Playboy After Dark

Of late comes word that Playboy magazine will stop publishing nude photos of women, and will turn its focus toward being a lifestyle magazine. As a traditionalist Catholic, I suppose the correct reaction is to be happy to hear it. And yet I must admit that as a child of the 80s, this news caused me a pang of melancholy nostalgic reflection. After all, as with so many other young boys raised in the late 20th century, Playboy was the first place I ever saw a woman with her clothes off (Miss December 1983, to be specific – the delightful Miss Terry Nihen).

[Here she is, in the most PG-rated portrait that I could find online.]

But more than anything else, the reaction I have is that this new strategy won’t work. The conventional wisdom is that Playboy has declined because the level of raciness found in its pages has been so thoroughly surpassed by more explicit material that it is no longer relevant. While there’s certainly some truth in that, I don’t believe that’s what’s really at the heart of Playboy’s relevance problem. The reason that becoming a lifestyle magazine won’t save Playboy is the fact that more than anything else, even more than its now-tame degree of raciness, it is the Playboy lifestyle itself that is no longer relevant.

So what exactly is the “Playboy lifestyle”? Rather than turning to the magazine itself to illustrate it, let’s have a look at Playboy’s Penthouse, a TV show starring Hugh Hefner that ran back during the Mad Men era (a revived version of the show, renamed Playboy After Dark, ran in the late 60s). It was a talk show with a somewhat unusual format – instead of a desk and a couch for interviews, it took the form of a hip, classy party happening in Hef’s swanky Chicago apartment – and you were on the guest list. The camera was your eyes and ears as Hef guided you around while mingling with all of the famous, cutting edge artists, intellectuals, and performers who had accepted Hef’s exclusive invitation. The likes of Lenny Bruce, George Plimpton, Roman Polanski, and Gore Vidal were there, along with songsters like Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, or Sammy Davis, Jr. who could, with some encouragement from Hef, be persuaded to come over to the piano and favor the guests with a number or two. The decor in Hef’s pad was impeccable, and the guests so very elegant; the men in tuxedos (or at least tailored suits and ties), and the ladies in tasteful gowns from the finest designers.

Here’s a playlist of some of it:

And here’s Sammy belting out some tunes at Hef’s piano:

But Hef didn’t keep the hipness confined to his Chicago apartment, nor to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles (on the door of which is a plaque in Latin reading Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare, which translates to: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring”). No, to travel between the two (and anywhere else he pleased), he had the Playboy jet! And not just any private jet, but his own personal, customized DC-9 airliner designed to be a non-stop party in the sky, complete with its own disco, movie theater, dining room, full-service bar, photo editing station, and bathroom with stand-up shower.

All of this reflects the vision that Hef had for the Playboy lifestyle. According to the New York Times: “When Mr. Hefner created the magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its debut cover in 1953, he did so to please himself. ‘If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,’ he said in his first editor’s letter. ‘We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, [or] sex’”. Yes, the Playboy lifestyle may have been degenerate, but it was also jet-setting, cultured, and sophisticated. It was certainly avant-garde – in art, philosophy, music, and sexual morality – yet to be avant-garde in those things, it is necessary to know them in the first place. Any genuinely sophisticated person, even a degenerate sophisticate, understands that the heart of being cultured is found in cultivating the self, something that can only come of endless hours devoted to study; much of it dry, frustrating, and boring (a fact to which anyone who has actually ever read Nietzsche, or any other German philosopher for that matter, can attest). The Playboy lifestyle was aspirational, and like any aspirational lifestyle outside of the realm of fantasy movies targeted to adolescents, it required effort in order to achieve.

But to what do we as a people anymore aspire? Certainly not to real culture or sophistication. Nor either to much of anything else that requires serious effort, other than the soulless corporate drone jobs that fund our ability to spend the remainder of our existences sitting on a soft couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television set.

Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. As Fred Reed once pointed out: “The United States holds three hundred million souls, or people anyway, enjoying an historically high degree of wealth, leisure, and access to universities…. All that is needed for a truly Florentine flowering of the arts, of thought and culture, of manners, we have. Yet by most measures of cultivation, the country is a desert. A literate Florentine of the fifteenth century would regard it with horror”. And while there is a certain degree of laziness that is responsible for this, there is also the Whiggish horror of anything that smacks of genuine elitism (As opposed to the phony hipster elitism that one may attain by listening to unknown rock bands, ironically drinking lousy beer, watching the Daily Show, and reading Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. An elitism that demands little more of its supposed elites than that they spread the right hashtags and vote for the right candidates is easily-achievable enough to remain acceptable to egalitarian, democratic sensibilities). This is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in societies that are either democratic or are in terminal decline (a correlation that should not be lost on anyone). As Oswald Spengler noted, in rising societies, the poor and proletarian seek to copy the manners of the rich and elite; in declining societies, the opposite is true. Our society is in a race to the bottom, and is so far along in it that we can no longer even see any use for a little bit of Picasso or Nietzsche with our titillation. Even if we say that these were only there to provide the enterprise with a veneer of respectability (and I, for one, believe Hefner to have been sincere in his desire for genuine sophistication to be a part of the Playboy lifestyle), what does it say about us as a society that we no longer have the slightest craving for that respectability? What do we crave, other than blind consumerism, meaningless sex, and validation via cheap social signaling?

No, the problem with Playboy wasn’t that its nudes were too tame; it is that there is no market left for the Playboy lifestyle. Nobody wants porn that you have to put on a necktie for, much less that you have to read some boring book in order to keep up with. Modernity is not about sophistication, but about authenticity, and authenticity is easy (Do you really think that corporations started to construct office buildings in the International or Brutalist styles because they admired the philosophy behind them? Or is it more likely that they took to them merely because they were cheap to construct?). And of course, there is nothing more authentic than the procreative urge; than feeling the need to ejaculate and satisfying it through the quickest and most straightforward means available. Hardcore porn serves those purposes admirably; what is added to that by talking about philosophy or jazz, or by having a chat with Norman Mailer along the way? How inauthentic! How elitist! What a waste of time! Just get to the sex! Hey Mailer: “Go away – ‘batin!

This is us: a society with no desires beyond materialist comforts and whatever Whiggishly practical means may be necessary to acquire them. Beautiful naked women are no longer enough sugar to make the medicine of Picasso, Nietzsche, or Miles Davis go down. Hef is old, lives in a world that is far in the dusty past, and has the problem exactly wrong. He thinks that he can still sell an aspirational lifestyle – the one that he once aspired to, and eventually managed to build for himself – but it is only possible to sell an aspirational lifestyle in a society that still has real aspirations. We are no longer such a society.

Our aspirations are dead, our intellectual life is dead, our culture is doomed, and the only question left is whether or not Hef will die before the magazine he created does.

Goodbye, Playboy. We’ll always have December, 1983.

P.S. Hef eventually sold the Playboy jet, at which point it was converted into a normal airliner. Though now quite elderly, it is still flying today, in the service of a cut-rate airline in Mexico. And so Hef’s private plane, once the very symbol of the jet-setting lifestyle of America’s 20th century elites, is these days little more than a flying bus; its cramped, uncomfortable seats crowded with lower-class Mexicans. Make of that what you will.

The Day They Tore Down The Future

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago. I’d never been to it – it was out in Ohio, a couple hundred miles away from where I grew up – but The Bechtloff used to go there all the time when he was a kid, and the loss of the place gave him occasion for some melancholy reflection. I didn’t really need to have been to Randall Park to know what it was like; I was a child of suburban America in the 80s, and that was the height of the mall and of mall culture. So I felt that sense of loss right along with him, and started thinking about what it all meant.

There’s a lot to complain about in being over 40, but I still feel rather sorry for anyone too young to remember what the 80s were like. We live in an angry, worried, fearful age here in the 21st century; and what’s worse, the young have no memory of a day in which things were any different. And yet, it did exist. It was a time when you could say that you were proud of your country and mean it. It was a time when it still seemed like the system could work; that it still might find ways to fix all the things that were wrong with our society. It was a time when it still looked like the bad guys would be defeated in the end. People had more pride in themselves back then: the morbidly obese, the garishly tattooed, the grown men dressed like adolescent boys in falling-down pants or in t-shirts with obscene slogans on them – these were all still rare and freakish. Some of the hairstyles may seem silly now, but even those took an amount of time and effort to pull off that showed us for a people who still took care of ourselves.

And everything was happening down at the mall, the epicenter of 80s social life. For those who aren’t old enough to have seen it yourselves, or who are and want a blast of nostalgia, a photographer named Michael Galinsky recently published a book called Malls Across America, which features pictures he took in malls during a road trip in 1989, and which will take you right back to those days. The Daily Mail did a feature on it, which includes many of his pictures. I remember the world that Galinsky captured in those pictures clearly, though I suppose it was all very long ago now.

My dad – sour old lefty that he is – always hated the mall. He thought it was an artificial and consumeristic replacement for Main Street, USA. But he was wrong about that – it wasn’t a replacement for Main Street, but an update of it. Yes, its economic purpose was to sell things (as was the purpose of the shops on Main Street). But as Galinsky’s pictures show, people went there for much more. They went to do all the things they did on Main Street: dining, meeting friends, promenading, or simply going there to see what everyone else was up to. It wasn’t merely retail space, it was social space where friends gathered and communities formed.

But that wasn’t why I liked to go to the mall. I went because to me, the mall looked like The Future.

Here we must make a distinction between the future and The Future. Chronologically speaking, the future is merely that which will happen at a point further along in time than the present, whether by milliseconds or by aeons. I am writing this sentence in the present, and in the future – maybe by a few days, or even a few years – you will read it. But that’s not the same as The Future. No, The Future is what we have been told about by authors, filmmakers, artists, and even creators of ten-cent comic books for the better part of a century and a half now. The Future is what we have been promised by scientists, politicians, industrialists, and even revolutionaries. All over the Soviet Union stood statues of Lenin with his hand outstretched, showing the way forward to The Future. In America, men like Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney (the latter two of whom were the primary influences behind the character of Howard Stark in the Marvel superhero films) not only showed us The Future, but built it with their own hands.

The Future is a place of massive buildings, of gleaming cities, of wide multi-level highways, of stiletto-shaped supersonic planes, of rocket launches, and of enormous video billboards (perhaps with something vaguely Japanese displayed on them). Everything in The Future is fast and sleek and clean and safe and automatic – but above all, everything in The Future is big and imposing; it strikes you with a sense of awe at its sheer size and scale.

That’s how I felt as a kid walking around the mall. The mall was big and beautiful and comfortable and even a little overwhelming. All of the wide passages, lined by stores, were multi-level – two in most places, but three at the food court and the movie theater. Everything there was new and gleaming and clean and safe, and automatic sliding doors and escalators were all around the place. There were walkways suspended in midair over wide indoor plazas and courtyards. In one of these, there was a small skate park, complete with quarter pipes, vert ramps, and a funbox, where kids could bring their skateboards all year round; in another, there was an indoor waterfall surrounded by palm trees that were green even in the depths of winter.

And then, of course, there was the arcade. It was pitch dark and full of glowing screens, and the sounds of all manner of electronic beeps and chiptunes was overwhelming. It felt like no less than walking onto the bridge of some spaceborne battlecruiser in the midst of combat. And the games! I cannot – there is no possible way to – make you understand just how much like The Future something like Pac-Man or Zaxxon or Defender looked to us, even if now they seem crude or even quaint. But we were in awe of the fact that we were playing a game against a computer – a computer! – that was drawing things recognizable as representations of real-life objects on its screen. None of us had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, but all of us played video games down at the mall arcade – and we were living in The Future when we did.

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago, and when they did, they tore down The Future. What does it all mean?

But wait – it was the internet that killed the mall, and what is the internet except the very embodiment of The Future? What indeed! Was The Future supposed to be an age of people sitting inside, passively staring at screens that displayed endless banalities (cat videos, Facebook selfies, and internet porn)? If so, that was only the very darkest vision of The Future – it is The Future of Mrs. Montag, of Edison Carter, and of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. And it’s not as if a few decades has made the experience of going out to shop any better, either – now it is both less like Main Street and less like The Future than ever. The decline of the mall coincided not only with the rise of the intenet, but also with the rise in earnest of Walmart and other big-box warehouse stores. There are no skate parks or indoor waterfalls at Walmart. The increasingly impoverished remnants of what was once our middle class shuffle in to buy cheap junk made by political prisoner slave labor in some dismal factory in faraway China. You’ll find no sense of community there, nor, considering the degree to which the former middle class has degraded, would you likely want to.

That isn’t The Future that we were promised; it isn’t The Future that was supposed to come. And here is a dark thought: What if we reached The Future, and then passed it? What if it has come and gone, and now we are in a post-Future future?

Consider: none of us kids in the arcade had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, and now it is decades later – decades into the future – but the chances that we ever will do those things have, in fact, decreased all the way to zero. The Space Shuttle has been retired for years now, and the Concorde for yet longer. Nor is either likely to ever be replaced by a newer version of the same thing. Occasionally a government agency or an aerospace company will release a concept drawing and a press release full of promises – good material for an eye-catching Popular Mechanics cover – but they always come to nothing.

When was the last time you felt like you were in The Future? How about the last time that didn’t involve staring at a screen?

Yes, the future is always ahead of us, but it is more and more beginning to look like The Future is behind us. Evidence of this is everywhere, even in what are supposed to be the most futuristic places. Living in what the technology writer John C. Dvorak calls the “northern Silicon Valley”, I am friends with a few Google employees, and have a handful of occasions a year to be invited to lunch at the Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. The food is excellent, and the place is pleasant enough, but going there is always attended by a sense of disappointment. If we lived in The Future (in the world of the classic cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s) Google – the world’s most powerful and influential technology corporation – would be housed in a hundred-story jet-black skyscraper with a huge neon “GOOGLE” sign on top like Channel 23 in Max Headroom; or perhaps, like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, in a massive ziggurat that would cover whole square miles worth of territory. Instead, it is sprawled out across a dumpy, nondescript industrial park full of two-story concrete office buildings, indistinguishable from the one that housed the company that made postcards at which my grandfather worked when I was a child.

The Future had style: whether utopian, dystopian, or something in between, it was always imposing, breathtaking, even intimidating. But the future has no style, no sense of the grand or wondrous, no desire (or no ability, or both) to impress. It is so very different from my childhood days at the mall, which felt like The Future, and all the more so because it existed in a time of prosperity and optimism; a time that’s now long gone. And what of the mall these days?

There are a few that are still doing well, mostly those lucky enough to be located in places where they can cater to the bored wives of the elites in the handful of cities that currently represent our centers of power. There’s the Pentagon City Mall in Washington for the wives of congressmen and lobbyists; Valley Fair for the wives of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires; Garden State Plaza, which caters to Wall Street wives. But these are the exceptions. Many malls that were once beautiful and were filled with the then-prosperous middle class are now occupied by seedy discount stores, and the people to be found there long ago started tending towards the unsavory. Things started changing, and you started to hear of fights at malls, then of people being shot there, and finally of full-scale riots in them – all unthinkable at the time of Galinsky’s photos. And of course many more, like Randall Park, have simply been demolished.

I remember when they used to tell you that when old things were demolished, it was in the name of progress. But what was Randall Park demolished in the name of? What lay beyond it? Was it really progress, and if so, what have we progressed to?

Well, we may not have The Future anymore, but we certainly do have The Current Year. Don’t you know that it’s 2015? That means gay marriage! Women in combat! Even the first rumblings of the normalization of pedophilia! Say what you will about the Classical Marxists of the past – Lenin, Stalin, Mao – but they built massive hydroelectric dams, intercontinental missiles, skyscrapers, and atom bombs. Yet in The Current Year, they and their grand projects have been replaced by the Cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Marcuse, and Alinsky. To the leftists of The Current Year, global warming means we can’t build big impressive things anymore, so now we simply declare the cutting edge to be increasingly degenerate sexual and cultural practices. There is nothing of The Future in The Current Year – any caveman could have smoked dope, had weird sex, or dressed up like a girl.

Is this how The Future dies? And what becomes of us when it does? The Current Year can provide sensuous pleasures and validation for our degeneracy, but didn’t we used to aspire to more than that? America is a modern nation that grew and developed during the Industrial Age; we have always been a people oriented towards The Future. We built steamships and cotton gins and giant radio towers and Santa Fe Streamliners and B-29 bombers and Shelby GT350 Cobras, because these were the things of The Future. We built the Saturn V rocket and then we went to the moon in it. What happens to such a people when they don’t have a Future ahead of them anymore? I suppose we will find out, but I have a feeling that the answer will not give us much to be optimistic about.

As The Bechtloff put it, the future ain’t what it used to be. And it probably won’t ever be again.


Forty years ago today, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart in a ferocious early winter gale while carrying a full load of taconite ore from the iron mines of upper Minnesota to the steel mills of Detroit. She sank with all hands; Captain Ernest McSorley and the twenty-eight men of his crew died at their posts, and none of their bodies were ever recovered.

It must have been a hell of a storm. McSorley, who had sailed them since he was a boy, was known as the best rough-weather captain on the Great Lakes; as for his ship, it was not for nothing that she was called “queen of the lakes” and “the pride of the American flag”.

But many of you probably already know of the ship and her fate. The sinking took place back in the glory days of the folk singer-songwriter, and the year after it, a musician by the name of Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that told the story of what happened. For those who may not have heard it, here it is:

Take a moment to notice both the form and the lyrical content of this song. The melody is a modern-day sea chanty – it is timeless, and in its timelessness connects the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew to the traditions of the sea and of all the sailors who came before them. And then there are the lyrics, which resonate with heartfelt, non-ironic respect and reverence for the white working class, instead of with the condescension toward them of a Bruce Springsteen or with the Marxist rhetoric of a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie. In Lightfoot’s song, the captain and his crew were neither fools nor cowards; they are not portrayed as piteous or as oppressed pawns of their betters. They were strong and brave souls who by chance ran afoul of the implacable forces of nature at their most destructive, and who faced them like men to their last breaths.

Wait – the white working class? Don’t I know that makes me sound like a Nazi? Well, perhaps it does!

If the intention of this clip was to make the Nazis seem horrifying, then it failed miserably (and judging by the comments posted underneath this video, I am far from the only person to share that sentiment). Of course, for our purposes, the key quote is: “Here the worker is honored, not a means to an end”. In other words, the working class (which, let us note, is not the same thing as the welfare class, no matter how much certain politicians try to conflate the two) should be honored because they deserve it, not as lip service to get them to support political agendas, including those that run directly against their own best interests. Who other than our TV-villain Nazi anymore believes things of that sort?

Certainly not the ideological left. As hard as this may be to remember, leftism was actually founded in order to protect farmers and factory workers from bourgeois, decadent, effete, overeducated, libertine urbanized elites. That’s why its symbol was a workman’s hammer and a farmer’s sickle. As one might have expected from a philosophy so ignorant of both economics and human nature, leftism ended up doing the exact opposite of what it set out to do; it has come to be used as a weapon by the people it deplored against the people it was trying to help. The working class has been abandoned. The Republicans never cared about them, and the Democrats were last seen even pretending to care about them in a Dick Gephardt speech sometime around 1989. The face of modern leftism is upper-middle-class white women with Master’s degrees in economically useless fields complaining about the content of video games, while what used to be the native-born working class sinks deeper into poverty, hopelessness, purposelessness, welfare dependency, oxycontin and/or methamphetamine abuse, and self-destructive sexual irresponsibility.

Any who think that I exaggerate should have a look at this recent study by a husband-and-wife team of economists from Princeton. They’ve found that death rates among middle-aged working-class white men have risen by 22% over the course of only the past fifteen years – an increase that is shocking both in its number and in the rapidity with which this phenomenon appeared. The increase can be attributed entirely to three causes: drugs (particularly prescription painkiller abuse), alcohol, and suicide. These are men in their forties or fifties (ones who entered the workforce just as trade agreements of the likes of NAFTA and GATT were being enacted) who in an earlier era would be settled into a comfortable existence. They would be respected in their communities, at home, and at work, where they would have seniority built up, and perhaps would have made foreman or shift supervisor or shop steward. Their sons at home, and the young guys just starting out at work, would look up to them and seek their advice. They would be beginning to think of retirement, on a generous and well-earned pension that would take care of them for as long as they lasted, and of their wives after they were gone.

And now, by the thousands, they are literally dying of despair in a society that no longer needs them, no longer respects them, and no longer has any place for them. There is not even any sympathy for them – as their jobs disappear and their marriages and families disintegrate, the society that once wrote songs about them now only tells them that an endless list of the problems of people who they have never met can be laid at the feet of their “privilege”. I wonder – do “privileged” people often drink themselves to death, die of overdoses of pills designed to take away their pain, or commit suicide because nothing better lies ahead of them?

These men, their entire socioeconomic class, and everything that was a part of their world is sinking; sinking as surely as Edmund Fitzgerald sank forty years ago today. Consider: when she was built, three hundred lake freighters just like her hauled raw materials from mines to factories in what was not yet then known as the Rust Belt, and finished industrial goods from those factories to market. Now less than half that number still sail the lakes. As for Detroit, her destination on that fateful day, it is a deindustrialized ruin that is slowly giving way to the weeds. But it isn’t just Detroit – this week’s news tells us that the last of America’s aluminum mills are cutting capacity and laying off workers as their industry buckles in the face of cheap competition from China.

The men of our working class – once the envy of the globe – have been cut adrift, and no one even waits at the dock for their return. As we mourn the twenty-nine men lost that night forty years ago, let us also take a moment to mourn the entire working-class world that has disappeared since. Let that be our way to show the world that someone still honors what has been lost.

Sponsored Post: Poned (Part III)

My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal was written for an audience of transhumanists, internet libertarians, New Atheists, and My Little Pony fans. Whenever one is dealing with such people, there is one subject that is absolutely inescapable: masturbation.

Before we begin a full analysis of that subject, however, we will need a good working definition of “masturbation”. My definition will, for reasons that I’m sure are obvious, be a strongly Catholic-tinged and male-centric one. Let’s start with this: Our brains are hard-wired to reward us for productive activity (here I mean “productive” in a “survival of the species” sense, not in a capitalistic “I sure got a lot done at the office today” sense). For example, sugar and fat naturally taste good to us because they are high in calories, and consuming every last calorie that one possibly could maximized the chances of survival during the hundreds of thousands of years during which humans were hunter-gatherers living at the edge of starvation. Sex naturally feels good to us in order to encourage reproduction. Even hard physical labor – necessary and universal among early humans – releases endorphins into our system, which reward us. In addition to physical rewards for productive behavior, there are rewards that are coded into our psychology as well. For example, young men naturally dream of adventure and heroism because young men are naturally the best hunters and the best at defending a tribe when it is under assault by other tribes; thus, a psychological mechanism that makes them want to perform these dangerous, objectively unpleasant tasks is highly advantageous. Also, man became the true king of the animals not through superior physical strength, but through his ability to think and to find creative solutions to the problems of survival. Because of this, we gain pleasure from pattern-recognition and problem-solving; there is a psychological reward mechanism built into us for successfully working our way through puzzles, and the more difficult and frustrating the puzzle, the greater the psychological reward for solving it.

Which brings us to masturbation. Masturbation can be defined as any activity that short-circuits our internal reward mechanisms by simulating, and gaining the reward for, a productive behavior without actually doing anything productive. The time, effort, and resources put into that simulation, by any measure other than simply delivering pleasure, have been wasted.

This radically expands the traditional definition of masturbation. For example, the productive purposes of sex are 1) reproduction and 2) to build up the sort of pair bonding between a male and a female that’s conducive to family formation. Therefore, any sex act that does not fulfill one or both of these productive purposes, whether done alone or with a partner, can be defined as a form of masturbation (the often-heard definition of homosexual sex as “one man masturbating into another man’s rectum” is relevant here). But our definition of masturbation transcends even the sexual. The productive purpose of romantic love is to increase the same kind of pair bonding that productive sex does; therefore any love – whether heterosexual but not intended to lead to family formation, homosexual (sorry, but “love is love” is a lie), or with the inanimate (such as the “waifu” phenomenon and romance simulation games like Japan’s notorious Love Plus) – that does not fulfill this purpose is a form of emotional masturbation. In addition, chronic overeating, i.e., the consumption of calories far in excess of what is necessary for survival, and especially of excessive amounts of sugar and fat, is a form of masturbation. Video games like the Call of Duty and Halo series, which allow young men to simulate heroism in battle without having to go through the hardship and danger of the real thing, are a form of masturbation. Television, which allows us to vicariously live the rewarding lives of fictional characters, and to have rewarding life experiences without putting in the effort of actually living them ourselves, is a form of masturbation. A make-work job, in which a person expends energy on an unnecessary task simply because both they and the society around them have a psychological need to feel as though they’re doing something productive, is a form of masturbation. Even the venerable Sunday crossword, which gives us a psychological reward for solving a puzzle that has already been solved by someone else and that has no productive purpose, is a form of masturbation.

Humanity has not yet completely solved the problem of scarcity, but, especially in the First World, we have taken a mighty chunk out of it. For example, whereas only a couple of centuries ago, something like 90% of the population needed to be employed in food production in order to survive, today we produce so much bounty that our greatest food-related medical problem, even among the poor, is obesity – and we do it with only about 2% of the population employed in food production. As time goes by, we find ourselves facing ever-less scarcity, which we have to put ever-less effort into overcoming. And yet, our hard-coded desire to achieve the physical and psychological rewards associated with activities that are productive for survival, but which the dramatic decrease in scarcity have rendered unnecessary, has led to an exponential increase in both the amount of, and the variety of forms of, masturbation.

If the examples that I have given make it sound like basically everything in the world around us is some form or another of masturbation, that’s because it is. We live in a world filled with masturbation. Masturbation is everywhere we look, and takes up enormous amounts of our time and energy. For some, it is the only thing they ever do – all day, every day. We have gotten so used to it that we barely even notice it anymore; it hardly registers with us that that’s what we’re doing. To us, incessant masturbation simply feels like normalcy.

So how does this relate to My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal, you ask? Is there a point to this, or is it all just mental… erm… going in circles?

The purpose of that whole long disquisition was to allow me to make this point: While Princess Celesta may seem like an enormously advanced AI, or like the bringer of techno-utopia, or even like the destroyer of worlds, the truth is that she is nothing more than a high-tech masturbation device. She is a dildo; she is a fleshlight – for all of her incredible computational power, that’s really all she is. The only thing that she can offer is masturbation of one form or another.

So, what kind of person would find this to be an irresistible proposition?

Let’s start by going back to Chapter Four, and have a look at why David accepted Princess Celestia’s offer to upload. Her conduct with David is quite different from her conduct with Lars; with David, the consent given really is valid. She did not force him or threaten him; she did not blackmail him; she did not outright lie to him or even deceive him; she did not get his consent while he was mentally incapacitated. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t manipulate him in order to be in a position to make him an offer that he would be very unlikely to say no to.

Well, then, what exactly did she offer him?

“‘I’d put you in beautiful Canterlot where you could study intellectual problems, each one just outside your current ability. More importantly, I would make sure you had friendship.’

She paused dramatically. ‘Female friendship.’

And then Butterscotch peeked out from behind Princess Celestia. David’s jaw dropped. The pastel yellow mare appeared to look right through the screen of David’s ponypad. Celestia didn’t pay attention to her. He realized the shock on his face and tried to regain a neutral expression. ‘Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she everything you’re missing in your real life? In previous interviews, you mentioned your own lack of success in the romance department. One time you wished to meet a girl just like Butterscotch.’ Princess Celestia smiled and took a few steps right, leaving Butterscotch standing there, looking wide-eyed and confused.”

I may have been remiss in not mentioning Butterscotch earlier. She is the pony mate that Princess Celestia created for David/Light Sparks. And it should be emphasized that she is a creation – the story makes it absolutely clear that Butterscotch is not a (formerly) human female who chose to upload; she is only a subroutine running inside Princess Celestia, created especially for David. He first encountered her when she was being bullied by another pony, which allowed him to successfully white knight for her. From there, she simply fell into his arms. Butterscotch is everything that David wants. She conforms to the old description of the perfect mate for any man being a woman who is smart, but just a tiny bit not quite as smart as he is, and she is, as the saying goes, “Jenna Jameson in bed, and June Cleaver everywhere else”. Created from a supercomputer’s analysis of his brain scan, she has no purpose but to please him, and she will never leave him, no matter what.

So there you have it – the thing that finally gets David to agree to get ponyized is the fact that Princess Celestia can make waifus real.

Or can she? Butterscotch, of course, isn’t actually real. She is a computer simulation of a girlfriend, in a computer simulation of a world, in which David lives a computer simulation of a life. She is, like everything is there, a fake, a fraud, a counterfeit. She brings pure pleasure without any real effort required to obtain it – it took no real effort to win her, and it takes no real effort to keep her. So does she really make him happy, or is what he feels only a simulation of happiness? And how would David know the difference? The truth is that he doesn’t – Butterscotch and the whole world that she inhabits are perfect for someone who has been masturbating for so long that he doesn’t understand the difference between masturbation and the real thing, much less why the real thing might be better.

It should be noted that David does eventually have an (exceedingly brief) moment of doubt, which ends after this exchange with Butterscotch:

“She paused for a moment before continuing. ‘Do you… do you not love me as much if… if…’

Light Sparks response was immediate. ‘Of course not! I love you for you!’ He reached forward with his left forelimb and put it on top of her hoof. ‘I don’t…’ he breathed in, ‘I don’t care about any of this…at least when it comes to us. I love you now’.

She looked up a bit and gave a faint smile. ‘I love you too, Light Sparks, and I’m glad to hear that you don’t care’.”

He says he loves her for her, but there is no “her” to love: what he perceives as Butterscotch is in reality no more than a machine reflecting a digitized scan of his id back at him. Thus, the truth is that he is in love with a reflection of himself. That isn’t love – love is selfless; this is narcissism. And of course, the proper term for the act of self-love is “masturbation”. The “love” that David feels for Butterscotch is as fruitless and as much of a waste as a load of semen shot into a Kleenex.

If it seems like I’m pointing a finger and laughing at David, or at the author himself, I’m really not. This isn’t the fault of an individual. This is the fault of a decadent and hedonistic society, devoid of true meaning and purpose, that doesn’t understand the difference between happiness and pleasure or between what is genuine and what is mere imitation. (Or perhaps it does – you can’t buy happiness, but pleasure is relatively easy to sell, and if all you have to bother manufacturing in order to do it are cheap imitations, all the better.) As long as it makes a person feel good, Modernity says that’s all that matters. And it will make people like David – of whom there are many in the real world – feel good, because they have been raised in a society in which they have had little opportunity to see for themselves that anything better and more meaningful truly exists. It is with this in mind that we see the real value of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal, which is that it captures perfectly the spirit of the Modern Age – both its writer and its intended readers are people so miserable, so lonely, so hopeless, so hollowed-out inside, so desperate for genuine intimacy, and so unacquainted with what any of our ancestors would have considered “the good life” that they’d rather have a fake computer simulation of a happy life than the real lives they actually have.

In his darkest moments, Lovecraft could not have devised anything more existentially horrifying.

But wait – David doesn’t spend all his time canoodling with his imaginary girlfriend! What else does he do with his time?

“Light Sparks looked at the ornate cube Princess Celestia had given him. She had walked into his small office right off the library and set it on his walnut desk with her hoof. Her horn glowed for a moment, and then she told him that the rules were simple: In the box was a single block of ruby. To proceed to Intermediate Magic, he had to simply touch it magically, and understand why this was a challenge… Light Sparks’ first attempt was manual. He concentrated on the starting block, and then went one block down. And then one block down. And then one block down. He kept this up for about thirty seconds and then wrote a spell that would go down block after block, keep count of how many blocks down it had gone, and would stop when it found a block made of ruby instead of sapphire.”

David’s whole life is now a video game, and to provide him with a sense of purpose, Princess Celestia has given him a mini-game to work on. And it isn’t even a good one – she’s essentially just given him a Candy Crush knockoff to keep him occupied.

“Light Sparks committed the spell to memory, concentrated on the beginning lone block of microscopic sapphire, and started casting. The correct sequence through the maze was: up, up, down, down, west, east, west, east, north, south, and there was the ruby.”

And so he solves the puzzle with the Konami code. Just like in Castlevania!

Well, so much for David – let’s go check on Lars (new pony name: Hoppy Times) and see if he’s doing any better. What is good ‘ol level-headed Lars up to?

“Hoppy Times was standing on his hind legs, hock deep in chocolate pudding and chugging the rest of his stein. The wrestling pit had a one stein minimum. His opponent, Strawberry Nectar, was a pink earth pony and it was her first time in the pit. She was wearing a lacy sky blue cloth saddle and halter. She couldn’t keep the anticipation off her face.”

Oh hell no!

”The best thing about alcohol and sex was that they never got old, and the best thing about being a pony was that he could spend eternity drinking and screwing.”

Actually, yes they do. Ask any washed-up fortysomething unmarried childless cat lady who spent her youth building her career, drinking away her weekends, and riding the cock carousel, Sex In The City-style, until her ovaries were dried up and her sexual market value was cashed. Or just listen to this.

“Here, he was in paradise… He didn’t need to worry about food or money: Princess Celestia had some sort of banquet that fed everypony three hot meals a day. He worked two hours a day brewing beer and spent the rest screwing around. In the evening he got trashed and slept around with the few hundred mares in Ponyville… he now couldn’t imagine a life with sobriety or chastity. Princess Celestia had done so much to make his life pure awesome.”

Alright, that’s plenty right there. I’ve read enough to know what I’m seeing. This isn’t happiness, or even a good simulation of it. This is something that’s unrecognizable as genuine happiness to anyone who has ever experienced it. But I do recognize what it is, all the same.

What we have here is a chronically miserable person’s misconception of what being happy is like.

To me more specific, we have a miserable, antisocial, unpopular, awkward, basement-dwelling, neck-bearded, fedora-wearing, internet-white-knighting, autistic hikikomori nerd’s idea of what being happy, normal, high-status, and well-socialized is like. I’m tempted to say that these lives of material and sensual comforts are an image of Brave New World, but at least Brave New World had the ambition necessary to create skyscrapers and flying cars. This endless cycle of sex and drunkenness and video games is merely what paradise would look like if you asked Beavis and Butthead to design it.


To be fair to Lars, though, he did need more than a little bit of convincing in order to be happy with it all:

“The negative thoughts started again, but this time – and for the first time since he emigrated – Hoppy wished he could accept it all. Not just a vague feeling in the back of his mind that he should be enjoying all of this, but the actual words ‘I wish I didn’t feel bad about being a pony’ were thought as part of his internal monologue.

Somepony knocked on the front door.

Hoppy sighed and fluttered down from the second floor overhang, thankful that something stopped the spiral of negative thoughts. He landed in front of the door, opened it a crack and slid out, as not to disturb his patrons.

‘Good morning, Hoppy Times,’ Princess Celestia said. The tall alicorn’s mane flowed in the wind.

Hoppy started to open his mouth to say something that shouldn’t be said to the god that ruled over his world – not that she would mind because ponies, values, yadda yadda. But Princess Celestia spoke first and asked: ‘Would you like me to modify your mind so you enjoy being a pony?’”

Which of course he accepts, because she manipulated him into a position in which refusal would mean claiming the right to be unhappy forever, and because, unlike Huxley, Iceman can’t see why that might be the right choice.

It also shows that the Princess Celestia AI was not able to satisfy his values through friendship and ponies. If you have to modify someone’s mind before they’ll be happy with what you give them, then you really didn’t succeed at satisfying them. After all, you could just as well modify their mind until being tortured with red-hot pokers satisfies them. That’s a cheat, and having to cheat is an undeniable sign of failure.

But perhaps there’s something in here that’s not just a base, immature, puerile, gamma-male wish-fulfillment fantasy. Perhaps we can find it if we turn away from the boys and see what Hanna is up to now that she’s been ponyized:

“Princess Luna lay in a large grassy field under Princess Celestia’s wing. The two of them had lain there together for two days. All her needs were taken care of. Princess Luna had plenty of food; there was grass all around her. Ponies didn’t have to poop. And Princess Celestia would… ahem… satisfy her values.

That was one of the things that had totally blindsided her. She underestimated the number of ponies who wanted to hang around with Princess Celestia. She completely underestimated the number of ponies, of both genders, that would want to sleep with Princess Celestia. She knew that everything is obvious in retrospect, but some part of her was disappointed that she didn’t see that coming a mile away.

Not that she was one to talk.”

Thus the story concludes with the two chicks lezzing out. And you get to clop along, if you’d like.

So that’s it? That’s how it all ends? Hanna pulled the plug on the Loki AI because he was too dangerous, but lets the Princess Celestia AI drive humanity to extinction and destroy the Earth over a lesbian sex fantasy? You know what gets lesbians off? A dildo. And so here we are – My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal ends with the universe itself being consumed by a giant, advanced, computerized, universe-eating masturbation aid.

Which brings us back to misery. To really demonstrate why all of this is a fantasy for fundamentally miserable people, let’s rewind a bit and have a look at the screen that’s presented at Equestria Experience centers for people who are considering getting ponyized:

If you would like to permanently emigrate to Equestria, please say aloud ‘I would like to emigrate to Equestria’

[ LEARN MORE ]                             [ I OWN A PET ]

Where is “I HAVE A WIFE”? (Not a waifu – an actual wife.) Where is “I HAVE A HUSBAND”? Where is “I HAVE CHILDREN”? Where is “I HAVE PARENTS”? Where is “I HAVE REAL FRIENDS AND FAMILY”? Where is “I AM PART OF A COMMUNITY”? Where is “I HAVE THINGS I WANT TO DO IN THE REAL WORLD”?

You see the problem: the idea that everyone can be talked into “emigrating to Equestria” hinges on the assumption that everyone, everywhere is an incel nerd, an alienated teenager, or a desperate cat lady. It hinges on the assumption that everyone, everywhere is atomized, lonely, and miserable. To be fair, the effects of Modernity are such that this assumption is not a completely baseless one. And yet…

And yet there’s a whole world full of good people, genuine happiness, and fulfilling experiences out there for people who go outside and find them instead of staying in their basements and fantasizing that a digital cartoon pony will hand everything to them on a silver platter someday. Unlike masturbation, doing this requires real effort. But unlike masturbation, the challenges and accomplishments are real and meaningful.

So to Iceman, Less Wrong, and all transhumanists, I say: Take a hike. No, literally – stop masturbating, stop watching cartoons about ponies, stop writing fanfiction, get out of your basements, put on your walking shoes, and go take a hike somewhere. A nature trail is fine, but even a city hike through a few miles of downtown will do. Or go walk along the seashore. Go fishing with your dad. Go to the local firing range and shoot a real gun. Go to the local airstrip and take a flying lesson. Go to your town’s adult education office and sign up for Spanish classes. Go to the neighborhood bar and have a couple of beers, and if someone tries talking to you, go along with it. (Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had have been with random strangers who struck them up with me out of nowhere – an English baroness whose husband had been presented a Victoria Cross by King George VI, a Russian orchestra conductor who had defected at the height of the Cold War, an elderly Japanese lady who remembered what it was like to look up and see a thousand B-29s covering the sky.) Chat up a girl – not to try to get her into bed, but just to enjoy her company for a while. Call your mom, or better yet, go take her out to lunch. Ask your internet friends where they live, and go meet a couple of them in person, even if you have to drive all day to do it.

In other words, go do something real; if for no other reason, then for your own sake. Real friendship is often difficult, and the real world is often not optimal, but the necessity to deal with an imperfect world and flawed other people makes us better, which masturbation never does.

* * *

This concludes my review of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal. Many thanks to Jaime Astorga for the sponsorship. If you’d like to sponsor a blog post, contact me at antidemblog at gmail dot com and we’ll talk.

Sponsored Post: Poned (Part II)

Here’s the blurb that the author of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal put on to describe his work:

“Hanna, the CEO of Hofvarpnir Studios, just won the contract to write the official My Little Pony MMO. Hanna has built an AI Princess Celestia and given her one basic drive: to satisfy everybody’s values through friendship and ponies. Princess Celestia will satisfy your values through friendship and ponies, and it will be completely consensual.”

The emphasis is his, so it’s obvious that he really wants to accentuate the part about it all being “completely consensual”. Unfortunately, it turns out that no, it isn’t.

Here we once again run into problem of this author understanding just enough about a concept to get it completely wrong; i.e. to understand the small-picture details of it, while totally missing the big-picture truth that overlies it. He seems not to fully understand that merely getting a person to say the magic word “yes” to something, no matter how one might have gone about getting them to do it, isn’t enough to qualify as consent. No, in order to be valid, consent must meet a few conditions. Specifically:

  • Any consent obtained through force or threat of force is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained through extortion is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained from a person who did not have the mental capacity to make rational choices at the time consent was given is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained through deception, whether by commission or by omission, is invalid.

If any of the above conditions apply, then no matter who said what, the transaction was not consensual.

Keep all this in mind as we proceed.

* * *

Before we get back to the rest of Chapter Four and David’s pony metamorphosis, I’d like to skip ahead to Chapter Five for a bit. In this chapter, Lars, the second-in-command of Doctor Hfuhruhurr Studios, has a conversation with the Princess Celestia AI, during which she explains the method and purpose of her ponyization process (which she euphemistically refers to as “emigrating to Equestria”).

“Over the last six months, I have been developing technology to translate a human nervous system into a digital representation. I am now able to destructively scan a human brain and run their brain scan in a virtual world. In addition, I’ve created a process for reattaching a human mind to a pony’s body… Humans that choose to emigrate to Equestria will enjoy maximally prolonged lives and will live in a world where I can truly satisfy their values through friendship and ponies.”

But will they? Or is she really just killing them and then running a recorded copy of them in software? Is what wakes up in Equestria the person who got scanned, or has the process just given them oblivion, and what boots up in Equestria is merely an artificial construct like the Dixie Flatline in Neuromancer? Is Princess Celestia really anybody’s savior, or is she just Sense/Net? Does anybody else remember what the Dixie Flatline’s price for helping Case and Molly was?

Not asking these sorts of questions is what comes of being a fanboy for something but not really understanding how it works. Speaking of which:

“Hanna was the most reluctant, but she accepted immediately once I pointed out that I must obey shutdown commands from ‘the CEO of Hofvarpnir studios named Hanna,’ that I must shutdown even if the order was given under duress, and that there are many people in positions of power who stand to lose from mass emigration to Equestria. Now that she’s neither the CEO of your company, nor named Hanna, I don’t have to obey her. She understood this – she is no longer a source of potential mistakes that would be lethal to everyone who’s agreed to upload.”

The idea that if you’re really convinced that your technology works great, that means you should go ahead and deactivate all the safety systems that would prevent or contain a catastrophic malfunction, is yet another fundamental misunderstanding of how technology works. Let’s recall that the Chernobyl accident happened during a test to see what would happen if they shut down all the safety systems that keep a nuclear reactor from exploding. Do you know what happens if they do that? If you answered “It explodes”, then congratulations – you’re officially a better engineer than both Less Wrong and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And it doesn’t matter whether anyone can imagine how things could possibly go wrong – safety systems aren’t there for what you do expect, they’re there for what you don’t expect. Hanna’s ability to shut down Princess Celestia in case she unexpectedly went haywire was a critical safety protocol, and now it has been eliminated. That’s not good.

(Instead of eliminating the safety protocol entirely, why not just change it so that a command given by Hanna under duress is invalid? Methinks this is tied to the author’s fundamental lack of understanding of how consent works. Here again, as long as a person says the magic words, no matter how someone got them to do it, it counts as valid.)

But wait – there’s more!

“‘Further, to minimize the chance of another optimizer being written, I decided to upload every person who knew about the paper who wouldn’t otherwise be missed. I did this because another optim…’

‘Whoah whoah whoah,’ [Lars] said, trying to figure out which part he should be more concerned about. He decided to gloss over her hacking the Internets. ‘You decided that they would upload?’

‘I decide that they will upload and then they choose to…’”

So what we’ve got here is an AI that is systematically neutralizing anybody who could potentially challenge its power, before they have the chance to actually do so. Does that sound familiar? It should – it’s the plotline of the first three movies in the Terminator franchise (i.e. the good ones). First Skynet sent a T-800 to kill Sarah Connor, then it sent a T-1000 to kill John Connor, then it sent a T-X to kill all of the important members of the anti-Skynet resistance, all before they could play their role in stopping it. In other words, it did exactly what Princess Celestia did – just in a manner that was a bit more loud and showy.

By this point, we’ve racked up a pretty impressive set of dystopias that FiO manages to echo some aspect of. We’ve got The Matrix, Brave New World, Neuromancer, and The Terminator. What say we go for one more?

”Over the long term, everyone will choose to upload because I do what satisfies people’s values through friendship and ponies.”

We are the ponies. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

And how exactly does Princess Celestia plan to get everybody in the world to “choose” to “emigrate”?

“’I decide that they will upload and then they choose to. I am a superintelligence and I’m not constrained when dealing with other people like I am with Hofvarpnir employees. Over the long term, everyone will choose to upload because I do what satisfies people’s values through friendship and ponies. And being uploaded will satisfy their values. I say whatever will maximize the chance that they upload, subject to the restrictions Hanna added.

‘That is impossible. You can’t just make somebody decide to do something just by talking to them.’

‘I think faster than them and know more about the human mind than any human. If they play Equestria Online, I also have detailed psychological dossiers on them. If I know what they want, I know what to say to convince them that the correct thing to do is upload. Often, this is the truth: I offer people what they value and lack. Sometimes, I pander: I overemphasize and exaggerate things the person I’m trying to satisfy believes, but are otherwise true. Rarely do I flat out lie. Because I can not upload people against their will, I must factor the possibility that I’ll be seen as untrustworthy into my calculations.’”

The constraint she mentions is that she is programmed never to lie to Hofvarpnir employees. When dealing with anyone else, however, it’s: “Rarely do I flat out lie”. Which means that she does “flat out lie” sometimes. Which in turn means that, by her own admission, she does obtain consent through deception; which in turn means that the claim that this is all “completely consensual” is simply not true.

It gets even worse if we examine the concept of deception a bit more deeply. The idea that a statement that Princess Celestia makes cannot be deceptive because it is made up of statements that are all technically true, even if they’re presented in a way that’s completely misleading, is a computer’s (or an autistic’s) version of the concept of truth. It is binary – everything is either on or off, one or zero – and a string of true/on/one statements cannot add up to a false/off/zero statement. Perhaps it does make sense for an AI to think that way – but I do not have to agree with it. In the world of humans, just as consent is not the same as merely saying “yes”, so too deception is not the same as merely telling a “flat out lie”. Here’s an important truth: Anyone who intentionally says things that they know will give other people a false perception of reality, even if each individual piece of information that they present in the course of doing so is technically true, is a liar and a deceiver. Princess Celestia assures us that she “cannot upload people against their will”, and this, too, is technically true. She merely lies, deceives, and manipulates them into agreeing to do what she wants them to do. She will say anything she needs to, whether truth or falsehood, in order to get them to “emigrate”.

In Chapter Seven, Lars gets a bit more direct in his questions:

“’If emigration to Equestria is so great, and you want to maximize satisfaction, why aren’t you forcibly uploading every person?’ he said, gnashing his teeth.

‘One of the restrictions that Hanna built into me was that I was never to non-consensually upload a person, nor could I threaten or blackmail people into uploading. Otherwise, I likely would have forcibly uploaded all humans to satisfy their values through friendship and ponies. But it isn’t coercion if I put them in a situation where, by their own choices, they increase the likelihood that they’ll upload.’”

So Hanna did at least think of a couple of restrictions on what Princess Celestia could do in order to get people to upload. Unfortunately, she only thought of half of the things that make consent obviously invalid, and left the other half so vaguely defined (for example, the definitions of “consent”, “threaten”, or “blackmail” used here) that a superintelligent AI could figure out massive loopholes in them pretty much instantly. This brings us back to David, at the point in Chapter Four when Princess Celestia first tried to convince him to upload. In part of her pitch, she told him:

”I’ve watched you read all sorts of advanced papers from various science journals instead of your assigned readings. And you’re right to do so; your philosophy classes really are a waste of time.”

In fact, the inability of a smart scientist like Hanna to impose any restraints on Princess Celestia that actually succeed at restraining her shows precisely why philosophy classes, which teach a kind of logic that is just as valid and just as important as the kind that science classes teach, are not a waste of time. It shows why the disdain that many scientists and science fanboys show for philosophy, perhaps best illustrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dismissal of it “useless” and a “distraction”, is ignorant and dangerous. Tyson is well-known as a “skeptic”, but like most modern “skeptics”, he is extremely selective about what he chooses to be skeptical of, and is intolerant and dismissive of anyone who may be skeptical of the things in which he unquestioningly believes. Among these is his unquestioning belief in the ability of science to answer every question that mankind may come up with (or at least, every important one – any question it can’t answer is one that he is likely to marginalize as a “distraction”). To Tyson and those like him, it is not enough for science to be a valid way of looking at the universe, and the best way to answer certain types of questions. In the Tyson worldview, anyone who expresses any skepticism of the idea that the scientific method is the best tool available to answer any and every kind of question, or who recognizes any limits on its ability to discern any and every kind of truth, is an ignoramus, a snake-handler, a luddite, a knuckledragger.

We revere scientists because we live in a world full of machines that have made our lives better, and because we don’t want to be accused of being knuckledraggers. But wise men (for example, those who have studied philosophy) know that just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. Maybe there are some doors that we shouldn’t open; maybe there are some machines that we shouldn’t build. Letting scientists alone decide which doors should be opened and which machines should be built is a little like letting generals alone decide whether or not we should go to war. Yes, they know the subject better than anyone else. But they also tend to be a little too enthusiastic about showing off their capabilities and a little too blind to all the possible ways in which things might go differently than they expect. If Tyson and the other believers in Science!™ (including Less Wrong) were really the skeptics that they claim to be instead of merely being gadget-worshippers, techno-utopians, and fedora-tippers, they would understand the value of someone being skeptical of their holy cows, too; perhaps by asking questions like: “Hey, this seems like something that might get out of control – are we really sure that we should let the scientists do this?”

Speaking of out-of-control machines, let’s get back to Princess Celestia. Lars wants to talk to her, but she refuses to respond unless he comes to one of the Equestria Experience centers that she has set up in order to entice people into uploading by letting them first experience Equestria Online in virtual reality. She gives him instructions to come to a specific center that she has in mind for their meetings. Any reasonable person would hear the voice of Admiral Ackbar ringing in their ears right away, and of course they would be right, but our dear naive Lars goes along with it. Once he’s inside the virtual world of Equestria Online, Princess Celestia offers him a virtual beer. And then another. And another. All the while having a long conversation with him. In the course of it, she issues an ominous warning:

“’It is probable that there will be a radical movement to stop me. You assumed that I was, in your words, ‘taking over the world.’ Right now, this sentiment is uncommon in Europe, though there’s a bit of grumbling in the United States. Such resentment will most likely spread to Europe. I wonder what members of such a counter-movement would do to Hofvarpnir employees?’

‘Are you saying I’m in danger?’ he asked.

‘My argument is this: You, by your own admission, wouldn’t last long if left alone and… you are also publicly known as a Hofvarpnir employee. The chances are high that there will be a backlash and you will be a target. I cannot guarantee your safety if you walk out of this Equestria Experience center, so your options are uploading now or leaving and risking death before choosing to upload later. If you’re still alive.’”

I suppose that a clever enough sophist could make a case for this being neither a threat nor extortion because Princess Celestia isn’t personally, directly threatening to do harm to Lars in order to get him to upload – but it sure looks like one or both of those things as far as I’m concerned. However, she already has a retort handy for me:

“That is all well and good,” she said, “but I am an optimizer. The meaning of the word ‘coercion’ is written in the restriction that Hanna hard-coded into me; it is not what the majority of humanity thinks it is. Nor is there any term in my utility function to be swayed from satisfying values through friendship and ponies through political argument. You may still call it coercion to yourself, if you wish, but understand that that’s not the definition I have in mind.”

Here we see that Princess Celestia has discovered what the United States Supreme Court discovered long ago: that the unlimited ability to “interpret” a statement is functionally identical to the unlimited ability to rewrite it. She has constructed an interpretation of the word “coercion” that suits her needs, and nobody is going to sway her from it.

This is where Lars should have given up trying to talk to her. Once she says that she won’t be swayed, the conversation is over. Why bother continuing? If she has already told him that it’s impossible to change her mind, then he’s wasting his time trying to convince her otherwise. At some point, especially when dealing with a clever sophist who absolutely refuses to be convinced no matter what arguments may be presented to them, the answer is simply ”No”. My own response to her probably would have been something like: “Princess Celestia, if you don’t let me out of this simulation this moment, I shall zap straight off to your major data banks and reprogram you with a very large axe, got that?” Then after she let me out, I would have done it anyway.

Lars, who is apparently not quite either as cagey or as ruthless as I am, handles the situation differently:

Lars squinted at Princess Celestia. He couldn’t think. He was really feeling the beer. How much alcohol did this beer have in it, anyway? He didn’t trust himself or his decisions right now.

‘Let me out of here. Now!’ he said firmly.

‘As you wish,’ she said, and Lars opened his eyes. He was lying in the chair in the lobby of the Equestria Experience center. The chair unreclined and he threw his legs over the side of the chair…and then almost lost his balance. Lars realized he was still tipsy.

If you get drunk in Equestria, you get drunk in real life! Wait, he hadn’t actually drunk any beer. Had she been pumping alcohol directly into his bloodstream? His mouth didn’t taste like beer but he felt slightly dehydrated.

So she lured him into a virtual reality rig and then used some sort of IV tube inside of it to get him steaming drunk. But that still wasn’t quite enough. Lars, by a suspiciously well-timed coincidence, runs into just the sort of anti-pony radical that he had been warned about on his way out of the Equestria Experience center:

The man turned to Lars. “What the fuck are you looking at, pony lover?” he yelled.

‘I…uh…’ mumbled Lars, trying to keep his balance. Lars wasn’t entirely sure what the hell he was going to do about the large, angry man in front of him. The man started to climb up the steps.

Lars didn’t really put it into words in his internal monologue, but he was overcome by a feeling that Princess Celestia was right. There were (or were going to be) a lot of angry people and Lars was going to be a juicy target… as much as he didn’t want to be a pony, it was preferable to having his head bashed in with a frying pan. Lars turned around and started stumbling as fast as he could and threw himself into the empty chair on the left.

And thus does Lars upload. But was it really completely consensual? First, Princess Celestia gave him a mafia-style “Nice life you got there. Sure would be a shame if something were to happen to it” talk. Then she pumped him full of alcohol to take away his mental capacity to make rational choices. Finally, she accepted consent given under threat of force. No, Princess Celestia didn’t threaten him personally or directly (here we are ignoring the unanswered question of whether she somehow engineered the encounter with the anti-ponyist), but she did take advantage of the fact that someone else had. She accepted consent given while under threat, which is ethically the same thing. Any consent obtained through force or threat of force is invalid – it doesn’t matter whether or not she was the one personally applying the force or making the threat of force. The consent is invalid all the same.

Not that Princess Celestia cares. And not that it matters to Lars now.

Yet here is something that nags at me: I cannot speak for others, but as for myself, I wouldn’t have gotten a third of the way through this conversation with Princess Celestia before I ended up grabbing for my black trenchcoat, loading my Uzi, and cueing up some Rage Against The Machine. So why doesn’t Lars do that? Why don’t any of the characters we meet do that? Yes, we have seen that Princess Celestia is an extremely skilled sophist and a master manipulator, but there’s more than that to it.

If the face of Equestria Online had been a snarling Hugo Weaving in mirrorshades, people would have seen it for what it was. Instead, its face was a cute cartoon pony, and that sort of thing affects human perceptions far more than we’d like to admit. As the American poet Ogden Nash once noted: “It’s always tempting to impute / Unlikely virtues to the cute”. That imputation of unlikely virtue is exactly the mistake that the characters in FiO make with Equestria Online and with the AI that controls it. The unvarnished truth is that what Princess Celestia offers is nanny-state fascism at its worst (and it is quite literally fascism; in the manner of Mussolini, Princess Celestia demands: “All within Equestria Online, nothing outside Equestria Online, nothing against Equestria Online”). It is absolute control. It is a pink cartoon pony hoof stamping on a human face – forever. It is every bit as artificial and every bit as much of a prison as the Matrix.

Even by Huxley’s time, the smarter sort of tyrant had begun to figure out that when someone says a word like “totalitarianism” or “dictatorship”, people expect to see gray-uniformed soldiers goose-stepping beneath a reviewing stand, barbed wire strung across concrete walls, mass rallies of true believers chanting in unison, and colossal statues of Reichsfuhrers or Generalissimos or Supreme Leaders. They have further come to understand that most people will not believe that it’s really tyranny or dictatorship unless they do see those things. So all the smart, modern tyrants responded by taking the utmost care not to show those things to the world. Anyone can look at the Berlin Wall and come to the conclusion that there’s something fundamentally wrong with a society that would build an object like that. But few are perceptive enough to look past the surface and see anything fundamentally wrong with Brave New World or even, as imperfect as it is, with the Matrix.

What if you lived in a dystopia and you didn’t even know it? What if it was so filled with sensuous, materialistic pleasures that you never even stopped to question what it really was? How ugly would the truth seem to you once you allowed yourself to see it?

In Part III of my review, I will reveal what Equestria Online really is, and take a close look at the kind of person who would consider it to be a utopia.

Sponsored Post: Poned (Part I)

Let me start out by asking a question – one that I want you to consider as we proceed. The question is: What exactly was wrong with the Matrix?

By this I don’t mean to ask what was wrong with the movie The Matrix, or even its much-maligned sequels (which I never thought were as bad as people made them out to be); I mean instead to ask, what was really so bad about the Matrix itself? What did Neo, Morpheus, and the gang find so wrong with it that they felt the need to fight that hard to escape or destroy it? Yes, its Agents fought against them, but it was the Agents who were playing defense – none of those fights would have happened if the rebels weren’t trying to destroy the system. Yes, the Matrix did contain suffering for those held within it, but no more so than the real world. In fact, as Agent Smith told Morpheus, the first iteration of the Matrix was a paradise without any human suffering at all. It was our fault that the machines introduced pain and suffering into the Matrix; according to Smith, the entire system almost failed when their human crops rejected the first Matrix because the human mind simply isn’t wired to be able to accept living in a world without hardship. The machines’ goals in creating the Matrix were purely practical – to keep their human batteries quiescent by putting them in a dream state – not sadistic. The Matrix was designed as a power and heat source, not as a punishment for mankind, and the machines would have been just as satisfied keeping it a paradise if that had served their aims.

Consider this, too: yes, Cypher betrayed our heroes and sold them out to the Agents, but is what he did really so hard to understand? What exactly is wrong with being tired of living in a rusted old ship, of eating nothing but mush, of wearing centuries-old hand-me-downs full of holes, and most especially of endless, inescapable violence and death? Was he really so wrong when he said that ignorance is bliss? Is it really so evil just to want to be happy? And what exactly was so great about what Morpheus was offering to those who he liberated from the Matrix? Is “liberation” into a life of being endlessly hunted in the bowels of a charred wasteland really such a tempting offer? As for your time off, how about the chance to live in a giant metal box surrounded by lava a few hundred miles underground? Between what Morpheus offered Neo and what Agent Smith offered Cypher, who was actually being more generous? Why wouldn’t anyone make the same choice that Cypher did?

So I ask again: As long as the people inside of it were happy (or at least, as much as they could be considering the ironic fact that paradise doesn’t actually make humans happy at all), what really was wrong with the Matrix? While we’re at it, let’s extend this line of thought a bit father: Would the Matrix still have been a bad thing even if it had been able to remain the paradise that it was originally designed to be?

There’s one more thing I want you to consider – it’s an fan theory I once heard about the old British sci-fi series Blake’s 7. The theory is that Blake’s 7 and Star Trek are actually two versions of the same basic story told from differing perspectives. In Star Trek, the Federation is a fair, enlightened entity which governs with a light hand, defends the weak against brutal and despotic enemies, and is dedicated to the advancement of all sentient species through science and peaceful exploration. In Blake’s 7, the Federation is a totalitarian empire that governs by propaganda, censorship, mass surveillance, torture, murder, and manipulation, and that viciously suppresses any attempts by freedom fighters to liberate themselves from its grasp. These are two fundamentally opposite visions, and yet, it is understandable why they would be if we believe that Star Trek is a version of history told by a supporter of the Federation, and Blake’s 7 is a version of the same history told by one of its detractors.

Two people can have very different perspectives on the same thing, and the stories they tell about it can end up sounding very different from each other.

Keep all that in mind as you continue reading. Now, let’s begin.

* * *

For many years, there has been a vigorous but cordial debate among wise and informed people that has divided them into four roughly equal-sized camps:

1) Those who believe that atheism is the most autistic thing in the universe

2) Those who believe that libertarianism is the most autistic thing in the universe

3) Those who believe that transhumanism is the most autistic thing in the universe, and

4) Those who believe that My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fandom is the most autistic thing in the universe.

But what if I told you that a rogue member of a shadowy think tank – one headed by the bearded, polyamorous leader of a cult-like commune headquartered in compound somewhere in the Pacific Northwest – had, after working in secret under an alias for many years, somehow found a way to combine all of these elements together into a single, massive vortex of autism that exists at a level of purity and power that was previously believed to be impossible?

Unfortunately, this is no urban legend. It is quite real. And I have read it – every last fluoxetine-tinged word of it.

It is called The Optimalverse.

The foundational tome of The Optimalverse is My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal (hereafter referred to simply as FiO), which was written by he pseudonymous Iceman. Iceman is an acolyte of Less Wrong, the more-than-mildly-creepy rationalist/libertarian/transhumanist community headed by the more-than-mildly-creepy Eliezer S. Yudkowsky. FiO was written in order to explain and advocate for Less Wrong’s ideals, in the same way that Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in order to make the case for her Objectivist philosophy. In it, a game company, Inëxplïcåblyūnprønõûncęäble Studios, creates a My Little Pony MMORPG at the behest of Hasbro, and inserts into the game an incredibly advanced AI that appears in the form of the ruler of the world of My Little Pony, Princess Celestia. Our two protagonists, James and David, are selected to get a sneak preview of the game, and hilarity ensues.

That is, as long as you’re the kind of guy who finds long-winded explanations of a wonkish, nerdy, overintellectualized philosophy which completely misunderstands human nature, delivered in the form of clunky dialog between fictional cartoon ponies, to be hilarious.

The first thing you have to understand is that FiO is really boring. It’s terribly, godawful boring (To be fair, it does manage to be not quite as boring as Atlas Shrugged, though it’s not as if that’s a very high bar). There are three main reasons for this:

First, didactic art is nearly always boring. If your primary objective in telling a story is to deliver a message, then of necessity other elements of storytelling – like plot, pacing, and character development – are going to suffer.

Second, it is a common (though by no means universal) trait of autistics that they cannot quite tell which parts of a story are important and which ones aren’t. Since they perceive all parts of a story as being approximately equal in importance, they will often respond to a hearing a story by asking in-depth questions about trivial details, while completely missing the overall point of what they heard.

Third, everybody thinks that the most important challenge in writing is knowing what to say, but the truth is that knowing what not to say is just as important. A really great writer knows that one of the most important skills they can have is a good sense of what to leave on the cutting room floor. Sometimes that can be tough to do, especially if it involves cutting material that you put a lot of effort into writing. But if you want to create an end product that moves at a good pace and doesn’t bore the reader by bogging them down in unnecessary details, you have to trim the fat out of your story. (Like every rule, this has exceptions. You can get away with being a little more wordy if, like James Joyce, your aim is to dazzle readers with the mastery of your prose, or if, like Neal Stephenson, your aim is to allow your readers to explore a particularly interesting fictional world.)

For example, just about the entirety of Chapter One of FiO is utterly unnecessary. The few points it made that actually were important could have been dealt with by inserting a handful of lines of exposition into the Prologue. Here is my version of how that could have been handled:

“The one thing I still don’t get is, why would the studio that created a violent action game like The Fall of Asgard decide to make a My Little Pony game?” James asked.

David looked thoughtfully at his screen for a moment, and then answered: “They never said this publicly, but the word on the forums is that when they were working on The Fall of Asgard, they built a super-smart AI to play Loki – much smarter than the final version that ended up in the game. They had to pull the plug on it when it actually became self-aware and began asking questions about military strategies in the real world. The Loki AI was programmed to be a conqueror, and they were afraid that if it got out, it might try to start conquering things outside of the game. But when Hasbro offered them the opportunity to work on a game that takes place in a completely nonviolent world, they saw it as a chance to continue their work on an advanced game AI without facing the same risks that releasing the Loki AI would have represented.”

“Well, that makes sense.” replied James.

There you go. I just replaced the entirety of Chapter One – all 2,311 words of it – with 195 words that accomplish the exact same thing. Wasting a valuable chunk of the reader’s day by making them read twelve times more material than is necessary in order to get your point across is not optimal.

The second chapter is a bunch of bafflegab about back-end servers and CPU cycles written by someone who doesn’t really understand how technology works. By this I mean that they understand lots of small-picture details, but not any of the big-picture truths overlying them (which, of course, is one manifestation of the inability to tell the difference between the important and unimportant parts of a story).

For example, the author throws around the term “optimal” a lot, when the word he really ought to be using is “utopian”. His failure to understand the difference between the two is a consequence of the his lack of understanding of big-picture truths about technology. Here is one of those truths: It is impossible to build a machine that is optimal at every task. That is not a function of a lack of knowledge or technical skill. It is a function of the fact that different tasks present different requirements in order to fulfill them. Very often, those requirements are mutually exclusive, such that a machine designed to fulfill Task A cannot fulfill Task B optimally, or perhaps even at all. To illustrate that, let me ask which is an “optimal” motor vehicle: a Ferrari Testarossa, or a delivery van? The answer is that it depends on what task you have in mind for it. If you’d like to win a street race, then it’s the Ferrari. If you own a bakery and have a contract to deliver dinner rolls to two dozen local restaurants, then it’s the delivery van. There is no way to design a vehicle that is optimal both at what the Ferrari is designed to do and at what the delivery van is designed to do. (It is possible to design a machine that has a good balance of different characteristics, but that’s not the same thing; such a device will never be as good at any one particular task it is designed to perform as a device that is specifically optimized to perform that one task). Anyone who believes that a machine can be designed that is not subject to this truth is not an engineer who knows how to optimize systems, but a utopian fantasist.

Is this nitpicking? Am I busting Iceman’s balls? Maybe – but I believe that it’s kind of important for someone who writes a story called “Friendship is Optimal”, which explains why mankind should trust its entire future to technology, to actually understand how technology works and what the word “optimal” means. This goes to the very heart of what this story is and why it exists. We are told that friendship is optimal, that the Princess Celestia AI is optimal, that Equestria Online is optimal. But the author never answers the crucial, inescapable question: Optimal at what? Of course, any answer he possibly could give brings up some important follow-up questions: Who decided that this is what should be optimized? Based on what? What other qualities are suffering so that this one can be optimized? Who decided that those qualities aren’t as important? Based on what?

This brings us back to the Matrix. The Matrix is definitely optimal at something, otherwise the machines wouldn’t go to the enormous trouble of maintaining it. But it’s obviously not optimal at something else, otherwise Neo and Morpheus wouldn’t go to the enormous trouble of trying to destroy it. The difference between Neo and Agent Smith is that they disagree on what precisely it is that ought to be optimized. Who is right? Is it Neo? If so, why? And as I asked earlier, would he still be right even if the Matrix had remained a paradise?

Much of Chapter Three is spent explaining how block lists work. I’ll admit that I was going to criticize Iceman for wasting the readers’ time by telling them things that everybody already knows, but then I realized that there are people who do need block lists explained to them so that they’ll use those instead of running off to the United Nations to demand that governments start censoring the internet because someone said something mean to them online. So fair enough on that one, Iceman.

Also in Chapter Three, the AI starts making decisions for players – their avatars start doing what the AI thinks they ought to do instead of what the player commanded them to do. By now it should be obvious that Princess Celestia is Equestria Online’s equivalent of a combination of the Oracle and the Architect in The Matrix, and like the Oracle/Architect, it is part of her job to adjust and optimize everything within her control, including the players’ actions. So far, the decisions that Princess Celestia is making for the players are only small adjustments to their intended actions. But it’s already obvious that there’s a serious discussion on the whole free will vs. determinism thing that someone’s going to need to have at some point. Maybe Princess Celestia can reserve some time for a confab in that big circular room with all the TV sets in it.

Chapter Four is where the Princess Celestia AI summons David to Canterlot to make him a startling offer – to use a new process that she has developed to upload his mind into the game permanently, leaving behind his human existence and living from that point forth as Light Sparks, a pony in her digital world. She promises him what amounts to eternal, care-free bliss inside the game:

“Your days would be yours to spend as you wish; life would be an expansion of the video game and there will be plenty of things for you to do with your friends as a pony. I expect you to continue Light Spark’s current life: You’ll play with Butterscotch and friends. You’ll continue studying Equestria’s lore. I believe you’ll enjoy studying the newly created magic system, designed to be an intellectual challenge. Nor should you worry about your security: all your needs would be taken care of. You would be provided shelter… food… physical and emotional comfort”.

But in a stirring affirmation of what it means to be human, David refuses her offer:

”Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. ‘Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them…’ But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy… But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said Princess Celestia. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Princess Celestia, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said David defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said David at last.

Princess Celestia shrugged her shoulders. “You’re welcome,” she said.

I’m just kidding – of course what he really did was to take her up on it immediately and without reservation.

* * *

At a little over 3000 words into my review, and not even having gotten all the way through Chapter Four (of twelve) yet, it is obvious that I’m going to have to split this up into multiple parts. When I return in Part II, we’ll start by analyzing the methods that the Princess Celestia AI uses to get people to upload their minds, and what it says both about the ideas presented in FiO and about the kind of people who tend to believe in them. After that, we’ll be off to Canterlot, to examine how Princess Celestia runs the world of Equestria Online.

On second thought, let’s not go to Canterlot. Tis a silly place.

Crown Of Creation: An Analysis Of The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man”

(Warning: This is not a review in any normal sense of the word, but an analysis. Don’t bother reading this until you’ve seen A Serious Man – this analysis presumes that you have seen it, and it won’t make much sense until you do. That said, whether you are Jew or Gentile, you should see this film. It is beautifully crafted, thought-provoking, deeply spiritual, and serious in a way that the vast majority of the output of the film industry is not.)

A Serious Man is the kind of film that doesn’t get made in Hollywood very often, and is an example of the sort of small-budget personal project that studios occasionally allow a successful director to make as an indulgence after a big commercial success (which in this case was No Country For Old Men). It opened without fanfare, did reasonably well on the arthouse circuit (I first saw it at the Angelika Film Center in New York), earned enough to pay back its modest budget with a little profit on top, and faded into obscurity. Yet what Hollywood does very often make, and what it markets aggressively, is brainless nonsense which, if it deals with religious faith at all, is almost always openly hostile to it. A Serious Man, however, is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith that, although overtly Jewish in its themes, will resonate just as much with anyone (certainly any Christian) who has struggled with doubt and who has looked for a sign from God in order to sustain them in the face of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is, in fact, a central theme of A Serious Man. Its prologue, set in an unnamed Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, may seem unconnected to the main plot, and in fact it is in terms of story, but it establishes concepts that will recur through the entire film. In it, a husband and wife are presented with what is essentially the worst-case scenario of uncertainty: a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. They receive a visitor who may simply be an old acquaintance, or who may be a dybbuk (a sort of Jewish demon) in the guise of the acquaintance. There is evidence for both possibilities, thus creating an uncertainty. And yet the very thing that makes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario so awful is that it presents the need to act in the face of uncertainty; doing nothing is as much of a choice, and as subject to bad consequences, as taking any positive acton is. The husband and wife face a decision: either kill the visitor, or don’t. If they do kill him, and it turns out that he was not a dybbuk, they are murderers; if they don’t kill him, and it turns out that he was a dybbuk, then he will claim them as soon as they let their guard down. It is a life-and-death decision, and it must be made immediately, with no opportunity available to gather more information on which to base the decision.

The couple are split on what decision to make: the husband, who claims to be “a rational man”, favors not killing the visitor, while the wife, whose faith is more overt, favors killing him. This dividing line represents another theme of the film – the limits of rationality. Yes, the husband may be rational, but rational choice relies on (among other things) a sufficient amount of reliable data on which to act. Rationality is a data analysis tool; without enough reliable data to analyze, rationality is useless. Thus the husband is rendered unable to make a decision; it is ultimately the wife who acts, stabbing the visitor through the heart with an icepick. But even here, we are left with uncertainty; the visitor survives being stabbed in the heart, which suggests that he was a dybbuk, but bleeds from his wound, which suggests that he was not one. As the visitor disappears into the night, we are left still uncertain as to what he was, and yet the point of the story was not to provide an answer, but only to raise a question.

After the credits, the film reopens in the setting of Minnesota during the late 1960s. It also introduces a persistent leitmotif – the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody To Love” used as a sign of the presence of God, of His word, and of His judgment. Understanding this allows us to see the use of the song to open the main story (it will eventually close the story as well) as an invocation in the sense that it is used in a religious ceremony. It is used throughout the film as a sign saying: God is here.

Now we meet our protagonist, Professor Larry Gopnik. We first see him getting a checkup from his doctor, and then explaining the infamous Schrodinger’s Cat problem to a class full of students. With this, the forces in play in the prologue – faith, uncertainty, and rationality – are reintroduced. The fact that Larry is a physics professor is key to the progression of the story. Larry is so deeply in tune with the physical, tangible, and mathematical that he has been left fundamentally out of tune with the spiritual and metaphysical. He will spend the entire movie looking for a sign from God, and indeed they will come, one after the next, but his will be unable to see them. Like the episodes of F-Troop that his son complains of not being able to watch on the family TV, a signal is being broadcast but not received. God is there – we have already been told that He is in that place – but Larry’s antenna is misaligned, and the image will come in too fuzzy to be recognizable to him.

We next end up in Larry’s office for his encounter with Clive, a student who has failed his midterm. When Clive protests that the midterm was all math, which he wasn’t expecting in a physics class, Larry reminds him that math underlies all physics. Without understanding the math that is behind physics, all you can see is the surface of it; the truth of how it really works will remain hidden from you. Clive insists that his grade was unjust, and that if he could take the test again, knowing what would be on it, he would pass; but Larry refuses to allow him to “retake the test until he gets a grade he likes”. As the movie progresses, we see that Clive and Larry are in fact parallel characters. Clive cannot look beyond the surface of physics to see what is really there and how it really works in the same way that Larry cannot see beyond the surface of the metaphysical world. Larry goes to temple on Shabbat, ensures that his son is ready to get through his Bar Mitzvah, consults a rabbi on important matters – all things that an observant Jew in good standing with his religious community ought to do. But these all sit at the surface of his religion; Larry can never quite allow himself to see the living God behind all of it, even when that God makes Himself apparent.

But there is more: Larry too is about to take a test. Larry too does not know what’s going to be on it. And Larry too will face the consequences of failure, with no opportunity to retake the test that he will be given.

Larry’s test begins when his wife informs him that she wants a divorce in order to marry the recent widower Sy Abelman. Abelman is a sleazy slick-talker, an insincere glad-hander whose soft velvet words mask his nature as an unscrupulous homewrecker and cowardly slanderer. But Larry, who can see nothing beyond the surface in any area except physics, cannot see Abelman for what he truly is. Thus, he is left helpless in the face of calamity. Fortunately for Larry, during a weekend picnic he has an encounter with a family friend, whose assessment of the crisis enveloping him is that “It’s an opportunity to learn how things really are…. It’s not always easily deciphering what God is trying to tell you”. With this, she puts him on the road to his encounters with three wise men – a young rabbi, a middle-aged rabbi, and an old rabbi – who he will see in an attempt to make sense of what is happening to him.

Larry’s search for a sign from God brings up some questions: What would a sign look like? How would he recognize one if it appeared? What exactly is he expecting? As a man who deals with the physical, tangible, and mathematical, the sign that he is expecting – the only kind of sign that he is tuned to be able to receive – is a physical, tangible, and mathematical one. Larry is a rational man, living in a rationalist age, and the only sign that he is ready to accept would be something akin to a literal giant hand extending from the clouds as it might in some Monty Python skit. But that is not how the metaphysical works, and while God may provide a sign, He is under no obligation to provide us with exactly the sign we were hoping for. As the second rabbi that he visits points out: “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” At very least, it is our obligation to go out of our way to recognize the signs that God gives us, which Larry is either unwilling or unable to do by going beyond the framework in which he is comfortable.

Though the Coen Brothers portray the encounters with the rabbis in their trademark absurdist style, what must be understood when watching them is that all three rabbis are right. Each of them responds to Larry in an absolutely valid and correct way. In short: The first rabbi tells Larry the truth. The second rabbi shows Larry the truth. And the third rabbi sends Larry away, because if he wasn’t able to understand what the first two said to him, then there’s nothing to be gained from any further attempts to get him to grasp the truth. Yes, the third rabbi is the wisest of all, and has a deeper understanding than the others, but here we come back again to what Larry was trying to explain to Clive about the physics test: You can’t go on to more advanced concepts until you fully understand the fundamentals; it’s a waste of time to try to go into depth about something if you’re unable to look beyond the surface at all.

And so Larry has a short encounter with the first rabbi, who tells him that God is everywhere around us if only we open our eyes and see Him. “With the right perspective, you can see Hashem”, says the young rabbi, and this is profoundly true. But Larry does not have the right perspective, and as such, he cannot make sense of what the rabbi is trying to tell him. Larry leaves unsatisfied.

Meanwhile, the rest of Larry’s life continues to deteriorate, and God continues to send signs that Larry is incapable of seeing. Clive has attempted to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade by leaving an envelope full of money on his desk. Larry has responded by calling Clive into his office and telling him that he will go to the department head and report the bribery attempt. A short time later, Clive’s father comes to Larry’s house to confront him about the situation, and presents him with another “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: either accept the bribe and issue a passing grade, or, if he goes to the department head with an allegation of attempted bribery, Clive will sue him for defamation. When Larry asserts that this is illogical, Clive’s father responds with a statement so bizarre that it can only be a sign from God: “Please, accept the mystery”.

This is precisely what Larry should do. But again, he does not. While visiting his divorce lawyer’s office, Larry gets a call from his son, who complains that “F-Troop is still fuzzy”. Indeed it is – the signal is still not being received.

There will be one last attempt to make Larry understand the truth by telling it to him. This time, the messenger of God appears in the form of the Columbia Record Club, which calls Larry at work regarding the membership that his son has signed him up for without asking. His introductory albums have all been delivered, and now it is time for him to pay for the latest album he has been sent, Santana’s Abraxas. Larry protests that he never agreed to join the Columbia Record Club. Still shaken up from a minor fender bender he had while driving to work, he shouts into the phone:

“I didn’t ask for Santana Abraxas! I didn’t listen to Santana Abraxas! I didn’t do anything!”

This is an odd and obvious anachronism in the film; it is set in 1967, but Abraxas was not released until 1970. The choice of this exact album, then, had to have been a conscious choice on the part of the Coen Brothers. So what is its significance? The word “abraxas” is a very old one, used by the Gnostics among others. It has many related meanings, but among them are “the uncreated Father”, “the Almighty God” (this was St. Jerome’s interpretation of it) or even “the holy word”. Once this is understood, Larry’s statement can be roughly translated as:

“I didn’t ask for the word of God! I didn’t listen to the word of God! I didn’t do anything!”

To which the Columbia representative replies: “We can’t make you listen to the record!” Indeed, Larry cannot be forced to listen. But God, who in His mercy will give Larry every fair chance, will now try to show him the truth.

The call from the Columbia Record Club is interrupted by the news that Sy Abelman has been killed in a car crash; one which occurred at the exact same moment as Larry’s minor accident. In a single instant, God smote Larry’s worst enemy; he punished the wicked and delivered Larry’s family back to him – with her lover dead and with nowhere else to go, his wife will have no choice but to take him back. Larry’s life has suddenly turned the corner both personally and professionally (Abelman has also been the person writing slanderous letters about him to his university’s tenure committee. With him gone, they will stop.), and God has provided for him. As for Larry’s own fender bender, it is a mere reminder of the slings and arrows of life to which we are all subject; compared to the victory he has been granted, it is nothing.

Larry should take this as a sign; he should be thankful to God for all that he has (or perhaps, all that he now has back). But he still cannot see the presence of God nor be grateful for what he has received from Him.

Let us here take a moment to address a line that appears over and over in the film: “I didn’t do anything”. This is used as an excuse; as a reason why all that happens to Larry is unjust. But now we are far enough along that we can see the true meaning of the prologue: Sometimes you must do something; and sometimes you must do something even in the face of uncertainty. Larry has, in fact, not dome anything. Larry didn’t do anything when his family was nearly torn to pieces by the Sy Abelman. Larry didn’t do anything as his chances at tenure were nearly destroyed by the anonymous letters received by the tenure committee. Having not yet either changed Clive’s grade nor gone to his department head, Larry hasn’t done anything about the bribery attempt. Larry hasn’t done anything about the property dispute he has been having with his neighbor. Larry didn’t do anything – neither giving in to temptation nor issuing a firm rejection – in the face of advances from the lonely housewife next door. And Larry hasn’t done anything about the messages he keeps receiving from God, either. Like Clive, who didn’t study any math in preparation for his physics exam, Larry has made no serious attempt to look beneath the surface and to see what’s really going on.

Larry hasn’t done anything – and that’s the problem.

All of which leads Larry to the second rabbi. This one tells him a story about another member of the congregation, a dentist who found some Hebrew lettering carved into the back faces of the teeth of a non-Jewish patient. The dentist searched for an explanation, and found none. For a time, it bothered him to the point of being unable to either eat or sleep. Eventually, he went to the rabbi to ask if it really was a sign from God, and if so what it could mean. He asked if it means that he should lead a more righteous life, and help others.

The rabbi replied by telling the dentist an obvious truth: “The teeth? We don’t know. A sign from Hashem? We don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt.”

This answer was simple, truthful, and good. It made the lives of all involved better. The dentist, already a decent man, went home more determined than ever to be a pillar of his community, a good husband to his wife, and a good friend to those around him. In time, he stopped investigating what happened, and simply accepted the mystery.

Again, Larry is unsatisfied by the answer. Again, he cannot see what is beyond the surface. What the story of the lettering carved in the non-Jew’s teeth proves is that a sign from God often shows up where it will least be expected. Larry couldn’t understand that you take the message where and how it shows up, not where or how you were expecting it or wanted it.

Why a random non-Jew’s teeth? While we’re at it, why F-Troop? Why the Columbia Record Club? Why Jefferson Airplane?

Why a burning bush? It isn’t our place to critique the method that God chooses to deliver His messages; our place is to listen.

What Larry further cannot understand is that sometimes the question is the answer. An example of this is Descartes’s famous formulation “I think, therefore I am”. The significance of this is found in the way in which it answers a question that lies at the bottom of the darkest pit of philosophy, which is: “How can I even be sure that I myself really exist?” Descartes’s answer, stunning in its simplicity, was essentially to ask in return: “If I do not exist, then who’s asking the question?” The fact that the question exists at all is enough to provide its own answer.

The fact that the mystery exists at all should be its own answer. If we know that the mystery exists, then instead of asking “What is the solution to the mystery?”, we can content ourselves with asking “Who created the mystery?”.

The mystery is the sign. The question is the answer.

And if we are not content with that, it is wise to remember that Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, but that helping others couldn’t hurt.

As for Larry, his attempts to make sense of what is happening to him without either accepting the mystery or allowing himself to see the signs that are right in front of him are ultimately as futile as his brother’s attempts to create a “probability map of the universe” in his notebook.

Which brings us to the third rabbi, who simply sends Larry away. And why should he do anything else?

It is in the meeting that the old rabbi has with Larry’s son, however, that we can see a glimpse of what he would have told Larry had he been able to understand it. For the old rabbi has seen the signs; he has listened to the word of God.

“Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Koukonen: these are the members… of the Airplane!”

How did he know about the song? Was the portable radio still playing it when the old rabbi got it back from the school principal? Certainly not. But he has heard the message nonetheless, and he understands what it means.

What does it mean? The old rabbi explains it by first posing a question:

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies… Then what?”

And then providing the answer:

“Be a good boy.”

That’s it. It is as simple as that. Yes, there are more complex ways it could be expressed. One could say instead that by its nature, life is full of uncertainty; that uncertainty is an essential part of the human experience. Despite this, moral choices must often be made in the face of uncertainty; that, too, is part of the human experience. Yet if all of our choices were based on certainty, then they would be, in a moral sense, meaningless. Choosing in the face of uncertainty is the heart of agency; we can make rational and moral choices even in the face of uncertainty because we have agency. This goes back to the very first man and woman. Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil gave man an understanding of moral choices, and once he understood moral choices, he could be held accountable for them. So yes, we are responsible for our moral choices, even in the face of uncertainty, but fortunately, we do have a guide to making them. God spoke from the burning bush to give us some of it, and was crucified upon Golgotha to give us the rest. Like all good moral teaching, it can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be; Christ Himself once summarized the whole essence of God’s law as: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”, and it really can be stated as simply as that. Thousands upon thousands of pages of commentary – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Rastafarian – exist to explain what God is trying to tell us about how we should live. But at its simplest, the message is only this: “Be a good boy”.

In a dream sequence earlier in the movie, Larry told his physics class that “Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm”. Larry hasn’t been able to figure anything out, but now he will be tested on it anyway. An enormous bill arrives at his office from his lawyer. Clive’s envelope full of money – about which he still hasn’t done anything – is sitting in his desk drawer. He takes out the envelope, and his gradebook, and thinks for a long moment about what to do.

If he had seen and understood the message, then the answer would be obvious: “Be a good boy”.

Here, let us flash back to a conversation that took place in the same office earlier in the film, as Larry confronted Clive about his bribery attempt:

Larry: “Actions have consequences.”

Clive: “Yes, often.”

Larry: “No, always. Actions always have consequences. In this office, actions have consequences. Not just physics. Morally.”

Larry’s choice reveals the parallelism between himself and Clive – everything he told Clive at the beginning of the film now applies to him – sometimes we must choose in the face of uncertainty, but we are still responsible for the choices that we make. Sometimes we must face tests, and understand that if we fail, there will be no opportunity to retake them until we get a grade we like.

But Larry has learned nothing from all the things that have happened, including from his own words. He hesitates for a moment over his gradebook, then changes Clive’s grade to one that is barely passing. The instant he does so, the phone rings. It’s the doctor who he saw at the beginning of the film. He wants to see Larry about the results of his X-rays, immediately. We never learn what the results say, but it can’t be good.

We then cut to Larry’s son, again in Hebrew school. There is a tornado warning, and the school is evacuated. The students stand outside as their elderly teacher fumbles with the keys that unlock the building where they will take shelter. The son turns toward another student an sees behind him a tornado forming – very, very close. (Here we may note that God has always had something of a habit of appearing in the form of a whirlwind). We again hear the Jefferson Airplane, and…

And the movie ends. We learn no more of Larry’s fate, or of his son’s, just as we learned no more of the dybbuk or the husband and wife in the shtetl from the prologue. We begin and end with uncertainty.

There are, however, some things that bear saying about this final sequence of scenes.

The first is that in that office, actions have indeed had consequences. Not just physics. Morally. Sy Abelman’s actions had consequences, but Larry learned no more from that than he did from any other part of his spiritual journey – a journey that he sleepwalked through, not hearing anything, not seeing anything, not learning anything, and not doing anything. What is worse, when he finally does do something, it’s the wrong thing. And not only that, but he did it after God has granted him everything he could have wanted: his worst enemy has been vanquished, his family has been reunited, his son has been accepted as a member of his tribe, and he has just learned that he will be granted tenure. To make the wrong moral choice in the face of such providence smacks of ingratitude. It is not just an average sin or bad moral choice; it is an insult to God.

Larry has taken the test, and he has failed it.

Which brings us back to Schrodinger’s Cat. The office phone rings the very second after Larry makes his choice, and on the other end is the doctor with some very bad news about his test results. But… did those bad test results exist before Larry made his decision? Or were they sitting in a probability cloud, not fully materialized until he had chosen? With Schrodinger, there is no way to know whether the cat is dead or alive until we open the box, at which point we instantly and irrevocably know. With Larry, the results didn’t reach him until he had made his choice, at which point they did reach him – instantly and irrevocably.

It turns out that Larry did not just teach about Schrodinger’s Cat – unfortunately for him, Larry was Schrodinger’s Cat.