Pascal’s Wager Applied to Global Warming

Blaise Pascal was a French Christian philosopher, 19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662. His most well known contribution to philosophy is the wager, outlined below (paraphrased by me):

If there is no God…

If I act as though there is a God I lose my Sunday mornings, some tithes, and maybe some liberties I would otherwise take without the threat of eternal damnation hanging over me

If I act as though there is no God I lose nothing

If there IS a God…

If I act as though there is a God I could win a place in heaven in my afterlife

If I act as though there is no God I get condemned to eternal damnation after I die

Therefore, it is better to act as though there is a God, as the losses are low, and the possible win is high, whereas if I act as though there is no God I could lose big time, and win nothing important.

There are various problems with this argument, not least of which that you could be acting as though you believe in the wrong god, or believing the wrong prophet, in which case you won’t win anyway. Most people feel queasy at the idea that God can be so easily convinced that you truly have taken Him into your heart when you’re really just acting the part for the rewards. God resembles the ultimate besotted sugar daddy in this scenario.

But I realised that this argument works quite well when applied to the issue of human made Earth threatening global warming:

If there is no global warming…

If I act as though there is, I will change my diet, use less fossil fuels, reduce / reuse / recycle, and these could easily cost me a bit of money or convenience, and I’d be active, where I can, to convince others to do the same, especially at commercial and governmental levels.

If I act as though there isn’t it costs me nothing

If there IS human made Earth threatening global warming…

If I act as though there is, I would be part of the movement trying to save the planet from catastrophic changes that threaten the existence of all major life forms, including humanity.

If I act as though there isn’t I am a part of the problem.

Therefore, it is better to act as though there is human made Earth threatening global warming, and try to reverse the damage we have done, as the cost if one is wrong is nothing compared to the cost of being wrong on the other side. One could even argue that, in acting as though you care, you might find yourself becoming a better human being, but that is of course not guaranteed.

The people who argue that there is nothing to worry about are effectively neutralised. Don’t get me wrong; I believe absolutely that there IS human made Earth threatening global warming, and the people  (I will not refer to them as “scientists”) backed by large industry and fossil fuels who say otherwise are akin to those who denied the adverse affects of smoking and lead in petrol in the 1950 – 70’s. Only now it’s the planet, and not just human health we have to get informed about.

It is true that the Earth goes through periods of natural warming and cooling (putting aside that there’s nothing natural about the rapidity of these changes). Even then, it is in humanity’s best interest to not speed the process, as it will destroy first our current way of life, and possibly (probably) even our species. Periods of climate change caused by extreme events in the past have resulted in global mass extinctions, and it would take a lot for us over-adrenalised apes to adjust to the life of burrowing that got mammals through the last one.

What can an individual do? My list above may not be sufficient, or could be misinformed. There is a lot of misinformation out there, but these things seem to be the currently scientifically backed options. The thing is, phrasing the issue in terms of the wager, I have convinced at least the Ruski that we should act as though there is a problem. It does make a sound and convincing argument for behavioural change.

One could say they don’t care, because they will die before the Bad Things happen, at least to them (as it’s fairly easy to show that Bad Things are already happening to more vulnerable communities and species). They won’t take the wager… Not much we can do about that except make (effective and enforced) laws that limit their impact while they’re alive.

I personally think we all most need to get over ourselves as being the centre of the universe. It’s not all about us: we don’t need to be so high maintenance, such perfect consumers. We are consuming our unique host, distracting ourselves from our weaknesses with tacky thrills and trinkets, revelling in conspicuous excess, wasting resources and our own human potential, to be better than that.

Some people say we are a virus, or a parasite on this planet. They go so far as to have the fatalistic perspective that we have brought this on ourselves so we deserve to be wiped out. Even if that were true, the rest of the planets’ species don’t deserve it. I am a Humanist; I believe we can clean up our messes, and become a productive part of the global ecology, analogous to the nervous system. We have instant global communications and the ability to catalyse change, if we talk and work together. It’s maybe a long shot, but I am willing to bet on us


Living with a Satanist Russian Male Stripper

While many of my readers might know who I’m talking about, I will refer to him as The Ruski and he can decide if he wants to identify himself.

I met The Ruski at the Medieval re-enactment and performance club where I taught the newbies how to sword fight, both stage and combat. He distinguished himself early by:

  • always leading with his head, resulting in several scars around his mouth
  • leaping into combat, making it impossible for him to avoid any point aimed at him
  • bringing an enormous short cutlass that was too slow and heavy to be practical for anything except cutting ropes
  • tragic romances. I think he arrived chasing a lesbian…

… but he had a great stage presence.

When he applied his method acting to LARP (live action roleplaying), leaping off a balcony as only a vampire could, he failed to land like a vampire would and broke his ankle. I think that was about when people turned his name into a verb, to describe hurting yourself whilst doing something awesome and enthusiastic.

At his 21st birthday he introduced me to good vodka, and then assured me that it was part of the experience to also drink the pickle juice – that made me sick. Soon after he moved out of home to move in with me and my daughter. His family was appalled: Russian men are apparently not supposed to leave home until their thirties.

Moving in together, we had a plan: I technically had money, and no time, so I bought the food; he technically had time and no money, so he cooked the food; and my daughter technically did the dishes. That turned out to be a huge technicality… Anyway, I asked him if he could cook? He said “Yes, yes… I am lyearning” (after 20 years in NZ he still has an appalling Ruski accent). It turned out he could make mashed potatoes, but the skin was still on, so they were lumpy, porridge, and if he was paying attention the sausages would not be raw. We were in the last stages of putting on our first show, so I had absolutely no time to teach him, and we survived our first 6 weeks or so on lumpy mashed potatoes and half-cooked sausages. I remember the day when some friends from a vegetarian flat, afraid that we would die of scurvy, came round to show him how to cook vegetables. As I got home from work he was standing proudly in the kitchen doorway, gestured grandly at the stove and said “Look! I have smoked the wegetables”. I said “You smoked the vegetables – I hope it was good for you”. He meant steamed…

He’s come up with some good malapropisms around me. I also remember the time he came back from a LARP and was enthusiastically described the sumptuous settings, with velvet drapes “…and a smoking brassiere in the corner.” He meant a brazier.

He loves acting, and performing, and entertaining, and he’s very good at it. He’d LARP, and perform circus and burlesque acts with us, and he was a star. He was trying to be an academic – he loves literature and philosophy, too – but he sucked at that. It made him very unhappy, to fail in his studies and let his family down (Russians take tertiary education very seriously). His decision to give up on academia and pursue a career in performing arts was hard for him, but he hasn’t looked back, and his classic Russian family have accepted that they now have an artist instead of a scholar, which is respectable enough.

…So long as they don’t look too closely. He’s Mr Burlesque NZ, and spends a lot of time taking his clothes off in public. I once asked him what’s the difference between a burlesque dancer and a stripper? He said “Strippers get paid more”. He once came into the lounge where I was and stripped his shirt off very deliberately, then said “Can I give you rent next week?” I should have held out for the pants… It’s not as though I haven’t seen it before, in practice, on stage, and drunk at parties, and I got to make his chainmail boxers and cock-sock… I was there when, after supporting a stage show called “Whore” (presenting stories from fringe sex workers) his mother called. She had seen pictures of The Ruski wrapped in cling wrap and trussed up in Japanese rope bondage on Facebook, and even though the whole conversation was in Russian I could tell exactly what was going on, as she was freaking out, and he was trying to reassure her that it was both a valid piece of contemporary art and he wasn’t actually working in that industry.

I’m so glad I met him – I don’t know any other man like him. In public he’s a flirt and a tease, and with his confidence very sexy, but it doesn’t go to his head. In private he is very different: tragically romantic, waiting for the perfect girl, to get married and have children and live happily ever after – he does not do casual sex; philosophical, intelligent, open-minded and honest; courageous, disciplined, and passionate. You should know that about Satanists: they can be strong and social free-thinkers, building their self-control, self-respect and personal responsibility on valid philosophical and ethical foundations.

We are friends, not lovers, but occasionally people mistake us for a married couple. It has been nearly 8 years living in the same house, and I sometimes wonder what it means that I think so much like a Satanist Russian male stripper, we do so much alike. Except he hates disaster movies, and I love them. Going through a box of old things I found a forgotten piece of paper from a fortune chocolate: “You will find a faithful and constant friend”. Go figure. It was right.

SPIN, DEARMAN and Integrity

Last weekend I attended an afternoon convention for professional software testers, which seems to be the career I have fallen into… I think critical scientific and heuristic thinking combined with a fairly devastating ability to find weaknesses in complex systems (biological, political, battle strategy and tactics and now software) would lead to that. That, or terrorism…

Anyway, I attended an interesting talk on a technique for communicating needs for change to someone who could help but might not agree. It was summarised by the mnemonic SPIN, which stands for:

 – Situation – what I see
– Problem – why I care
– Implication – why the one I’m talking to should care
– Need – what I think we should do (this can be opened up for general discussion if you really don’t know)

Following this technique, one gives all the relevant information and motivates the listener to act in everyone’s best interest, which is rational.

The word “spin” itself has some connotations of biased representation of data, like we expect from the media and politicians. The technique is biased from the petitioners perspective:

 – the petitioner might not have the full information, therefore what they see might not be the whole picture, or even contain all the relevant pieces
– that the petitioner cares does not mean that other people have the same problem or that it is any of their business – I have made this mistake myself, overstepping the boundaries of program testing to project management, for example. PM’s should not tell testers how to test, and testers should not tell PM’s their job, either…
– telling someone why they should care is fraught with issues of being patronising, telling them how to do their job, and anyone who knows these techniques can see they are being “managed” which can trigger some negative reactions to manipulation or lack of respect, justified or not
– the petitioner might have all the info and still not have the best solution, or even a solution that follows from the situation (as conclusions follow from premises). They might not like the solution that the one appealed to comes up with.

Putting that aside, I was reminded of the DBT (Dialectic Behavioural Therapy) technique for appealing to someone for a change (in their behaviour, usually), known by the mnemonic DEARMAN:

 – Describe – the situation, as above
– Express – how it makes you feel when the situation happens; this is sort of like the problem, from above, but makes it more subjective, and therefore less arguable
– Assert – what you want; your need, from above
– Reinforce – why they would want this, too; implication, from above
– Mindful – staying on topic, one issue at a time, and not getting distracted by excuses
– Appear confident OR no Apologies (depending where you look) – people don’t listen to you if you don’t appear to stand for what you’re saying
– Negotiate – keeping in mind that you don’t know everything

I have rather more time for this approach, as it more clearly puts the ownership of the alleged issue with the petitioner, gives some good advice for the manner in which one should make the petition and negotiate it, and the mnemonic is more respectful.

BUT… Both SPIN and DEARMAN have two common unspoken pre-requisites: that the listener cares to make things work, for themselves (rational) and the petitioner, and that they can actually do something to bring about the petitioner’s required change. I have found, in both personal and business relationships, that these are not always the case, and no matter how well you make your case, and how important it is, it will bring about no change. Some people do not play well with others, or just cannot effect change. (You have to go around them, if you can.) Humans in general are notoriously bad at acting rationally. I found DEARMAN can sometimes be very disappointing in the real world.

Then I saw a very interesting YouTube clip about professional interpersonal relations. (I’m sorry – I forgot to get the reference when I saw it – I just made some notes of bits that resonated). The presenter encouraged me to believe the following:

 – Self: I have some information, but I may not see or understand everything
– Other person:
– may see things that I don’t see which could help
– is acting with integrity given their situation
– Task: combine our knowledge to make the best choice

So first we select and describe the problem, as above, but then, when we explain, evaluate and propose actions we have to remember we are working on assumptions.

The “acting with integrity” clause hit me like a wet fish. Really? I myself do always try to act with integrity, and I don’t always agree with the ideas of others, even given the same information and good incentives. The word “integrity” does make me reconsider the position of people who are challenging to work with: they could be right, for one thing. Even when they are apparently only gate-keeping, throwing up obstacles to progress, protecting their territory and other such non-productive behaviour: while they are being difficult, even sometimes unprofessional, their situation could be the real problem. How much stress are they under? What are they frightened of? What are their obstacles to change? Can I help them to help myself?

In reality, commonly you can’t. Their situation is causing a problem for them, and it might be that there is no-one who can help them, or maybe they have to SPIN or DEARMAN someone themselves, and then we have to hope that someone at the end of the chain of needs starts a domino effect of necessary change.

Welcome to my Storybook

I have so many stories to tell. I want to write about the wonderful things I have learnt from couchsurfers, the way some books have changed the way I see the world and other people, the hard lessons I have learnt along the way, my thoughts and ideas, my ethics, stories that will make you laugh, some that may make you cry (tho believe me, I have no intention to hurt anyone with this), and some that I hope will make you think.

How I remember things, what I remember, how I interpreted things that happened, what I chose to take from experiences – these are all personal, subjective, possibly flawed or biased. I don’t like to lie, but sometimes, if I deem a thing irrelevant or sensitive, (where the full truth would harm), I won’t tell the whole truth, either. If you read a story that you were a part of (I’ll use pseudonyms) and you remember it differently, even taking the above into account, this will be because no two people will ever experience a single thing in the same way. If I had an identical twin (I don’t) and we both wore the same clothes, and went for the same walk, and bought the same icecream we would still experience different things eating that icecream. Perhaps my twin, glancing over my shoulder, will see something that makes them feel sad, while I’m seeing a happy scene. Our perception of the enjoyment of the icecream will be different. Our icecreams will melt differently, and I will probably end up wearing some of it (as usual). My twin might be better at keeping their clothes clean. My experience will include exasperation while my twin gets to laugh.

This is why I call these pages “stories”. While it’s hard to dispute that I went to Hawaii, what I brought back from the trip in my head is my story. I will give you the argument I painstakingly constructed to prove my ethical theory. Feel free to challenge my thinking. I’ll give you stories of what I’ve done with the intention of following what I believe to be the best course of action. These are certainly open to analysis.

I like these quotes (all not mine): “opinions are like assholes – everyone has one”; “blogging is graffiti with punctuation”; and “a minute’s conscious reflection is worth a lifetime’s blind devotion”. I will try and source ideas that are not mine, reference things to look at to verify, validate or get different points of view and cross reference to other things I write so you can see if I’m consistent or not. I don’t want to give you my opinion and expect you to soak it up like a sponge. I’m a sceptic, including (especially) of my own beliefs! Anyone who accepts another’s perspective without engaging their discernment is asking for disaster. Even people with the best of intentions can unwittingly misrepresent a topic. Please, think. Especially if you really like something I say: just because I validate what you believe doesn’t make it true.

Finally, please bear with me while I work out the structure of this blog. So many stories are connected I imagine it will be hard at first, at least, to be consistent in my categorisation.

Hope you enjoy, or at least, build something valuable in yourself from these stories.