One Hundred Imaginary Gifts from the Simulators

1. the flat stoneware bottle, fitting neatly into the palm of the hand and stoppered with blue glass, that I found in my dream;

2. a tablet of paper made from the feathers of great egrets;

3. a glass eye;

4. a strong round magnet that can be heard to sing softly with a low and continuous note;

5. the star-map on the inside of a stone;

6. six drops of pheasant blood;

7. vials of the water from the seven traditional seas;

8. cornflower blue sandals, a souvenir from Basho’s travels;

9. a rubbing of a stone bearing the name of a god no longer worshipped;

10. a bit of mud dropped by a nesting swallow;

11. a love spell prepared by a voodoo priest;

12. a love spell prepared by a crazy homeless woman;

13. the skeletonized remains of a small rabbit;

14. twenty-three watercolor crayons, one for each color visible at the top of the trail at Baboon Lakes at three in the afternoon, including the color of wild raspberries;

15. a very old postcard whose sender and recipient are both dead;

16. a bucket of fresh olives;

17. a magic candle that, when lighted, gives the dark shadow of night even when it is day;

18. a cologne that smells like wet stone;

19. a cologne that smells like fireflies;

20. a photograph of a male and extremely ugly faerie, washing its face in dew from a buttercup;

21. a papier-mâché model of the Griffith Observatory, to display or to burn or to use as a piñata;

22. a bed framed with Vietnamese cinnamon bark;

23. one hundred tiny clay pots the circumference of dimes, filled with bright pigments;

24. a sheet of postage from a defunct country;

25. an audio tape of frog sounds from the Amazon in the eighteenth century, including species now extinct;

26. a telephone to speak to yourself the night before;

27. the astrological chart of the long-dead concubine of a long-dead emperor;

28. seventy-five points;

29. a bottle into which nine Catholic and nine Buddhist nuns have spat, as a good luck charm;

30. a clay cup imprinted with the fingerprints of Henry James;

31. a microscopic portrait of the Marquis de Sade made from fragments of butterfly wings;

32. a lock of hair from each of your four maternal great-grandmothers, taken on the eve of her respective eighteenth birthday;

33. an ink monkey, as the ancient Chinese sages are said to have possessed;

34. the preserved skin of a pirate bearing a tattoo of a naked woman;

35. a letter purloined from the underground postal system of a prison;

36. a treehouse;

37. the preserved pubic lice of Scheherazade;

38. a miniature star with miniature planets and asteroids;

39. a secret cache of fireworks;

40. a raccoon penis bone;

41. a prime number of six thousand digits;

42. an ancient document in an untranslated script;

43. an empty wasps’ nest;

44. a letter of exoneration from the Queen;

45. a chess set carved by an apostate monk;

46. a belt cut from the hide of the Minotaur;

47. the ill-lit records room from an abandoned state asylum;

48. a three-volume treatise on the forms of sexual ecstasy;

49. a jar of fog;

50. a personal zeppelin;

51. a small waterfall down a rock wall and into your personal bathroom sink, for you to wash with;

52. a packet of perfect fish scales;

53. a newly-deceased person’s schedule for the week;

54. sandals carved from sandalwood, and a matching codpiece;

55. your own skull, taken from the future with a time-scoop;

56. sealed autopsy records;

57. a necklace of the footprints of a hedgehog, the footprints made in clay and fired in a kiln into beads;

58. the address of a witch;

59. a pocket watch with movement carved from mastodon bones;

60. a railroad to the frontier;

61. an envelope of grave dirt from a child Black Plague victim;

62. the testimony of every person who has ever had a crush on you;

63. a powerful semicolon to use in argument;

64. a silk quilt;

65. a deep blue-green pigment that can dye anything, including skies, wedding anniversaries, and thoughts;

66. a phonograph record of your mother singing;

67. plans for a bank heist, including drawings, annotated in German;

68. ten vials containing the characteristic smells of the year 2073 in New York City;

69. a mature cedar;

70. a lasso to bring objects back from your dreams;

71. a toothbrush inlaid with uncut sapphires;

72. a demon trapped in an emptied eggshell;

73. a piece of glass made from lightning-struck sand;

74. a piece of ocean-tossed ambergris;

75. a ship’s lantern;

76. a warm and sunny field of opium poppies;

77. the figure of Salome dancing, carved in a peach pit;

78. a bag for holding pearls, woven from spider web;

79. your own dried umbilical cord;

80. a pendant in the shape and color of the known universe;

81. a hailstone the size of your head;

82. rust shavings from an iron lock;

83. the address of Death;

84. the pineal gland of a prostitute, preserved in brine;

85. cuff links made from a meteorite;

86. an Australopithecus coprolite;

87. a bottle of glowing ink extracted from fireflies;

88. a pound of pure sodium;

89. a magic spell to make a candle burn backwards;

90. underwear made from spun vicuña fibers;

91. a loyal yak;

92. a pair of kid gloves made for your hands;

93. a heretofore-lost episode of The Twilight Zone;

94. the ashes of the burned Aztec codices;

95. a scar from the excision of regret;

96. a new name;

97. a safe deposit box to be opened in three years;

98. a microcircuit printed on a feather;

99. a statue of a Peruvian saint;

100. and a human molar from Machu Picchu.


Patch 7.822: An Experimental Design Puzzle

The always-excellent @ctrlcreep eloquently states a puzzle in 140 characters that it took me lots of words to express previously. This puzzle is expressed at the outset of C. A. Soper’s article “Could some common mental diseases be evolved defences against suicide? – a theoretical enquiry.

Why do so few humans kill themselves?

This ultimate explanation for suicide, an unfortunate by-product of pain combined with human cognition, seems plausible as far as it goes, but it is evidently incomplete. So serious a design flaw would not have been left unchecked. In general the more severe the adaptive problem an organism faces, the greater the pressure that natural selection will exert in favour of adaptive solutions (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a). It is hard to imagine a more severe adaptive problem for an animal than an unfettered capacity to extinguish itself. It is fair to assume that some restraints have indeed evolved because the posited co-authors of suicide – ‘pain and brain’ – can be presumed to constitute human universals (Brown, 1991): virtually all humans experience pain, and virtually all adults have the intellectual wherewithal to take their own lives. Close to 100% of humans could suicide, and yet ‘only’ about 1.4% do (WHO, 2014).

The proportion of mortality attributable to suicide has increased as mortality from disease (especially infectious disease) has subsided over this century. One of the most amazing things about suicide is that over the past 80 years or so in the United States, suicide rates have been extremely flat. The fact that suicide rates have not changed in response to changes in medical technology and other ways of life is astounding. Suicide rates among our ancestors are difficult to know, but suicide almost certainly accounted for a lower proportion of mortality in our various environments of evolutionary adaptedness. However, suicide mortality was probably still significant. And its rarity is fascinating, given the prevalence of human suffering.

Suicide can be maintained at such a small proportion of mortality, Soper says, because of various biological and cultural adaptations that keep suicide rates low. On the biological side, these adaptations include empathy and attachment to family, horror at bodily envelope violation, and pain from self-injury. It is difficult to kill a large animal, especially oneself. On the cultural side, adaptations include suicide prohibitions (in various forms), stories of eternal punishment, and insistence on the meaningfulness (and even sacredness) of life. Think about seppuku: Japanese culture allowed suicide in certain circumstances, but prescribed the most painful, horrifying method possible for its enactment.

Soper’s hypothesis – which I’ve been interested in since he first wrote about it in 2014 – is that many mental illnesses (such as depression and anxiety) are evolved defenses against the special risk that human cognition presents: the ability to conceptualize ending all of one’s problems by ending one’s brain.

Soper includes delusional disorders in his hypothesis; indeed, self-delusion appears to be a way of avoiding the horrors of reality and the mortality risk that they may present. But since the etiology of e.g. schizophrenia seems to be novel mutations, these disorders are probably terrible accidents, rather than protective adaptations. I will focus on depression here.

Depression is a kind of paralysis. Excessive sleeping is common (though inadequate sleeping may also be present). Whether sleeping is affected or not, many depressed people are unable to leave their beds or homes very much. They cannot form coherent plans and act on them. They ruminate instead of socializing or going out. A simple process with only a few steps is frequently beyond them (us). In considering “specifications” for a mechanism to protect against suicide, this kind of paralysis might work just well enough.

Depression is associated with a slightly increased risk of suicide (not nearly as high as the double-digit suicide rates seen in some other mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and certain personality disorders). Depression affects a huge proportion of humanity, and it is primarily a disease of the young. People of childbearing age are most at risk. Those 65 and older are at least risk for depression. However, suicide is the opposite: suicide risk increases linearly with age (especially for white men). Those in the oldest age groups are at the highest risk of suicide. Here we have an evolutionary story: depression protects the young from suicide, but the protections fade with senescence, as the fitness costs of suicide plummet to zero or are even negative (i.e., ceasing to sap resources from relatives).

I explained Soper’s hypothesis to a famous psychology professor recently, and his response was snickering. I understand that response, but I would rather understand why it is so clearly wrong, if it is.

But here is the puzzle: how can you design experiments or data analyses that might distinguish whether this hypothesis is true?

It seems fairly obvious to me that drug “abuse” (including alcohol) is frequently an attempted response to suffering of the kind that might cause suicide. On the musician Elliot Smith’s death:

Did Elliott Smith commit suicide? And if so, why? Many of Smith’s closest friends at the time of his death say yes, and suggest that his depression, alienation, self-loathing, and drug use were merely symptoms of an underlying trauma. To this inner circle, the fact that Smith died sober was no surprise, because as their testimonials suggest, Smith was not suffering from a drug problem — he was searching for a drug solution.

The many sources that claim that suicide is caused by mental illness or drug dependence rely on correlation that is just as suggestive of reverse causation. In Soper’s model, misery and the cognitive capacity to conceive of ending one’s life (“pain and brain”) cause both depression and suicide, and cause suicide less if they trigger depression. I think it’s obvious that misery also causes heavy drug use.

When phenomena travel together, how do we tease out causation? One experiment is treating depression without treating underlying suffering, as with modern antidepressant drugs such as SSRIs. Indeed, there appears to be a slight elevated risk of suicide in people taking some antidepressants, especially young people. But the effect is tiny. And some people do think antidepressants relieve suffering. If depression caused suicide, treating depression should reduce suicide rates, but of course it hasn’t. This could be due to the ineffectiveness of treatment, however.

Can we learn anything from group differences? Men commit suicide more than women (except in places like China), and women experience more depression and non-lethal attempts. Races differ in suicide rates; whites generally have the highest suicide rates, followed by Native Americans, and blacks and Hispanics have low rates (the black-white comparison appears to hold both the United States and South Africa). Evidence for prevalence of depression by race is mixed: one study found that acute, short-term depression (Major Depressive Disorder) was more prevalent in whites, but dysthymic disorder (long-term depression, lasting two years or more) was more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics.

But should we expect more depression in groups more affected by suicide mortality, or less? A highly suicidal, non-depressed group might suggest a lack of the depression “adaptation” in this group, compared to more depressed, less suicidal groups. Or a highly suicidal, depressed group might suggest the adaptation running at full speed against pain and brain. Groups may have had different needs for defenses against suicide in their environments of evolutionary adaptedness. I am not able to articulate a clear prediction about relative group prevalence of depression and suicide that would support or falsify this hypothesis.

And so, a puzzle: can we articulate any experiments or data analyses that would support or falsify this hypothesis? And what do the epistemic difficulties here say about the common belief that suicide is caused by mental illness?

Null Hypothesis: A Virginia Lake Public Art Proposal

Call for Artists

Virginia Lake Public Art Project (with visual examples of past public art)

Previous public art plan for Virginia Lake – a ten-foot-high, rainbow-colored statue of a guy playing an accordion

Absence art has been recognized at least since Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), and the modern tradition of extracting meaning from absence can be dated to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818). In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag concludes that

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Styles of radical will 3:34, 1969

Virginia Lake is an artificial urban lake one mile in circumference, excavated during the 1930s. Its man-made emptiness offers “borrowed scenery” views of Mt. Rose to the south, Peavine Mountain to the north, and casino towers to the east. Cormorants nest in the tiny island. Black-crowned night herons hunt by the water at dawn, and the single swan paddles around languidly. (His solitude is the subject of much local speculation.) The park is popular all year, from dawn until late evening.

Borrowed Scenery view of Peavine Mountain, looking north


A garden at the south end of the lake; only man-made signs mar the view.


Ducklings swim under big skies, before casino towers and the tiny island full of nesting cormorants.
The solitary swan grooms himself under a tree.


Fallen branches add life to the ditch.

Public art is almost always large in size and made of sturdy artificial materials. It is usually painted bright, unnatural colors and frequently takes striking geometric forms. Any public art project of a positive, physical nature would draw the eye from many points around the lake. Serious views of mountains, city, trees, water, and birds would be marred by eye-catching but capricious public art. Man-made items are the ugliest items at Virginia Lake.

Man-made items with smooth surfaces are targets for graffiti.
Man-made items are the only ugly objects visible at the lake.

I propose to use the medium of absence to protect Virginia Lake from positive public art. No sculptures, murals, or other structures will be created. The project requires no materials and can be completed within one day of approval.

The absence of concrete forms echoes Virginia Lake itself: if the void of Virginia Lake did not exist, the mountains would not be visible, lost in dense development. And many vacancies and voids increase the beauty of the park. On the northern shore of Virginia Lake, looking South, a stump is visible, and in the void created by the removal of the tree, a majestic view of Mt. Rose presents itself. In the northeast, a rock garden surrounds a perpetually empty fountain. The bathroom walls are empty of murals, resembling the simple, rustic bathrooms in National Parks.

The positive void suggested by a stump anti-obscures the view of Mt. Rose to the southwest.
A perpetually empty stone and concrete fountain is the void at the center of the mysterious rock garden growing wild.
The “void” of Virginia lake (its water) is visible behind the negative water of the fountain.

All three letters to the editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal (May 9, 12, and 27) on the subject of public art at Virginia Lake have advocated my proposal. I felt it my duty as an absence artist to put the null hypothesis proposal into an actionable form, although doing so is a form of positive collaboration (submitting a proposal), and my usual method of performance is negative collaboration (leaving everyone alone).

Past Work

1. Null Hypothesis at Lake Cootapatamba, absence, 160 meters by 160 meters (approx.), 2000, New South Wales, Australia. An absence work in negative collaboration with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service at the Kosciuszko National Park. Unbroken views of distant mountains and wildflowers emphasize the absence of positive artistic intervention. (Photo: CSIRO)

Null Hypothesis at Lake Cootapatamba

2. Null Hypothesis at Laguna Caliente, absence, 1700 meters by 1700 meters (approx.), 2008, Costa Rica. An absence work surrounding Laguna Caliente on the Poás Volcano in Poás Volcano National Park. The extreme acidity of the lake’s water, as well as frequent eruptions from the active volcano, establish absence by preventing the growth of vegetation. (Photo: Peter Andersen)

Null Hypothesis at Laguna Caliente

3. Null Hypothesis on K2, absence, 500 meters by 500 meters by 500 meters (approx.), 2006, Pakistan. K2 is a nearly inaccessible place located on the border between China and Pakistan. Its inhospitable nature prevents settlement, enforcing an emptiness that concretizes the political border between nations. This absence work emphasizes the liminal aspects of emptiness. (Photo: Svy123)

Null Hypothesis on K2


Materials: $0.00
Labor: $0.00
Expected maintenance: none

Total: $0.00

In many ways, my project is the most expensive of all those proposed. It requires the Reno Arts & Culture Commission, as well as the City Council, to decline to spend the $50,000 that has been allocated to building positive public art at Virginia Lake from the Residential Construction Tax and the Room Tax. In other words, it requires a genuine sacrifice on the part of local government: to abstain from spending allocated funds. The pre-allocation of funds transforms the non-building of art from a negative collaboration between government and citizens, to a positive collaboration, requiring unusual positive action. Non-building, more than the “speech” of positive art, would paradoxically establish a meaningful dialogue with the public, as exemplified by the letters to the editor and the many silent admirers of the unadorned lake.

Why is Freedom of Speech Important?

Why is free speech important? When free speech comes into conflict with other values, why should free speech win?

I think a lot of us have only a vague answer to these questions. Free speech is just a good thing. We don’t think much about why free speech is good, just that it’s a semi-sacred value.

And so when free speech is threatened, we don’t have many arguments for why it should prevail, especially in conflict with other legitimate, emotionally resonant values.

Ironically, this is an illustration of why free speech is important – according to J. S. Mill.

I constantly encounter popular treatments of free speech ethics that appear to be entirely ignorant of Mill’s seminal, extremely short contribution to the canon of philosophy on freedom of expression. Mill’s paragraphs are long and his speech is archaic – he’s not tweetable. There are many more exciting things to read and look at. And so many of us who care about free speech have not even read his 16,000-word treatise on the subject (Chapter 2 of On Liberty).

I aspire here to tl;dr Mill’s work, and present his urgent and living reasons that free speech is important, and why it should weigh heavily against other values.

Government Interference

One of the most depressing recent texts dealing with free speech is xkcd 1357, which propounds the common misconception that free speech is only about government interference. Mill says that private restrictions on speech are much more important, and that legal restrictions on speech are harmful primarily by legitimizing those private restrictions. A person who is independently wealthy, Mill says, and need not care about the opinion of others, will not censor himself; but most of us have to work, and more importantly, rely on the goodwill of others to feel like decent human beings. We may not be jailed for voicing a controversial opinion, but we risk our jobs and the good feeling of our neighbors when we step outside the Overton window. Mill notes that in his day, in England, where few legal restrictions on expression exist, spouting controversial opinions was even less common than in countries in which those opinions were legally proscribed. Social proscriptions on speech have an enormous effect on which ideas are expressed. So why should we want terrible opinions expressed? Why shouldn’t we just “show people the door”?


One reason that freedom of expression is important is that we are not infallible. What we conceive to be contemptible heresy might actually be true. There are many historical examples. And even if it is not true in total, horrible ideas may contain fractions of truth, which we ignore at our peril. We should allow freedom of expression, because we might be wrong. But Mill’s remaining justifications for free speech deal with speech that is incorrect – it is important to allow expression of false ideas, just as much as true ideas.

Mill notes that even the Catholic Church (which he calls “the most intolerant of churches,” a veneer of anti-Catholicism disguising sincere respect) provides for a “Devil’s advocate” at beatification proceedings. When an entity is sincerely concerned with truth, it encourages, rather than suppresses, vicious and uncomfortable speech. This is also the scientific ideal.

Possibility of Correction

In societies that allow free expression, free from both private and governmental suppression, incorrect views may be aired – and corrected. In suppressive societies, incorrect views fester (“smoulder” as Mill puts it), never expressed publicly and never corrected. Wrongness can survive in individual minds and private communities much longer without freedom of speech than under a regime of freedom of expression. Only in an environment of freedom of expression can wrongness be met and corrected.

Knowing the Foundations

Perhaps more importantly, in a society in which dissenting views are rarely expressed, the prevailing views are often held as mere slogans or prejudices, with people rarely understanding the justifications or arguments for why the prevailing view is correct. In my introductory example, I ask why free speech is important. But if free speech is never challenged as a value, how can we be intellectually and emotionally aware of the foundations and reasons why free speech is good? Challenges to free speech (and other doctrines) are a gift, allowing us to reexamine why we believe in them in the first place.

Dissent, in this framework, should not be suppressed – it is a valuable gift, allowing everyone to learn or revisit why they believe in the prevailing doctrine in the first place.

Mill says,

Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost….

[E]ven if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

Mill says it behooves us to be more familiar with our opponent’s case than with our own. And if our opponents are too scared of mob justice to speak their cases, how can we know our own?

The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion….Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

Mill anticipates the Ideological Turing Test: to put oneself in the place of one’s interlocutor, and give his arguments in a way indistinguishable from how he would present them himself. It is much more difficult to do this in the absence of vocal opponents. We should be thankful for arguments like this against free speech, for they sharpen and bring into living clarity the arguments for why free speech should exist.

Cognitive Handcuffing

Whether the ideas to be potentially suppressed are true or false, suppressing the expression of ideas limits the mental space of thinkers. Timid people who nonetheless possess subtle and penetrating minds constrain their mental spaces to contain only prevailing ideas. We are deprived of the output of these thinkers, to the extent that they might countenance (and accept or reject) controversial ideas. Mill says:

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

Humans Are Dumb

Another objection to freedom of speech that Mill deals with is the possibility that most humans are pretty dumb. In modern terms, when confronted with evidence contradicting their positions, they tend to believe their original positions even harder (the “backfire effect”). Humans are not, in general, very subtle and nuanced in abstract thought. Why not leave the thinking to the smarter people who know what’s best, and censor what the masses hear?

Mill says that even if we concede that this is true, there is still a need for freedom of expression among the philosophers. And if the philosophers require this information, it is very difficult to keep it from the masses of humanity. In our present world in which “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” Mill is prescient when he says

[I]n the present state of the world, it is practically impossible that writings which are read by the instructed can be kept from the uninstructed. If the teachers of mankind are to be cognisant of all that they ought to know, everything must be free to be written and published without restraint.


Free speech is not some copybook heading or slogan with no real-world consequences. We lose real and measurable benefits when expression is suppressed, whether the idea expressed is true or false.

I cannot compete with Mill for eloquence; I highly recommend reading Chapter 2 of On Liberty. (Come on, you know you read 16,000 words of twitter in a day.) But I hope I have presented, in skeletal form, his most important arguments for why free speech is important, and should be valued even against other legitimately important concerns. Free speech never truly exists in a pure form, but when we aspire to it, we clear the way for excellence and truth – even when the speech in question is vile and false.

Self-Modification in Game Theory

I have been reading Talking Prices, Olav Velthuis’ book on the sociology and economics of the contemporary art market. Velthuis is interested in how cold and tidy economic realities are built out of messy human narratives: what do prices mean, in different contexts?

One of the interesting facts Velthuis mentions is the commissions gallerists receive in the Dutch gallery market. Commissions for mosts artists are between 40 and 50 percent. But, Velthuis says, they rarely exceed 50 percent: to do so is seen as a moral violation.

Velthuis says:

The commission that a dealer receives from an artist is not simply established on the basis of mutual bargaining power. Instead, negotiations about commissions are phrased in terms of entitlements, fairness, and, again, desert. In these negotiations, not only the time and energy of artists are at stake, but also those of dealers themselves. Says a Dutch gallery owner: “I make big efforts for my artists, among others editing and publishing small catalogues on individual artists written by recognized people in the field. That’s why I am inclined to ask 50 percent of artists. Especially given the fact that one of the most renowned artists I represent only wants to have 50 percent, it is not done to ask less of young, relatively unknown artists.” Commissions higher than 50 percent are considered “unethical,” however. Dealers who do ask more than this percentage violate a moral code, since they take advantage of the multitude of artists who are desperately looking for a gallery to represent them. Commissions lower than 50 percent are also legitimated in moral terms: “If paintings are starting to sell for 150,000 dollars, why would I take 75,000? I don’t really deserve it,” as a New York dealer explained.

Velthuis at p. 139, citations omitted.

The 50 percent “ethical” line is interesting. Many artists just starting out have little bargaining power, and would settle for a commission higher than 50 percent if it were offered. It is reminiscent of the results of the Ultimatum Game (in which one participant must divide a sum between himself and a recipient, and the recipient can then accept or refuse the offer – and if he refuses, neither party gets anything) and the Dictator Game (in which one participant divides a sum and the recipient has no power to refuse). In both cases, participants commonly offer much more than zero. In the Ultimatum Game case, recipients commonly refuse offers of less than 50 percent. In the Dictator Game case, participants are particularly likely to offer 50 percent when they are not anonymous – that is, if their reputation is at stake, as with the gallerists. Presumably the young artists have little bargaining power; should one refuse, another will gladly take his place. The gallerist’s situation is probably more comparable to the Dictator Game.

Humans have a taste for “altruistic punishment” – punishing unfair behavior in others, even at cost to themselves. Retribution is a major motive in criminal justice; capital punishment may have little deterrent effect, but many governments impose it at great cost nonetheless, indicating that deterrence (and even incapacitation) is not the only motivation being served by criminal punishment.

Since we are aware that humans have a taste for altruistic punishment, we guide our actions with this in mind. We act “fairly” (e.g. in the Dictator Game) even when it is not in our pecuniary interests to do so, in order to be perceived as fair and to avoid incurring reputational costs – and to avoid punishment, even when it is not available to the other party in the particular game we are playing.


There was an interesting discussion on LessWrong a few years ago, in which Yvain suggested a way to minimize harm: if someone appears to be offended, and in pain, as a result of your actions, immediately cease those actions, even if you can’t understand why the person would be in pain. Vladimir_M countered that, were this to be come a norm, it would create an incentive to self-modify in order to feel pain at the slightest transgression of one’s beliefs. fburnaby sums it up:

reducing the offense I cause directly increases net utility (Yvain)
reducing the offense I cause creates a world with stronger incentives for offense-taking, which is likely to substantially decrease net utility in the long-term (Vladmir_M)

Self-modification is always a risk in game theory situations. I think it’s interesting that people have already self-modified in this way: being willing to incur costs to oneself in order to promote fairness, from the emotion of “spite” that motivates altruistic punishment.

Kevin Simler has written about crying as a particular human behavior that acts as a costly signal of pain, and invites offers of friendship “at a discount.” Evolution has given us ways to signal our pain in a costly manner.

But self-modifying to feel pain more easily would usually incur reputational costs. We have terms like “crybaby,” “whiner,” and “drama queen” precisely because we recognize that some people may be incentivized to express an excessive amount of pain. However, those with high social status or social value may be particularly likely to over-express pain, as they are less likely to be mocked or ostracized for doing it. This is the “cry-bully” phenomenon: those with little fear of social ostracism or judgment may express excessive pain or offense against those less powerful (e.g. the outgroup), and get away with it without reputational costs.

Two observations, in sum:

  1. A social norm of giving in to any expression of offense or pain will ultimately result in more offense and pain.
  2. Those with high social status will express offense and pain at a lower threshold, often causing harm to those of lower social status.

The Mountain

The mountain is a natural, physical, geographic pattern that offers itself as a hard-to-fake measurement of human effort. Its ritual and cognitive significance is difficult to understand without climbing it, but I will offer an account of its place in the human order as best I can.

Many places occupied by humans (including my current home) have no mountains at all. In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander et al. provide a system of asterisks next to patterns, with more asterisks indicating a pattern that is universal, necessary, and irreplaceable. A pattern with zero asterisks is very possibly not a universal pattern. The mountain, taken literally, would likely have zero asterisks next to it as a ritual pattern. But after exploring the meaning of the mountain, and the cognitive experiences and “ritual vitamins” it provides, I will suggest that the mountain may be seen as a metaphor for other patterns. Physical mountains are still extremely important, but I hope to show the place of figurative “mountains” in human motivation, organization, and cognition.

In the lectures of William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, an amusing number of the transcendental experiences reported by his informants take place while climbing mountains. The lectures themselves I will turn to later as an example illuminating metaphorical “mountains” and their relationship to the terrain they overlook.

I am not a mountain climber in any serious sense. I have climbed mountains in the Eastern Sierra of California and the Idaho panhandle, backpacking often for many days, since I was a child, but I have not climbed any really difficult mountains. For many years I specialized in running up and down the modest hills and mountains within the city limits of Los Angeles, California, and it is those experiences which I wish to condense and relate here.

For orientation purposes, here is a hand-drawn map of the three sets of hills and mountains that I have spent the most time running up and down:


Probably the best, most fun hill run in Los Angeles is the one I completed earliest, and the one I ran over and over again, many dozens of times. It is the run from Hollywood, beneath the famous sign, up through Bronson Canyon to the Griffith Observatory, and back down to the east through Griffith Park.

You might start at the Bourgeois Pig, a coffee shop on Franklin Avenue. From there, head north up Bronson Avenue until it becomes Canyon Drive. This is a shady neighborhood with many trees and 1920s architecture, very quiet despite its proximity to the city streets. Canyon Drive enters Bronson Canyon-Griffith Park through an iron gate, and continues up through the park, past playgrounds and picnic tables, eventually becoming a dirt road open only to foot traffic (and dogs). You can make a sharp right and visit the bat caves if you like, adding only a few hundred feet to your trip. The main trail follows the drainage of a creek, which is often full of tall, bushy stands of fennel and poison hemlock. Eventually you cross the creek and enter the most challenging part of the run: the exposed, shadeless dirt road cut into the west side of the eastern slope of Bronson Canyon. The sun is hot, the slope is steep but runable, and the terrain is boring and monotonous. One season I saw tomato plants, obviously being tended by someone, on the side of the slope. Often there are people walking dogs.

When you make it to the end of this leg, the trail shifts west and levels out briefly to a view point jutting out on the south side of the Hollywood Hills. Take a moment to look at the canyon, streets, and smog below, and continue up a few hundred more feet. Here you intersect a larger dirt road, used as a bridle path by groups of tourists on horseback that you might have to dodge. To the west is the incredibly boring and thankless Hollywood sign; to the east is the goal, Griffith Observatory. Continue east on this dirt road until it turns into soft black asphalt.

Here, the empty road curves around back toward the city to the south. This is the most glorious part of the run. After ascending on rough, rocky dirt, now you gently ascend on wide, clean asphalt before – wonderful surprise! – gently descending as the road curves. I find it very difficult not to stick my arms out airplane-style on this part of the run, out of pure joy. There are trees on this part of the run, offering some shade. And all of a sudden, as the road curves around the southernmost part of the mountain, you get your first view of the observatory.

Eventually the road meets the parking lot for the observatory. Here you can either run up the sidewalk, if it’s not too crowded, or climb up to the trail that goes all the way up Mt. Hollywood (which is not the boring mountain with the sign, but the peak just to the north of the observatory). Head left (north) and run up the switchbacks to the peak, if you like – I usually don’t, as I don’t think it adds much to the experience. Head right (south) toward the observatory and the first of its rewards – the drinking fountains. I avoid carrying water because running with water removes some of the proprioceptive beauty from the experience; it’s necessary on the other peaks I will describe, but it’s not necessary here.

When you’ve gorged yourself on water, stroll across the courtyard of the observatory, touch the monolith with names of scientists carved into it, and admire the smoggy view of the city below. On a very clear day you can see the ocean, but this is so rare that it’s wholly surprising when it happens. If you’ve arrived during normal business hours, climb down the western stairs to the café and eat a rice crispy treat and milk. (Sometimes the caterer makes the rice crispy treats out of other cereals, such as fruit loops or cocoa puffs; see Note 1.)

When you’re done, walk over to the eastern side of the observatory and begin your descent. It begins gently, but quickly gets steep, so that maintaining a running pace requires full concentration, frequently producing the mental state known as “flow.” It is the most thrilling part of the run, resembling what I imagine to be the experience of steering a Star Wars air motorcycle through the forest. The trail descends into Griffith Park near the Greek Theater, with stone-walled trails, trees, and more drinking fountains. Finally, you hit Los Feliz Boulevard just as it is about to turn south and become Western. As this happens, the road steeply declines, offering another view of the grid of Los Angeles, and the sunset, assuming it’s that time of day. Turn west onto Franklin and run until the street becomes so busy that you must stroll instead. I think the loop is about eight miles, give or take, with around a thousand feet of elevation gain (you go a bit above Griffith Observatory on the highest parts of the run).

I have covered this run in much more detail than I will cover the other mountain ranges, because it is dearest to me and I have done it so many times. The other runs are less narrative and varied, more difficult, steeper, longer, and more “mountainy” in general.

The Verdugo Hills (or, more grandly, Verdugo Mountains) are just to the north of the Hollywood Hills; between the two sets of hills is the San Fernando Valley, known as The Valley, as in Valley girls. Burbank and Glendale sit between the two mountain ranges.

There is no water at the top of the Verdugo Hills, and the runs up and down are around twelve miles, so you have to carry water. The most elegant solution for this is to carry a small running backpack that holds a bladder of water with a hose to your face, known by brand as a Camel Bak. It’s not as nice as running free without carrying anything, but it’s worth doing. (I did it without carrying any water once, in July I believe, and while I value the experience, I would not wish to repeat it.)

Suburban roads through residential districts approach the mountains from all sides – from Sun Valley to the west, Glendale and Burbank to the south, and La Crescenta to the north. At the lower view points close to the city, the rocks are covered in graffiti tags, and the ground is littered with shattered beer bottles and green medical marijuana prescription containers (again see Note 1). Fire roads connect these points, passing through somewhat monotonous terrain, offering only benches with fine views, the fire department’s eucalyptus grove, and a view of the Burbank Airport to break things up. At the peak is some kind of radio tower surrounded by chain link fence, usually populated by mountain bikers resting and looking at the view. From the peak, elevation about 3000 feet, you can look down on Mt. Hollywood as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.

The final mountain is the only real mountain in Los Angeles, Mt. Lukens, or Sister Elsie Peak, in the southern part of the San Gabriel Mountains. The peak is over 5,000 feet in elevation, making Los Angeles the large city with the greatest difference between its highest and lowest points in the United States. Approach it from Dukmejian Wilderness Park, or below, from Foothills Boulevard, to add miles and elevation, if you like. Again, there is no water at the peak, so you must carry a great deal of water. Your phone will probably not have any signal. There are snakes and cougars, as well as tiny frogs and deer.

The trail climbs through forest and over a small creek, eventually meeting the fire roads, switching back on the south face of the mountain. High up on the mountain, not quite at the peak, the trail extends very far to the south and offers the most important moment of the climb. (The peak itself is about as ugly as a peak can be, littered with communication towers and chain link fence.)

At this point, all of a sudden, looping out southward, you can see the entire basin. You can see both of the smaller sets of mountains, the Verdugo Hills and the Hollywood Hills, far below. If you have spent many months or years walking, running, driving, and bicycling around the neighborhoods and towns and hills, connecting the different points and forming a sense of place, this view offers a jarring, visceral insight into why everything is where it is. You can see why the streets and highways and neighborhoods are where they are, why there are blank spots on the map, the spread of the three-dimensional geographic and urban reality sweeping out toward Pasadena. Everything becomes crystal clear, even through the distinct and geographically understandable patches of smog, beyond communication in words.

The mountain itself offers its insights only in relation to the surrounding terrain. A new visitor may find the view breathtaking, but will not get the thrill of understanding and connection that an experienced Angelano has access to.

For every human domain, there is a terrain, and an ascending set of peaks. William James refers to the “terrain” as the “apperceiving mass” – the raw material, reports of experiences, through which one can perceive the insights available from the “peaks” of theory. Darwin’s astounding insight is perhaps most meaningful to those, like him, who spent long years understanding the terrain of biology, its specimens, fossils, distribution, and variety. I am suspicious of learning the clear, cold insights of economics, for instance, without a strong grasp of the terrain of human transactions.

William James’ lectures, I think, form a sort of mountain – the difficult effort of reading them is required to effectively ascertain the understanding contained within. I do not think they are capable of a satisfying tl;dr. A summary of main points is possible, but it can never be as satisfying or convincing if it eliminates the terrain – the apperceiving mass – from the experience.

Ascending a mountain, alone or with a group, is a fine thing. It is one of the best rituals I have ever experienced. Insight and theory are also fine things. But the true value of the mountain, perhaps, is in the descent – and what is brought down, whether it is Moses’ stone tablets, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, or, more likely, something much more modest. This is how the mountain gains its relation with the surrounding terrain, which provides it with context and meaning.

The I Ching trigram “mountain” (read from the bottom up) is yin, then yin, then yang at the top. Two of these trigrams together gives the hexagram Mountain:


I have called the I Ching an epistemic failure magnet (perhaps using slightly more vulgar language), for its sparse binary structure allows any information at all to be projected onto it. It is, perhaps, a mountain that has lots its terrain, and since the terrain that it condenses has been lost, if it ever existed, its insights must have limited value. But the I Ching is also very beautiful. Its binary organization begins with a duality, and a binary duality is a very satisfying pattern, as I’m sure my fellow Ribbonfarmer Venkat, samurai of 2X2 matrices, would agree. Binaries are satisfying ways of imposing meaning on the world. A continuum is one way of making the duality pattern more complex and meaningful; another way is to arrange instances of the binary along a dimension, such as time.

I like Nigel Richmond’s somewhat counterintuitive and unorthodox explanation of yin and yang, as change and no change, respectively. In this interpretation, yin is activity, the receiver of change; yang is stillness, the provider of change. (I think of them as corresponding to the Myers-Briggs types ESFJ for yin and INTP for yang, rather than to object-level male and female.) Yin is activity without thought, yang is thought without activity.

A fun game, along this vein, is to listen to songs and classify each song and each bar by the trigram of stillness and motion that it represents. It is a game of applying a satisfying, beautiful duality to a random sample of human art, and the practice of this game can provide both pleasurable and cautionary understanding of how much similar “games” are played in human cognitive domains.

The mountain trigram, again read from the bottom up, presents a picture of a mountain, and a temporal picture of the process by which the mountain is formed – geological activity pushing up, then more, then stillness. It is also a picture of the process of ascending a mountain. The full hexagram, then, may be seen as a portrait of ascending the mountain, and then descending it: activity, activity, and then the stillness of the peak; then activity, activity, and then the stillness of integrating the insights of the peak with the population of the surrounding terrain.

Climbing mountains is a beautiful ritual, valuable for its own sake. If the world were about to end, it is one of the things I would want to be doing. And insight and understanding are beautiful and valuable for their own sake. But to be useful, and for their beauty to be shared, these patterns must be integrated in relation to the surrounding terrain. The value of what is carried down may only be measured once this final, difficult step is completed – in the stillness after the descent, and in what follows. Patterns may be valuable in and of themselves, but their value is limited unless they can spread. And this is a great challenge.

Note 1. California is a medical marijuana state with somewhat lax prescription standards.

Sacred Objects

All functioning groups develop sacred objects – things, people, places, or ideas that unite and symbolize the group and ground its aesthetic. Almost anything can be a sacred object – animals (such as the coyote and the crab), books, ornaments, foods, places. These objects are not “sacred” in the sense that they are worshipped, but in the sense that they are special to the group and protected (or treated in some particular way) on behalf of the group, as a kind of metonym.

It is not possible to simply declare that an object is sacred to the group. Instead, look out for things that are already, naturally acquiring meaning to the group, and experiment with ways of elaborating that meaning.

Habit-Reinforcing Chemicals (Exogenous or Endogenous)

The most basic elements of ritual are group sacrifice (of time or other things) and changing mental states. “Mood-altering or consciousness-altering substances or techniques” is such a ubiquitous human pattern that it is included in Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals, features believed to be common to all human groups ever studied. Substances and practices can be incorporated into rituals to create pleasant moods and reinforce the ritual behavior.

Small-group rituals involving tea, coffee, or yerba mate are performed around the world. The psychoactive effects of tea are enthusiastically recorded in the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tung’s Tea Song of Yuchuan:

The first bowl moistens my lips and throat;

The second bowl breaks my loneliness;

The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find

Therein some five thousand scrolls;

The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration

And all life’s inequities pass out through my pores;

The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones;

The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals.

The seventh bowl could not be drunk,

only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves.

Where is Penglai Island, Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back.

(Some translations have the breeze emanating directly from the speaker’s armpits, rather than raising in his sleeves – a vivid sensory image that makes a lot of sense when you’ve actually drunk half a dozen cups of fine tea with full social focus and attention.)

Wine, beer, spirits, and tobacco all have their ritual uses, and are still currently legal in most countries. Any of these substances can be the focus of the ritual itself, or can be a flavor added to a ritual whose primary focus is on other things.

Substances are not the only way to accomplish this pattern. Our bodies produce many habit-reinforcing chemicals in response to stimulation, such as vigorous exercise or touch. The pleasure of partner dancing (such as contra dancing) derives in part from physiological responses to exercise and chaste, comfortable touch. Distance running, particularly non-competitive running for the pure physical pleasure, is highly habit forming.

Ritual and social context, for many groups, provide the moderating influence that keeps habit-forming substances and behaviors from being used excessively or harmfully. And sometimes a rare ritual, such as Purim, provides a ritual outlet for occasional excess. Used prudently, habit-forming or mood-altering substances are powerful tools for creating beauty.

Those Few Patterns

If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.

Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, having a drink at a friend’s house, driving on the freeway, going to bed again. There are a few more.

There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen. Look at your own life and you will find the same. It is shocking at first, to see that there are so few patterns of events open to me.

Not that I want more of them. But when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can life well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, pp. 67-68.

When I was about nineteen, I spent a few days in the hospital for a complication from a birth defect in one of my kidneys. I was not very close to death at the time – I have been much closer to death before and since. But isolated in a hospital room without a computer and on a large amount of drugs, I had a vision of what death would be like. What it was, was more of the same – and then nothing. No great narrative, no drama, just more of the same patterns, very much as it has always been, and then nothing.

Those few patterns that make up our lives, are our lives. They seem trivial and mundane, but they have the greatest contribution to our well-being (or suffering). Those shockingly few patterns of events that constitute our lives have an importance that is belied by their familiarity. They make up our comfortable home on Earth, or our prison, or both.