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This morning, on the thirty-first anniversary of our moving in together, chorale and I married. In addition to the two friends who kindly offered to host and a friend of theirs who volunteered her help, thirty-four people attended.

The vows were a version of an early Book of Common Prayer rite, which I edited with input from chorale. I liked them because they emphasized the legal commitment actually to do certain things, rather than merely a sentimental commitment to feel the right way. I'm a bit proud of my edit, so here it is:

Officiant: Dearly beloved friends, we are gathered together to join this man and this woman in matrimony, which is an honorable estate, and therefore is not to be enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and soberly, for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity: into the which estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore, if any person can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.

(To the couple) I require and charge you that if either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it.

(To the groom) —, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together in matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?

Groom: I will.

Officiant: (To the bride) —, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together in matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to him, so long as you both shall live?

Bride: I will.

Groom takes bride’s hand.

Officiant, followed by groom: I, —, take thee, —, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, till death us depart. And thereto I plight thee my troth.

Couple release hands; bride takes groom’s hand.

Officiant, followed by bride: I, —, take thee, —, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, till death us depart. And thereto I give thee my troth.

Couple release hands; groom places ring on bride’s hand.

Officiant, followed by groom: With this ring I thee wed: and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Bride places ring on groom’s hand.

Officiant, followed by bride: With this ring I thee wed: and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Officiant: Forasmuch as — and — have consented in wedlock, and have witnessed the same before this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth to each other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of rings, and by joining of hands: I pronounce that they be man and wife together.

Officiant: You may kiss the bride.

Many thanks to our friends who served as officiant, best man, and matron of honor, and to the friends who offered their house and yard, and to everyone who attended, especially the several people who traveled long distances to do so.

seen in the wild

Yesterday I had an errand to run that involved taking the bus. About halfway to my destination a woman got on and apparently sat down without paying; at any rate the driver spoke to her and she said, "Just a minute," and fished in her purse and then went up to the front. She sat down again, and the driver asked her for another quarter.

That's when it got weird: She claimed not to have a quarter, and then she told the driver he should stop watching pornography and called him a misogynist. And she went back and sat down.

So the driver didn't drive on; as is standard practice, he stayed at the stop until the situation was cleared up. And another passenger, also a woman, turned to the first woman and complained about her holding the bus up; if she didn't have a quarter, the second woman said, she should ask people if they had a quarter. The first woman said something about the bus being federally funded, and the second one said that she still had to pay to ride. And eventually the first woman went up, took out a quarter, and paid the rest of the fare. So apparently that whole drama wasn't about her actually not having the fare at all. And I'm really not sure what it was about.

But the exchange didn't stop there: The second woman had been annoyed about having the bus held up for this drama, and the first woman "apologized" to her—but the actual wording was "I'm sorry you're so full of rage," which is quite clearly not an actual apology: It's reframing the situation from "I did something that inconvenienced and offended you" to "You are a person who is inherently angry and your anger is not about me in any way," with a touch of "And I'm better than you because I'm not being angry back at you." Now, I've seen that sort of nonapology quoted in political disputes, and I've seen it once in a roleplaying game I was running ("I'm sorry you weren't strong enough to deal with my pointing an electrolaser at you" was a classic line); but I don't recall running into it out in the natural social environment before.

The accusation of misogyny was strange too: All the driver had done was ask her to pay the full fare, which any driver, male or female, would have to do with any passenger, male or female. So this was a really striking case of a situation being framed as abuser and victim in a purely manipulative way that bore no relation to the facts. And it wasn't without effect: I thought of saying something myself at the outset—I wanted to get to my destination and take care of my own errands!—but I figured that anything I said would also be dismissed as "misogynistic" and not do any good. And I'm not sure whether to think of my own silence as prudence or timidity.


Our older cat, Taiki, has had the habit for some time, when chorale and I sit close together, of pushing himself between us and crying for attention. So from time to time I call him "the thruster between," by analogy to, for example "the burrower beneath" in the Cthulhu mythos. It's long seemed to me that this could plausibly be given a Latin paraphrase.

Checking our Latin dictionary lately, I found that one of the verbs for "thrust" or "push" is trudere, the root, for example, of English "intrude" and "protrude." Adding the preposition as a prefix, I get verb intertrudere and derived agent noun intertruditor. In English it would be "intertruder," but I think I like the sound of the Latin. . . .

history of chemistry

In a moment of curiosity, I wanted to look into the history of biochemistry as a science. I found that the first enzymes were discovered in the early 1800s, though enzymes as a class weren't recognized till around 1900—it was believed for a long time that only the vital force inside living organisms could do things like turning sugar into alcohol. But more strikingly, I learned about the origin of the concepts of catalysis.

There was a woman named Elizabeth Fulhame, the wife of a Scots physician. We don't know if she herself was Scots; in fact we know very little about her, not even her dates of birth and death, apparently. But in 1780, she began doing research on the process of combustion, and on methods for coating fabric with layers of precious metal. In 1794, she published a book on her work, An Essay On Combustion with a View to a New Art of Dying and Painting, wherein the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Hypotheses are Proved Erroneous. In it, she described a process where burning substances in contact with water acquired an oxygen atom from the water, releasing hydrogen, which then took on oxygen from the air and formed a new water molecule. This is apparently the first description of a catalytic process, more than 40 years before Berzelius coined the word.

Fulhame actually gained recognition in her own time; in 1810 she was elected an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society, and Count Rumford praised her work. But she seems to have fallen into obscurity for a long time after that; she certainly wasn't mentioned in my courses in chemistry and biochemistry. But I'm glad to have learned about her now. And I like the spirit of her key statement about her work:

Persuaded that we are not to be deterred from the investigation of truth by any authority, however great, and that every opinion must stand or fall by its own merits, I venture with diffidence to offer mine to the world, willing to relinquish it, as soon as a more rational appears.


California's primary election is late in the year, but it's starting to draw close; and this year it includes the presidential candidates. But how to choose among them is a puzzle for me.

I have no thought of asking for the Democratic ballot. Clinton is an authoritarian, corrupt, and a dynastic candidate with an appalling sense of entitlement; on the other hand, Sanders is a socialist, and I don't vote for fascists or socialists.

I'd have to register soon (if it's still possible) to vote in the Republican primary; they don't take independent voters in California. The idea of voting against Trump is not without appeal; see my comment about Sanders. His rival is Cruz, and some of Cruz's positions appeal to me; I'd like to see if he carried through on his proposal to abolish multiple executive departments and agencies. Also, I'd much rather have him appointing the next few Supreme Court justices than any of the other three. On the other hand, Cruz's views on abortion and same-sex marriage are big reasons not to support him, and those are issues I care about. It's also worth keeping in mind that so many Californians will vote in the Republican primary that my vote will fall into the margin of error in any case.

The other option is to ask for the Libertarian primary ballot. That's a party that's a closer fit to my own views; their candidates have meaningful differences; and also, my vote will fall short of significance by a smaller factor, since rather fewer people vote Libertarian. And since I'll probably vote for the Libertarian in November, it makes some difference to me which one it is.

a literature of bad ideas

On a visit to the city library, I spotted Robert Sawyer's Quantum Night on the shelves. I had been running across references to Penrose's theories of consciousness lately, and Sawyer was taking off from them, so I decided to have a look.

As far as basic narrative is concerned, the writing in this book is competent. Sawyer keeps the plot moving, and pulls off at least one large surprise a bit past halfway through. And he managed to get me to remain interested in the fate of a protagonist whose beliefs I largely detested. The problems I have with this book are almost entirely with the ideas.

One of the big sources of ideas, as I mentioned, is Penrose. Penrose is most widely known for his theory that consciousness is a product of quantum level processes within the brain, in molecular structures called "microtubules," which enable the brain to make use of quantum indeterminacy in its computational processes, in a way not possible to systems controlled by classical mechanics and thermodynamics. Now, this is more or less a revival Descartes' ideas about the pineal gland as the locus of mind/body interaction, with updated and more sophisticated science, but it looks just as handwavy as Descartes—but handwaviness as such isn't fatal to science fiction; a lot of classic stories are equally speculative. But Sawyer's fictionalization manages to land squarely on some problematic implications of the theory.

In the first place, "consciousness" here seems to mean human consciousness, or linguistically mediated consciousness, and only that. But the idea that human brains have microtubules, and the brains of other primates, or other mammals, or other vertebrates do not, simply makes no sense. Indeed, Sawyer's hero believes in Singer's ideas about animal rights (though not very rigorously; he's willing not only to have dinner with a woman who eats meat, but to buy a meat and cheese pizza for the woman and her daughter), which turn on the belief that animals have consciousness and can suffer. But at the same time, the plot turns on the idea that most human beings are not conscious, but go through their lives as automata. And that ought to apply all the more to animals, which certainly do not often show the reflective self-awareness that Sawyer seems to make definitive of "consciousness." That way lie the Cartesians who vivisected dogs and dismissed their cries as a purely mechanical process that gave no evidence of actual pain—because, they thought, anything that couldn't form the verbal proposition "I suffer" couldn't really be suffering. Sawyer doesn't seem to have chosen a side in this dichotomy; he seems to take conclusions from both sides.

In the second place, Sawyer imagines a quantum state in the brain that can take on different values, ranging from 0 to 3: 0 is true cessation of consciousness, as under surgical anesthesia; 1 is robotic automatism; 2 is sociopathy, with awareness of self but not of others; 3 is empathic awareness and moral responsibility. But he imagines that this quantum state is inherently persistent and unlikely to change, but can be reset from outside by a quantum mechanical device. That is, he sets aside any thought of free will: If you are a ruthlessly predatory sociopath, you bear no responsibility and cannot be expected to change; but equally, if you are a total altruist, you bear no responsibility and cannot deserve any credit. The whole normal language of "morality" simply becomes meaningless on these terms, because morality assumes agency, or self-direction. Penrose is taking off from the idea in some versions of quantum mechanics that human consciousness brings about the change from indeterminism to a determinate observed outcome; but Sawyer has reversed this and made human consciousness itself a determinate process, one controlled by quantum states that normal human thought and will cannot influence.

And that leads us up to the other point where I have problems: Sawyer's use of Singer's ideas and more broadly of utilitarianism. I said that I largely detested his protagonist's beliefs; what I mean specifically is that I detest utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. John Stuart Mill, its most famous advocate (though not its first; it was formulated originally by Jeremy Bentham), was a lifelong friend of Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who popularized (and perhaps coined) the word "altruism." But what Comte meant by "altruism" was not kindness or compassion or generosity; its flavor is best conveyed by his statement that Jesus was an unsound moral teacher because he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but morality required that you have no love at all for yourself and care only for the good of other people. Mill thought that was excessive—and in fact his discussion of it started English usage down the path to using "altruism" to mean "good will" or any action that benefited another person in any way—but Mill's own formal ethics called for weighting everyone's happiness equally; that is, it allowed you to love yourself, but with 7 billion people in the world, only one 7 billionth of your love could go to yourself—a quantity effectively no different from zero. (In terms of time, if you lived to 120, you could justly spend 4 seconds thinking of yourself!) Sawyer's hero quotes "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one," without a moment's thought for how fascistic that idea is.

Now, certainly, it's possible to tell a good story about an evil person; or even to tell a good story about an evil person one thinks is virtuous. Novelists aren't all moral philosophers, and storytelling doesn't depend on sound moral judgment. But it did make reading this persistently creepy.

But I'd also note that Sawyer falls into a conceptual trap that ties back to his scientific premise. He offers a model of society in which most people are simply automata, responding mindlessly to the impulse of the moment or the trend of the crowd; a smaller group are sociopaths, out solely for themselves and having purely exploitative relationships with others; and a still smaller group are morally aware. But in his view, the morally aware people are utilitarians, or at least are Canadian-style liberals; and all the conservatives are sociopaths with no moral sensitivity. He cannot credit the idea that people of other views may be honestly conscientious and trying to make the best decisions from premises different from his; rather, he dismisses them as beings less than fully human, with whom no dialogue is possible. And this leads up to his protagonist choosing to make decisions that change the moral character of other people, without their consent or their knowledge, as if he were rebooting a bunch of computers. That undermines the whole claim that his protagonist is empathic or ethically sensitive—except perhaps as he might be ethically senstive to animals: He won't kill them, or eat them, or use products of their bodies, but he doesn't see them as able to make their own choices. Sawyer cites Singer's Animal Rights, but in his treatment of morality, neither animals nor humans has anything that could accurately be called "rights."

In a way, this is really a rather brilliant novel: It takes the concept that human agency is all an illusion, and explores its implications. But it also shows an impressive lack of consciousness of what those implications are. There is, for example, no recognition that there are moral traditions other than utilitarianism. We're shown the protagonist acting from utilitarian premises, and doing some things that other people find creepy; but there's never any attempt to explore why they might do so. And on the novel's own premise about the grounding of morality in empathy, it ought to be making that attempt.


I've been rereading Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond novels, which I first discovered fifty years ago. In the fourth volume, Pawn in Frankincense, one of the secondary character, Jarrett Blyth, gains the trust of a scholar in the Near East by identifying the species of his pet. Blyth describes it as Herpestes ichneumon, a digitigrade quadruped of the family Viverridae.

However, the system of binomial nomenclature that Blyth is using was devised by Carolus Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae, first published 1735. Linnaeus did include the animal in question in the 1758 edition, nearly two centuries after the time of the novel's events, but as Viverra ichneumon; the separate genus Herpestes was not split off until later. The family Viverridae roughly corresponds to Linnaeus's genus Viverra, but it was not defined until later; the formal taxonomic rank of "family" was introduced in 1796 by an entomologist, Latreille. So while Blyth could perfectly well have said something learned about the ichneumon, or even quoted some scholarly description of it, he could not have used the phrasing Dunnett gave him.

I've suspected for some time that Dunnett occasionally plays fast and loose with vocabulary in showing off her characters' erudition (and not just Lymond's, but that of several supporting characters!), but this is the first time I've definitely caught her in it.

when it ain't got that swing

chorale is on spring break this week, so we decided to take in Dawn of Justice, having found the scenes of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman interesting. I have to say she was appealing in the actual movie, though we didn't see enough of her. But I went in hoping that with this film, DC would actually have figured out the trick of making interesting superhero films, as Marvel has done with the first two Captain America films, the first two Avengers films, and various others. I'm sorry to say that this one totally fails to rival Marvel.

Probably the biggest mark of this, for me, was that in the middle, during Batman's big car chase scene and then his early clash with Superman, I felt like, "Wow, this is just going on and on." I didn't have any sense of tension, and so the frantic physical speed didn't feel like it was going anywhere. And that was mostly true also in the final massive battle that teamed all three heroes up against the secondary adversary. Part of it was that the action was (probably intentionally) murky and hard to follow; but I think more important was that I didn't have a sense of what the characters were fighting for, or how they felt about the fight. For a two and a half hour film it seemed singularly empty. In fact it had me thinking ironically about the complaints about Joss Whedon having crammed too much into his Avengers films, and wishing Zach Snyder could have learned something from him.

A further lack in the climactic battle was any real sense, either that the three heroes had different fighting styles (which they damned well ought to!) or that they were finding a way to make those styles work together. In fact I'm not sure what Batman actually accomplished. Wonder Woman was a lot more effective, but I didn't get much sense of her being a warrior, or of either her or Batman intentionally setting things up for Superman.

Really, for me, the best scene with Bruce was one of the opening ones, where he's in Metropolis during Superman's big fight with Zod, and he first calls the Wayne Building and tells them to get everyone out, and then first drives and finally runs toward the building, getting a streetlevel view of apocalyptic battle and going straight toward danger. That was movingly heroic to watch; it fit the old comics formula of "Bruce Wayne is Batman whether he wears the costume or not."

Theoretically Batman is the world's greatest detective, but I didn't see him doing much detecting. A lot of his scenes made it look as if Alfred was the world's greatest detective and Bruce was the front man (which could be a fun series, I suppose). But also, we saw both Superman and Luthor figuring out things at roughly the same time as Batman. Batman as "guy who hits things" isn't nearly as interesting. It was particularly (un)impressive that, having investigated Superman thoroughly enough to know his nonheroic identity, he had managed not to find out the name of his mother!

I also have to say that the movie undercut a promising start by having Luthor turn into a mad villain. At its outset I thought he was given some quite strong points—his mistrust of superior and unchecked power and his warnings against the danger from Kryptonians made perfect sense. Then rather than have the Congressional committee go into this, they terminated its meeting suddenly and went into maximal violence, and Luthor started looking . . . well, forgive the pun, batshit crazy. I think it would have been stronger had the viewer gone away thinking, "Yes, Luthor's unscrupulous, but maybe he's right."

Last week I looked at a New York Times review that complained about this not being a film you can take your kids to. That's not a problem for me. But there are a lot of stronger ways Dawn of Justice falls short of what superhero films can be.

And I really would have liked to have Wonder Woman/Diana Prince more fully developed.


My new book, GURPS Powers: The Weird, got off to a good start, with 75 copies sold the first day. Now, after five more days, they've slightly more than doubled. Watching that counter tick around always makes me happy. . . .

a piece of paper from the city hall

Last year, I looked into the survivors' benefits part of Social Security (the S in OASDI), and concluded that if chorale and I were married, and she outlived me, she would be much better off with my survivor benefits than with her own benefits. We had lived together for over thirty years; now we've agreed to marry, and, later, set the date: May 1 of this year, the thirty-first anniversary of the beginning of our cohabitation.

This isn't going to be a religious ceremony, but a civil one. But we're having a little more than a bare courthouse wedding; it will be attended by my family, some of hers, multiple people from our main social circle, and several people we know in other ways. Two friends offered us their yard as a location, and the use of their outdoor chairs and tables. Our county has provisions for something called Deputy Commissioner for a Day, under which any adult can be licensed to perform a single wedding in a specific city and on a specific day, so we're able to have a Sunday ceremony when the county administrative offices are closed.

I hadn't thought I had any particular opinions about how weddings are conducted, but I find that I do. To me, the essence of the matter is that we're two adults, entering into a contractual relationship that grants each of us rights and responsibilities. On one hand, the emotional relationship already exists. But on the other, the fact that this is a serious legal and financial commitment is what gives the ceremony its emotional intensity. And I find that I prefer to have that be the central focus. I accept some ceremonial elements, and in fact welcome them, as ways of making it clear that we're doing something serious. But I prefer not to have elaborate spectacle, which might distract from the central exchange of vows; and still more not to have any comedic or satirical elements.

I did some research into wordings, and we've ended up planning to use an early version of the Book of Common Prayer, with the theistic parts edited out, and a few other changes. Neither of us liked the more "modern" wordings of many vows that talk about states of mind, and emotions, and that sort of thing; the older wordings with their emphasis on commitments to act, which put the emphasis on will and purpose rather than on feeling, seem more suited to us as adults. I'm actually struck by how central the legal and contractual aspect is to the traditional ceremony. The language is a little archaic, but both of us are comfortable with archaic syntax and vocabulary, and I really don't feel able to modernize it and have it come out as well.

Fortunately, we have generally similar preferences and sensibilities about most of this, so we're able to compromise on the details when we need to.

I'm starting to feel as if the whole thing is rushing toward us. We have the license; a close friend has applied to be our officiant; over the next few days we're going to examine the space for the event, and finalize the guest list, and also talk with a friend who's a photographer. And even with a rather minimalist ceremony, there are a number of small arrangements to make after that.

I'm honored that we know so many people who want to be present. It's all kind of amazing, and a little frightening.