump in power will still be there after he’s gone (whether by election, forced removal, resignation, or natural causes). In all likelihood, that force will be more dangerous, more established in the mainstream, and certainly more emboldened. They will be part of those beloved political norms.

This is why we should panic. But once the panic has passed, we have to acknowledge how people like me have benefited from the oppression of others, and embrace our moral imperative to reject injustice, to listen, and learn how to be allies. Not just in hashtags and profile pics, but in word and deed.

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Photo by Ted Eytan • CC BY-SA 2.0

Autistic Alienation: Not as Simple as Intense Introversion

One thing about Asperger’s/autism that I think is hard for neurotypicals to understand, and is also hard for me to come to terms with, is that as an autistic person, my attitude toward socialization isn’t merely binary. The introversion instinct is incredibly strong, and it’s true that I can’t heal, rest, or reengergize without relative solitude. But that doesn’t mean I therefore never want human contact.

It gets even more complicated than that, though. If it were as simple as “I like to socialize a lot less than most people, but I do want to socialize a little,” that’d be relatively easy to manage. You just keep social interaction to a manageable level, whatever it happens to be For the individual. But here’s the thing: even human interaction that an aspie might affirmatively seek out is still fraught with discomfort, self-doubt, anxiety, and pain. It’s still exhausting, and sometimes dispiriting, unless it's particularly fulfilling in some way.

So when an introverted aspie is avoiding other members of his or her species, they may also be experiencing, at an atavistic, lizard-brain level, a longing for human contact, to feel assured that one still “belongs” in the tribe. And even when that validation is achieved in the most positive and affirming of scenarios, it’s still incredibly difficult.

This is the picture: Imagine a human being whose brain has developed differently than almost everyone they know. They may be incredibly intelligent or talented in some way or other (or maybe not!), and have a great deal of thoughts and feelings they desperately want to express and share. But the agony of submitting oneself to the evaluation of normal people, even in the most banal and benign circumstances, is often too much to bear, or at least too uncomfortable to make it worth the effort. When they do take the leap and try to mix in normal society, the energy drain is rapid, the stress is damaging, and the tiniest faux pas (real and imagined) is burned into their memories as scarring humiliation. So this human being, full of life and solitary, feels lonely, while determined to remain alone. Until the loneliness becomes too much, such that a new attempt is made.

I miss having a set of friends that I was comfortable with, that I could develop routines with, and rely on for that base-level validation that I was in the right species, that I had a tribe from which I was in no danger of being ejected. I have had that. A lifetime ago.

I don’t have that now, and most of my experiences after my life in professional theatre has been characterized by anxiety over being banished from whatever tribe to which I submitted myself, or else having no tribe at all, and cautiously yearning for one. (And not knowing that I was autistic in the first place.)

It’s not just that we want to be alone. But it’s the only way we know we can safely be.

Excruciating Information

A fellow autistic blogger whose work I deeply admire pointed me to this short little PSA video from the UK that she said was revelatory in how it reflected her own experience. And so it is for me.

Particularly when it comes to the Asperger’s part of the autism “spectrum,” I think people – including actual Aspies – tend to cling to the idea of social awkwardness and alienation as the defining traits. But using this stereotype as definitive ignores what I think is one of the prime causes of that awkwardness and alienation, and that’s the difficulty we have in processing stimuli with the same capacity and at the same rate neurotypicals, and that difficulty manifests not just temporally – it’s not that we just have to sit there and ponder for a few moments and then move on – but physiologically. It’s painful.

The example you’re most likely familiar with is that of the noisy, crowded room, say at a bar or a party, an environment that can be incredibly uncomfortable for many of us. I usually see it described in terms of the noise level and the variety of voices coming from all directions emitting sound. But that’s just one factor. There’s the visual, of course, as one is surrounded by faces and bodies and objects and movement and nonverbal expressions and cues. And there’s also the tactile, the feeling of one’s clothes, the floor beneath you, the furniture you may or may not have your weight on, the food you likely have strong aversions to, and quite especially the temperature. And that sound? It’s not just the decibels, but the information contained in the voices, what they’re actually saying in the chit chat, in the music blasting, and on and on.

That’s a lot of information to process all at once, creating palpable discomfort, anxiety, and misery in a context that demands a certain kind of relaxed behavior.

There are so many other ways this comes up in my life. I can’t for the life of me orient myself in space, for example, so whether we’re talking about driving directions to places I’ve been many times before, or just navigating the interior of a building with more than four rooms or so, I’m constantly bewildered. I can’t process that information at a rate that makes the directions useful, nor can I process the information without extreme discomfort and crippling anxiety, which only makes the processing harder.

If I get an email at work that is more than a few sentences, I know I will have to relax my brain and read it carefully a few times because too often I have replied or executed instructions based on a misreading of the text or with significant pieces of data missing from my comprehension. That screen full of words begins, in my eyes, as white noise, a garble of glyphs in pixels, especially if it’s part of a threaded conversation. And again, that doesn’t just spark confusion and compel me to take my time, it hurts, it’s dizzying. (So yes, when I read books, I’m pretty damn slow about it.)

So I understand this young girl in the video. That was me at that age. These otherwise innocuous, benign interactions that a person has throughout their day, these humdrum travels from point A to point B that nonetheless feel perilous, these unanswerable questions launched at you and meant as small talk, the torrent of trivialities that threaten to drown you even when you don’t know why you’re expected to care, the inadvertent offense or problem you cause as a result of your efforts to shield yourself. It’s too much. Even today, though I fake it much better than I did then, it’s too much.

The world obviously isn’t set up for autistic people to succeed. It’s a miracle so many of us have. And the thing is, I don’t think it would take so much for the rest of neurotypical society to give us a little space. If only it weren’t so excruciating for us to ask for it.

Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

On the iPad Pro and “Work Stuff”

In my review of the iPad Pro 10.5″, I didn’t mention much about the tablet’s utility as a productivity device other than how its Smart Keyboard is better than its predecessor’s. But in the tech press, the reviews have largely centered on a theme: can this iPad replace your laptop? Wait, it’s more like, ”Can this iPad finally replace your laptop?” I didn’t broach that subject at all.

Part of why I didn’t is because so much of what might make it a laptop replacement is still in the future, with many of the major software advancements of iOS 11 coming this fall. I already know how iOS 10 fares in terms of productivity, so there was no new territory there for me, again, beyond the improved typing experience.

But primarily I didn’t address this question because that’s not what I want to use an iPad for. Most of the reviews focus on how much “work stuff” can be done on the iPad Pro, and I don’t want work stuff anywhere near it.

As far as I’m concerned, there is a separation of church and state when it comes to these devices. My laptop is primarily for work stuff. My iPad is for not-work. Reading, drawing, games, writing (non-work writing!), and general screwing around. Yes, there’s overlap, because that’s just life. But the principle is sound.

Of course the functional capabilities of these respective devices create this dividing line, but more to the point, I personally need a psychological separation between these two areas of my life. At the end of the day, I look forward to picking up my iPad and doing whatever the hell it is I need to do with it, be it entirely passive or creative. What I am trying to avoid are the distractions, calls for attention, and mental and emotional associations of work. I want to leave that stuff, closed up in the laptop’s clamshell.

The iPad, however, needs to be a clean slate.

But if I don’t intend to use an iPad Pro for all of the things that make it “Pro,” why even own one, instead of a cheaper iPad-regular or other less expensive iPad or tablet? I mean, these things are NOT CHEAP.

It’s simple, really. I wanted the best stylus experience I could get for drawing, a large and beautiful screen, and enough power to make the whole experience as fluid and seamless as possible, for as long as possible.

Other reviews have either said or implied that if you’re going to shell out for the iPad Pro, you should be using it for your main computer. Nah, I like it too much for that.