Valentine’s Day Special: Romeo and Juliet Exterminate Hedgehogs

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.


It’s all very romantic and all, but this is a really bad idea. And not just because removing her eyes would blind Juliet; it’s a metaphor. Besides, that part doesn’t affect the hedgehogs at all.

For some reason, Wikipedia doesn’t say exactly how far away the stars’ spheres were from Verona in the 1590s. Taking Tycho Brahe’s estimate from around that time, the closest of the fixed stars was 14,000 earth-radii from the nearest hedgehog. (55.5 million miles, for those of you who don’t think in multiples of the radius of Earth.) It’s pretty close to where the orbit of Mars is now. Needless to say, this came before the 1698 expansion of the universe.

The reason why this is a bad idea is simple: Global warming. Right now, the hedgehog is classified as endangered in some countries. Having a second sun appear in the heavens, bright enough that it looks like the regular one, could drive the species extinct in short order. Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so the addition of a second sun would mean that they only have half as much night to spend doing whatever it is hedgehogs do.

If there’s a second main source of light (Juliet’s eyes), then it would be doubling Earth’s black-body radiation. I swear by the Stefan-Boltzmann law that this would increase Earth’s effective temperature by a factor of the fourth root of two. Earth would have a base temperature of 134° F, not counting greenhouse effects. (Up from its current—say it with me—42.) Pre-Juliet Earth has reached temperatures as high as 136, and that took place in a location that does contain a native species of hedgehog. They can take some pretty extreme temperatures, though they’d usually sleep through it and they don’t have that option anymore. Add on another dozen or two degrees from the atmosphere keeping heat in, and Romeo’s metaphor might not completely kill all of them. But I wouldn’t count on it.

It Gets Worse. There was at least a chance that some of the hardier desert species might survive Earth’s average temperatures jumping above previous record highs. But the next thing is that, what if Juliet’s eyes, instead of streaming so brightly through the airy region, don’t? What about before they accept the stars’ entreaties, when they’re down on the surface of Earth in her head?

Back before everything Got Worse, Earth was receiving one eight-hundred-millionth of the brightness streaming from the spheres where the fairest stars aren’t. And that was apocalyptic enough. Thanks to Romeo’s hedgehog-killingly well-thought-out metaphor, her eyes are beaming out over a third of the amount of radiation that the Sun does. (One eight millionth of her luminosity equals one part in 2.21 billion of the Sun’s, if the back of this envelope is correct. If.)

And we just put that back on the hedgehogs’ home planet

According to the back of the same envelope (plugging in E= .36 times the luminosity of the Sun and 12.5 mm for the radius of an eye into this thing copied off Wikipedia: E=4πr^2σT^4, sigma is a constant), her eyes are over thirty-one million Kelvin. Because Juliet’s eyes are much smaller than the sun [citation needed], they have to be much hotter than its surface temperature to radiate a third as much energy.

According to my back-of-a-different-envelope numbers, if an eyeball at that temperature were to appear, the explosion from the heat energy alone would be almost the size of the shockwave from air being pushed away from four spontaneously appearing Olympic swimming pools. (We can wish that it had just been drops of Jupiter.) It’s a disaster—though it would probably settle the Capulet-Montague feud in favor of the people who didn’t get their house blown up—but at least it’s not a threat to the hedgehogs.

But Juliet’s eyes aren’t just that hot. Normal superheated eyeballs would cool down much too fast. These are also staying that hot, by the power of metaphor. Like Romeo said, they have to keep glowing at least long enough to fool the birds into thinking it’s daylight.  Which means that before they accept the entreaties to twinkle in the stars’ spheres, her eyes are approximately one third as destructive as having the Sun on the balcony. This will almost certainly exterminate hedgehogs.

Why would you do that? They’re adorable!

It gets worse. All that? That was based on the size of the universe in the 1590s. Today, the “spheres” where the stars twinkle are much further away, so for her eyes to be visible (let alone bright as daylight) from there, they’d have to be implausibly hot. “Hot” in human terms is actually a good thing. Hedgehogs prefer warm temperatures of 72-80° F. This is going to be completely off that chart.

The nearest star (I’m not even going to try for “fairest”) is 4.2 light-years away. Earth’s great circle has an area of 5.11*10^14 m^2, which is a lot, but at the same distance from Juliet’s eyes there’s 1.98*10^34 m^2 of area that isn’t Earth. (We can ignore the possibility of extraterrestrial hedgehogs.) So one two-point-two-billionth of the Sun’s total output equals one thirty-eight-point-eight quintillionth of the energy from Juliet’s eyes. Well, that’s not too bad. Her eyes are only seventeen and a half billion times as luminous as the sun.

So if some couple today—let’s call them Alexandra and Nick, after a couple of superheroes I’ve read about—were to accurately describe one another’s eyes this way, they’d end up with a set of eyeballs at 14.5 billion Kelvin. Come to think of it, even if it wipes out every living member of subfamily Erinaceinae, “literally hotter than a supernova” is quite a compliment.

Juliet’s eyes would be glowing a bit more brightly than the rest of the galaxy combined. If transported to Verona, this would kill off every array and prickle of hedgehogs on Earth, as a side effect of making there not be an Earth. But it’ll have a Goldilocks zone with a radius of four light-years, so it might make some other planets more habitable. We’d better hurry up and launch some hedgehogs into space just in case. (Not to be confused with hedgehog space, which is not actually a fit habitat for any three-dimensional hedgehogs.)

And finally, for the good of everyone’s favorite spiny species, can we please stick with “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”?

P.S. Happy Birthday!


The Very Model of a Good Utilitarian

(It is suggested that you play this in another tab while reading this.)

I am the very model of a good utilitarian.
I cultivate the virtues of a great humanitarian.
I always switch the trolley so it hits the one and not the five
Because there is a duty and it comes with an imperative.
I have a perfect duty to select the one best act and rule.
And consequentialism is what’s universalizable.
I try to play the role of consequentialists and what they do
Habituated practice means that that’s what I’m accustomed to.

I donate giant quantities because of scrupulosity
I try to find the golden mean amount of generosity.
In short, with all the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian. 

If biting every bullet is the purpose of philosophy
You’ll find that I’m the best at its inherent teleology.
Like in the dust specks/torture case I must deontologically
Accept the torture so I don’t use people as means, optically!
If giving Felix all the world increases total happiness
It’s time for us to practice with the virtue of self-sacrifice!
If five need organs from one donor, that bystander I would kill
But it’s OK because I’d do it from the lawful mind’s good will! 

I’d tell a lie to save a life since Exodus 1 told me to;
Divinely ordered duty is a thing that I should hold me to!
In short, with all the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian. 

In fact when I choose actions by what globally fills preference,
And when I make my choices based on likely future consequence,
When I attempt to maximize the happiness of everyone,
When I start picking options by events that will then flow therefrom,
When I begin to weight the value of all humans equally,
And follow maxims that I think will maximize utility,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of sensible philosophy
You’ll say that I apply my consequentialism flawlessly. 

My decision-making process, while it’s better than ad hoc-ian
Is really better-suited to the Ethics Nicomachean.
But since I have the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian!


A Like Indignity

“Hey Capulet, want to make Montague disown his only son?”

“Um, YES. That idea sounds like what sliced bread is going to be the greatest thing since. What do I do?”

“The kid wants to marry your daughter. He’s totally down with the whole ‘deny my father and refuse my name’ plan, but I figure you’d rather make his old man kick him out of the family tree. You announce tomorrow that you’re fine with her marrying Romeo Montague, and suddenly he’s the biggest embarrassment Lord M has ever seen.”

“Hm, and I don’t even have to follow through with the indignity of marrying Juliet to a Montague if Romeo’s not a Montague anymore! But I was going to have her marry Paris….”

“Wealth, power, whatever. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give your arch-nemesis humiliations galore.”


“Hey Montague, want to mess with Capulet?”

“I do that 24/7, what’ve you got?”

“He’s about to have his daughter marry Paris. Count Paris. The cousin of the guy who rules Verona. The incredibly wealthy cousin of the guy who rules Verona. I’m not saying he’d get a political advantage that your family never recovers from, but let’s just say you probably want to stick a spoke in his wheel.”

“So, what, I send in some guys with a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak?”

“Close. Call the CPS. Or if that’s too nonexistent for ya, get Paris to leave town angry. Start a couple of nasty rumors that this whole thing is against Juliet’s will and that she’s already secretly married to her True Love, Romeo.”

“ROMEO? With capital letters and everything? I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Marry him off to some rich noblewoman he can’t stand? I guarantee you won’t get more for him than Capulet just proved he can for Juliet. You’re not gonna get another chance to stop that threat. Unless you want Prince Escalus to start taking his new family members’ side in every little dispute…”


“YOU! You promised me Montague would disown his kid over this! And then he goes and allows it! What are you playing at?”

“He’s gonna. Look, Romeo’s got a bit of a reputation. This time last week he was all gooey-eyed over some Rosaline character. Montague probably just expects him to change his mind again. Otherwise, he’ll step in before the wedding. Or possibly during if he wants to be dramatic. And then Romeo’ll make him keep escalating the threats until he can’t escalate any more.”

“Fine, I’ll play for time. I’ll pretend to be all modern and say she can’t get married until she’s at least fifteen. But you better not be wrong!”


“We got rid of Paris, the rumor about them already being married got proven false; what do we need the actual wedding for? I’m not having any daughter of Capulet’s in my family if I don’t have to!”

“Just think of how much Capulet hates this. The dude’s a politician. Going from Paris to Romeo? No offense, but you’ve, like, met Romeo. You know Capulet wants to veto this, but the whole ‘publicly announcing otherwise’ thing kinda means he has to think twice. And he doesn’t want it to be him  who everyone sees breaking up the happy couple. He’d rather have it be you.
There’s still no way he’ll actually let it go through. Probably just waiting for the last minute. You know, so you’ll give in and do it first.”

“OK, I won’t stop the wedding until after he does, but you better not be wrong.”

[Wrongness ensues.]


I am not claiming that this would work, for any definition of “work” that excludes “everyone dies.” I’m just waving a hand in a general direction while loudly implying “look over there.” I bet there’s some way to convince one or both antagonists that this is a good idea solely to spite the other guy.

Omniscience by Contract

Most of this has already happened on Tumblr, but right now I’m the only one with all the information and that needs to be fixed.

There’s a species of monster that can only be harmed by inherited silver. You might recognize it if you’ve read Fool Moon, the second Dresden Files book. Purchased silver has no effect, but borrowing someone else’s inherited silver without owning it does work. (If you think it shouldn’t, just assume that after each maybe-sale it’s the original owner running the test instead. It’ll still depend on the right thing.)

The problem here is that “ownership” isn’t exactly an innate feature of, well, anything. Reality does not include microscopic flags saying “this molecule of chair is the property of Jorge F. Hardoy,” even when it’s true. This is why garage sales aren’t considered a subfield of chemistry. Except that in a universe containing that werewolf, property rights are an intrinsic fact about property. All that common sense stuff goes out the window. (Unless of course the defenestration process might break a window that belongs to someone else. Apparently the universe tracks that kind of thing.)

If it weren’t for the fact that it only applies to things made of silver, this could have all kinds of uses. And we can work around that. It isn’t necessarily clear whether we should care about the opinion of the laws of physics, but everyone would want to know whether the Tree That Owns Itself can actually own things. And does the inheritance requirement track clinical death, legal death, or some other thing? It’d be very weird if it’s the information-theoretic version. These need to be tested.

But there’s one best thing to try. (I wish I could say I came up with it, but someone else did.) We know the Inexplicable Magic Ownership Sensors can distinguish between silver that has been sold and silver that hasn’t. So you write a contract that says the sale only takes place if [literally any statement goes here] is true. If the owner sells it to the user under that contract, then the werewolf can be harmed by the silver if and only if the statement is false.

The limitation here is that it’s not obvious whether such a contract would be valid. You’d essentially be contracting for “one of us owns this, but nobody knows which.” A real-life judge, who can’t see ownership by magic, would have to assign it to someone. And either option would mean it doesn’t depend on whether the arbitrary statement was true. An invalid contract is good news from a self-preservation point of view, but bad news for attaining omniscience.

I asked my Contracts professor this, and apparently when a contract depends on something that is already either true or false (as opposed to something that might happen but is not certain, which is what a “condition” properly means), the actual condition is the verification. If the silver affects the beast, then we know that either the statement is true or the contract was invalid. Yes, this runs the risk of an “it’s invalid because it’s invalid” loop that doesn’t give us any information. But if it doesn’t affect it, then the contract is valid and the statement is false. And if it is possible for the contingency to occur, then the contract is valid. So there’s no risk of that loop after all, and we will find out one way or the other.

Also, the professor—who in addition to being a professor at a top law school is also the sort of person who had to reschedule class a couple times because she was speaking to the U.N.—said it was an interesting enough question that she’d ask some colleagues. I don’t know who, but I assume they’re similarly credible. Anyway, more information!

One source, a Realist, says that this doesn’t work. The plan is assuming that there has either been a sale or there hasn’t. But there isn’t a well-defined answer to that question unless a judge has decided or clearly would decide one way. There’s no Platonic realm of Actual Contractness that affects vampires but not us. (In the first email I got, my professor said vampires instead of werewolves; I didn’t correct that because it’s the same in every way that matters, so that’s what got forwarded. It’s vampires now.) And, well, this Realist point of view is true. Property is a social construct almost as much as money is. But in that case, how does the vampire know? Its skin is detecting something when it decides whether or not to burn, and that probably isn’t “what would a judge say.” Common sense, window.

The other person responding kind of surprised me by saying that the existing legal system is already equipped to handle this. They also included the excellent line, “Is the student unaware of the magical powers of judges?”

This is just an ordinary(ish) case of burden of proof. If for some reason a legal dispute turned on whether Richard III had a severe spinal condition, a judge would listen to historical evidence and testimony from the team that found his skeleton. If it’s the same question about Joe the Random Fifteenth-Century Peasant, the plaintiff would just have a much harder time meeting the burden of proof. Sometimes there are statutes saying what to do if there’s no evidence, like if multiple family members die in the same accident and who gets the inheritance depends on who died first, but having to rule on an undecidable question is a thing that is known to happen.

For our purposes, this is great. It means that whether there was a sale really does depend on the question we want it to.
I’m not actually sure whether this was meant to imply “fortunately, in this case it’s being decided by magic and isn’t limited by what could be proven in court.” If so, we win. But even if the validity does depend on what a judge would say if it went to court, we still win.
If the answer to the question the contract depends on could be proven in court the normal way, then testing the silver on the vampire would just be a really powerful shortcut.  If the answer can’t be determined, and there’s no ordinary evidence, then the burden of proof might be met just by whether the silver affected the vampire. So it still depends on the right thing.
Either way, anyone who inherited a bunch of silver can get any question answered and more or less take over the world at their convenience. They just have to deal with vampires and lawyers to do it.

But don’t go signing these contracts just yet. There are a bunch of pitfalls I ignored here.
—A contractual condition might technically have to be a future event. (The relevant hornbook says this, but two experts said it probably wouldn’t ruin everything.)
—If there’s any ambiguity, an alleged condition will be interpreted as an obligation. For what we care about, this would be bad.
—It smells kind of like a wager, and those aren’t valid contracts according to the Statute of Anne. (Yes, Queen Anne. Yes, that Queen Anne. Yes, this law is from 1710.)
—There may be consideration problems. One of the Actual Competent People mentioned this case.
—It might get interpreted on other grounds, like “both people are acting as if there was a sale, so there was.”
—You have to capture a vampire, and keep it captured indefinitely.

And those are just the ones I know about. These are all solvable if you’re careful and know what you’re doing, but just remember to consult a lawyer before trying any contract-based divination.

One last thing: To keep exams anonymous, students aren’t supposed to write anything that would tip a professor off as to who wrote which set of answers. This hypothetical is pretty identifying. I wasn’t the only person who knew about it, but when I asked it after class the other students present heard me say “werewolves.”
And that is how I got banned by the Student Disciplinary Code from talking about vampires in a Contracts exam.

When He said that no man knew the day or the hour, I hadn’t done the math yet.

Every so often, a church leader speaks up and predicts with certainty the date of Christ’s return. It’s almost always in the near future. I, like everyone else, laugh at them, so imagine my surprise when I snapped awake early in the morning picturing an equation based on Biblical prophecy. Needless to say, I wrote it down immediately and later calculated that the Second Coming occurred at three o’clock this morning. (And how often do the predictors show their work?) I, however, am sufficiently confident that I know whether this is true that I’m writing it out for everyone to see.

It starts with Jesus’ statement in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The obvious meaning here is that the temple is His earthly body, which was dead for three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. But it’s common for Biblical prophecies to refer to multiple fulfillments. In the secondary interpretation of John 2:19, the three days refers to the length of time not between Jesus’ death and resurrection but between His First and Second Comings. Of course a day doesn’t need to be a literal twenty-four hour period, especially when dealing with prophecy. The question is what length we ought to use, and the answer is obvious. The Number of the Beast, 666. This number is famously important in End Times theology, and is in fact specifically stated as being intended for use in calculations (Revelation 13:18).

Three days, where each metaphorical day is six hundred and sixty-six years, results in a period of one thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight years.
But we reached that result by multiplying by three. That is, we combined a time and times. Readers familiar with Biblical prophecy will notice that there’s a missing half a time. (Daniel 7:25, 12:5-7, Rev. 12:14…it’s a thing, OK?)
But what length do we divide in half? Not the same six hundred and sixty-six year period. Even in its original context, the three uses of “time” were not meant to have consistent units. Following the Biblical principle of “whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Mark 4:25, in a parable specifically about Jesus’ Second Coming), the “time” that is halved should be some shorter length than the others. The obvious candidate, since we’re calculating the time until Jesus returns to Earth, is the length of his first life on Earth.

Jesus died on Friday, April 3, A.D. 33, at 3:00 in the afternoon. This was calculated by historical and not numerological methods, but when you see the string of theologically significant threes you can’t doubt that it’s correct. The beginning of His life on Earth is of course by definition the beginning of the Anno Domini era. Therefore, the “half a time” that needs to be added to the time and the two times is half of thirty-three years and ninety-three days. This gives us sixteen years and six months, plus forty-six and a half days.

Now we have enough information to calculate the exact date. 3:00 April 3 + 3*666 years + 16 years + six months + 46.5 days = November 19, 2014, 3:00 a.m. As I write this, it has been less than twelve hours since the world ended. Did I expect that result? No, but it was almost exactly twenty-four hours after I scribbled down the equation in the middle of the night. Coincidence? How can there be any such thing?

But the revelation doesn’t stop there. We started this with a metaphor from Jesus about the destruction of a temple. The literal Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar when he sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. We add to that number the four hundred years that God’s people were to spend in captivity (Genesis 15:13). Incidentally, there was a prophecy about God judging people at the end of that time, extremely reminiscent of the Second-to-Last Judgement that we all slept through. The number 400 also symbolizes the four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments, the boundary between the two most important eras so far. Since the destruction of the world by fire this morning marked the beginning of the next dispensation, the applicability is obvious.

2 Peter 3:8 states that with the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. Remember that Jesus promised to reinstate His kingdom three “days” after the Temple was destroyed (586 B.C.). Taking the four hundred into account, we find the following:
This morning’s apocalypse is a much more literal interpretation of 2 Peter than anyone expected. And since it happened at three in the morning, it satisfies the statement that the Lord’s return would come, like a thief, in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:2).

As every scholar of the Left Behind book series knows, the Rapture occurs seven years before the Second Coming. We now know this means 19 November 2007. It was on this date that the Lord took unto himself both people whose theology was exactly correct. Needless to say, the world at large completely missed it, and we only know about it now because it was seven years to the day before angels declared the return of the King in earthshakingly loud voices.

I admit that I still don’t fully understand all the recently fulfilled prophecies. The seven-headed beast from the sea, for instance, ruled the world for 42 months until the Battle of Armageddon this morning. As for who he was, there aren’t any obvious candidates. VISA credit cards and Monster energy drinks both have the major disadvantage of not even being people.

The exact interpretation of that prophecy, along with the remainder of the Book of Revelation, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Vegetarianism: Some numbers

“If God had not meant them to be eaten, he would not have made them out of meat.”
—Zorblax the Malevolent, Eater of Men, Women, and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Last week I was thinking about the ethics of vampirism (as one does) and calculated how many cows you’d have to farm and drain in order to maintain your immortal superpowered life. (3.8) Then I realized it’s kind of stupid that I hadn’t done the same calculation for real life.

Before I go any further, stop and ask yourself how many animals you’re OK with having farmed and killed to support your ability to eat meat. Come up with an actual number, or at least a factor of ten. Is the number different for cows and pigs than it is for turkeys and chickens? Do you care more about them suffering, or dying? Those can change your results.

Oh, and “farmed” is kind of a euphemism. For the animals that end up being part of my diet at least, I think it’s fair to say the word “torture” applies. The question is how much of that you’re willing to tolerate. Since the animals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this purpose, the choice isn’t about giving up meat to save animals. It’s about giving up meat in order for there to be fewer animals in that kind of existence.

Try to come up with a number such that you’re probably OK with there being X animals tortured for their entire existence to enable your omnivorous lifestyle, but for 10X you’d give up meat if it would somehow let you put them out of their misery. (Assume no consequences like them being replaced; we can argue about that later.)

You might think the animals are better off being tortured than never existing. If so, the question does not apply and you ought to increase your meat consumption as much as you can. Instead, I’m going to assume X is some positive number.

Have you figured out values of X yet? If not, stop reading until you have some.

OK, nobody stopped reading. Oh well. If you dislike any of my decisions, say it out loud or write it down so your mind doesn’t change it on you.
I arbitrarily decided the following:
—I care some about animal suffering but don’t really care about animal death.
—I am probably OK with an average of one cow or pig being tortured at a time if that’s what my meat-eating takes, but I’d rather be vegetarian than have it happen to ten.
—For chickens and turkeys it’s more like I don’t mind ten but do mind forty. (I don’t actually trust my mental image of forty as distinct from thirty or fifty. Seems like an important caveat.)

This is the weakest part of the exercise. It’s based on nothing more than me asking myself the bolded question and going “Hm, that seems acceptable.” I could be completely wrong about anything from how sentient cattle are to just how bad the conditions are. Feel free to correct whichever mistake is the most outrageous.
Then I looked up the numbers.

The average American (in 2009) ate 120.2 kg of meat. (The chart cites the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., but I linked to this instead because it’s much easier to read.)
Using the numbers from this awesome chart, that .72 pounds per day (pretending all of it’s beef), is 1.6 cows every thousand days. Beef cattle get harvested at 18-22 months, so say they live for 600 days. In that case, there’s an average of .96 cows being farmed at any given time to support the average American’s meat eating.

That number is uncomfortably close to my range that I’m questionably OK with. It’s technically on the right side of my arbitrary line, but keep in mind that the numbers are extremely approximate.

That was assuming the entire average meat intake was beef. If it’s pork, the number is instead
(.72 lbs/day)(1 pig/140 lbs)=5.14 pigs every thousand days. Wikipedia says 4-12 months for the age at slaughter, with animal rights sites rounding off to six. (5.14 pigs/1000 days)(180 days/lifespan)=.92 pigs at a time being farmed for the average American. Or .46 pigs and .48 cows, or whatever other distribution if you eat more than one type of meat.

It’s pretty much the same as the number for cows, but remember what it’s not saying. That number does not mention the fact that pigs are being farmed and killed off faster than cows. These numbers are about the number of animals suffering at a time, not the number of animal deaths. For the second thing, I’ll refer you back to the awesome chart.

If it’s chickens instead,
(.72 lbs/day)(1 chicken/5lbs)(42 days/chicken)=six chickens being farmed at any given time. Notably, this has more of a margin of error than the cows and pigs did, since I said I was fine with up to ten.

Numbers on turkeys were less Googleable for some reason, but it seems like they’re about five times the weight of a chicken while alive, and 2-2.5 times the age at slaughter. In which case, the average American’s meat intake could be satisfied with only about three turkeys being tortured at a time. If, like me, you care about poultry suffering somewhere on the order of a tenth as much as cattle suffering, this is where the best deal is.

Personally, I don’t average anything like .72 pounds of meat a day. I don’t keep track (probably should), but I’d be shocked if it’s above .5. With the numbers multiplied accordingly, I conclude I don’t need to become vegetarian until someone corrects my assumptions.

I am going to eat more turkey, though, as compared to the other meats. I wasn’t expecting one to be significantly more acceptable than the others, but may as well take advantage of it.

Ten sonnets

I asked for people to tell me some philosophical positions which I’d then write sonnets in favor of, because taking requests is much more fun than just writing. Here’s every sonnet I’ve written so far, in more or less chronological order.

Request: Dualism.

If my beliefs were wholely chemical,
I’d have no reason to suppose them true.
I cannot hold that process credible
Which need not tell me one and one is two.
A physicalist’s brain cannot include
Such abstracts as “emotion,” “reason,” “fact.”
But merely microscopic clockwork. Who’d
Believe a theory where belief was lacked?
As anyone who’s been a human knows,
Your mind-states have subjective qualities.
Though physics’ scope has been far overblown,
Mere atoms have no mental properties.
If you can disagree with all of that,
Then tell me what it’s like to be a bat!

Request: Deontology

Morality comes from obeying rules
Of duty, obligation, and good will.
To treat another person as a tool
And not an end cannot their ends fulfill.
The proper rules are universalized:
If everyone obeyed it, would you keep
Consistently the maxim you devised?
If not, irrationality runs deep.
The acts of moral worth are only those
For which the agent freely does decide
To trust their reason when it duty shows.
And use that reasoned duty as their guide.
To make exceptions from the rules you want?
The only answer then is no you Kant.

Extra sonnet: Regular Utilitarianism.

Morality must live in this our world
And work to help as much as can be done
By satisfying preference in full
And sacrificing those of few or none.
The trolley problem’s switch, proponents say
Will save the most from underneath the wheels.
To those who will not press it shall I say
The four lives saved can far outweigh your feels.
Though cold and calculating it may seem
To weigh the good of one and find it small,
To implement such average-helping scheme
O’er iterations benefits us all.
Though fiction’s villains cite “the greater good,”
So too the volunteer who donates blood.

Request: Rule Utilitarianism.

As all utilitarians agree
Utility, not duty, we fulfill.
To help more people, as I’m sure you’ll see,
Is more important than the mind’s “good will.”
Yet if you think, you’ll find rules have their place.
Since human reason biases infest
If we ran calculations case by case
Utility would be far from its best.
We’d all rob banks to give to AMF
And murder organ donors right and left.
But since to Rules we aren’t completely deaf
We stick to strong heuristics like “no theft.”
The rightness of an act comes from the rule
From which it came. Thus spoke John Stuart Mill!

Request: Whether 1+1=2. (This request was itself a sonnet, which is awesome. But I didn’t ask if I could copy it here, so I didn’t.)

There’s no one claims that in arithmetic
The sum in question’s not precisely two.
The problem’s whether we would be too quick
In saying that it’s absolutely true.
But if the universe itself obeys
The rules that we derive math’s statements from,
Our theorems, from Hairy Balls to Bayes’,
Must all still follow from those axioms.
It cannot be shown true beyond all doubt.
No argument is infinitely strong.
But if it’s only false in worlds without
Noncontradiction, I’ll not say it’s wrong.
Unless you can contest Peano’s tools,
Then all the cosmos bows before math’s rules.

Request: Transhumanism.

The human lot is not immutable.
There was a time when humans lived in caves.
That we’ve progressed is indisputable
With words we read, and medicine that saves.
And we ourselves have capabilities
Beyond the things innate to humankind.
Eyeglasses, and external memories
In books or hard drives. From the human mind
Come more and more improvements on the state
Of nature. As we heal the sick and blind
And seize control of our own human fate
Why should we stop improving our own lot
By the techniques that humankind has wrought?

Request: Immortalism

By all the tenets of the humanists
We value humans’ goals and agency.
Transhumanism says that that persists
Beyond the normal contexts that we see.
As one case, over decades we lose health:
A fatal curse we can at best delay.
But we oppose all mandatory death:
No minds and bodies should be forced to fade.
Our life span might increase with no fixed end
As our technology advances on.
If you’d endorse the limits nature penned
Then tell it to the ghost of smallpox gone!
And know that in the past few centuries
We’ve more than doubled life expectancies.

Request: Is science socially constructed?

To be constructed means that science could,
(Contrary to perception) possibly
Have not existed in some other world
With very different books of history.
The scientific method just describes
A way of learning facts empirical.
But many different nations, tongues, and tribes
Have known things with no tests statistical.
While Thales, Bacon, Ibn al-Haytham may
Have helped the world by starting science on,
It could have also not been made that way.
But that in no way makes our science wrong.
A world deprived of science would be one
Where knowledge and accomplishments are gone.

Request: Solipsism

It seems to me I think therefore I am.
I can’t imagine that might not be true.
But I can’t know if all the rest’s a sham.
Most possibles of me don’t have a you.
Consider then the famous Boltzmann brain.
He pops into existence, has a thought,
And then he dies. But ere he wanes
He thinks he all of history was taught.
I’ve seen the Matrix—I know that he could
In that brief instant think himself on Earth.
But by a quirk of physics, I conclude
Of brains that aren’t like Boltzmann’s there’s a dearth.
Once I decide my sense can be misled
I’m probably a brain without a head.

Request: Italian sonnet, theory of forms.
Request: Should we keep helping pandas mate even though they are too lazy to reproduce just because they’re enormous cute fuzzballs?

We say that we have knowledge; it is true
That we can comprehend particulars.
Instantiations are familiar.
But universals—Can we look on through
The sky or sea and see the Form of Blue?
Or something that, though thought inferior,
Is the Platonic perfect lump of fur
Perfection that most likely knows kung fu?
The answer’s that our knowledge is informed
When things to Forms are somewhat similar.
Not many things on earth are absolute.
But pandas are ideal! It’s been confirmed:
We ought to help them mate because they are
The Form of The Enormous Fuzzballs Cute!

How to run indefinitely and breathe underwater in three easy steps

Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor a professional theologian, and all information is from Wikipedia. I’m not even Catholic.

Let’s assume you’re a distance runner or some other kind of endurance athlete, and also the Pope. Since low oxygen is the limiting factor on how long you can keep running—even if you’re Pope—increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood when it gets low will increase your endurance.

Here’s how.

Step zero: Become Pope.
Several people have accomplished this throughout history. It is therefore doable.

Step one: Water to wine.
As Pope, you get to abuse your power. One of the better-known possible miracles is turning water into wine. Nowhere in Catholic theology does it say that the Pope can do miracles at will, but come on. Just look at that hat.

As it happens, slightly under half your blood usefully carries oxygen. The rest is water. That’s what you’re going to turn into wine.

Warning: This will kill you. You’ll wind up with a BAC of five. Not 0.05. 5. It’ll depend on the wine, but we’re somewhere in the territory of “legally intoxicated, and multiply that by sixty.” Some lucky people have been known to survive a BAC of 1, but you’re way past that. So you’d better do the next step quickly.

Step two: Transubstantiate.

To do this, it is necessary and sufficient to say “this is my body, this is my blood.” The alcohol poisoning would kill you, of course, but it probably won’t kill you instantly. So you can squeak out a couple words and the wine goes away. This is where the good part happens.

The blood of Jesus is often described as “scarlet” or “crimson.” Those are both bright red colors, and bright red means highly oxygenated. Neither of those is applied to the relevant blood by the Bible, but scarlet is the official color according to the Catholic Church. So if it’s the Pope doing it, then by golly the blood is going to be oxygenated.

According to the best source in the world, if you run until you’re exhausted your blood may contain as little as 15% of its maximum oxygen. You just transubstantiated a bunch of fully oxygenated arterial blood already in your body. Adding more arterial blood won’t change the saturation of oxygen in your arteries much (that stays above 95% anyway), but it will in your veins. So, for purposes of numbers, all oxygen percentages from here on out refer to its saturation in venous blood. (To clarify, the percentage is relative to how much oxygen the blood can hold. It’s not saying that scarlet blood is literally made of 99% oxygen.)

The blood in your veins isn’t normally that oxygenated. Having just come from dropping the oxygen off where it needs to be, it’s typically down to 75% at rest. In your case, half your venous blood is even lower than that and the other half, which normally contains none because it’s water, is instead at 98-99% because it’s the scarlet blood of Christ.

Your venous blood is at 55% oxygen saturation, which isn’t great but it’s far better than before you did the miracle. Unfortunately, that’s still dangerously low over the long term. Luckily, there are still some tricks up your sleeve.

What you’re doing is called blood doping and is banned from most sporting events. Of course, usually people do this by giving themselves transfusions of their own blood so they can hold more oxygen on game day. Simply creating the blood has not yet been banned. Technically.

Doing this has some obvious problems. Your blood is half water for a reason, and if you’re turning that half into regular blood, and the quarter that’s still watery into blood, and the remaining eighth and so on, then you will 1) eventually run out, and not have any water left in your bloodstream to turn into oxygen-bearing blood, and 2) die. It’ll get thick and unwatery enough that your heart won’t be able to pump it. The trick we need is a miracle to turn blood back into water.

Surprisingly, this is never explicitly done by any Biblical prophet or, as far as I know, Catholic saint. But we can sort of infer that Moses did it: In Exodus 4, God gives him the at-will abilities (for purposes of proving he’s a prophet) to turn his staff into a snake and back, his hand leprous and back, and water into blood. There’s no “and back” stated, but, you know, parallelism. Therefore you the Pope, as Keeper of God’s Authority on Earth and Wearer of the Really Cool Hat, ought to be able to turn blood into water.

(You may ask why, if Moses could do the transformation both ways, we’re bothering with the wine step at all. The answer is that he had to pour it out to turn it to blood and you’re not in a position to pour out the water you want to transmogrify. Also I didn’t think of him in time. MOVING ON.)

Step three: Blood to water.

Use this on two thirds of the blood in your body. After you’ve done the transubstantiation thing once, your blood is ¾ water where it’s supposed to be ½. This just resets it to normal thickness, but it doesn’t change the fact that you tripled the concentration of useful oxygen in your veins. You have now completed a cycle.

In order:

Regular blood: 50% water, 75% of venous oxygen capacity.
After running as long as you can: 50% water, ≥15% oxygen.
Water to wine: 50% wine, 15% oxygen.
Wine to blood (remember, blood is half water and half useful stuff): 25% water, 55% oxygen.
Blood to water: 50% water, 55% oxygen.

The other problem is that this amount of oxygen, while high enough that you’re not about to collapse, is low enough that over the long term you’d need medical intervention.

So you do another cycle: 50% wine, 55% oxygen saturation.
Wine to blood: 25% water, .5*55+.5*98.5=76.75% oxygen.
Two thirds of the blood to water: 50% water, about 75% oxygen.

That means if you run until a marathon runner would drop and then you do two cycles of this, you’ve got as much oxygen going to your muscles and organs and things as you would while sitting in an armchair. And there’s no reason you have to wait that long. You’ll get less extra oxygen per cycle if you do it more often, but you don’t exactly have a limit on how many times you can do it.

Let’s go to the extreme. If you do this continuously, you can replace breathing.

A given blood cell, if it’s going all the way down to your toes, can take 20 seconds to leave the heart and lungs and come back. Let’s give you ten, since most blood doesn’t have that far to go. If you completely replenish the oxygen every ten seconds, it will be every bit as effective as the usual situation with lungs and everything.

The only one of these that takes actual time is the transubstantiation step. You need to say “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” but the Church has placed no limit on how long you need to take to do that. Or in what language: If you’re underwater and don’t want to have to exhale, you could use any of various sign languages.

That would allow you to stay alive and active, without breathing, as long as you want to. Of course, there has to be a catch. The catch is blood type. You’re turning the wine in your bloodstream into blood, but it’s Jesus’ blood. According to the Catholic Church, Jesus’ blood type was AB. (Seriously! They have an opinion!) So if you have a different type, this will kill you.

Of course, you’d need the ability to perform miracles in the first place. And if you’re Pope, you’re probably surrounded by devout and vigilant people who would frown on the idea of using it to give yourself superpowers. You’d have to get away from the spotlight before going out to fight crime as Aquaman, and has anyone seen Benedict?

Long-distance teleportation is hard, you guys.

I was not expecting this to be this hard.

The question is: Given only teleportation and no other superpowers, can you reliably travel transcontinental distances without instantly dying?

The reason it’s hard is that the point you start from and the point you end at are not stationary relative to each other. The Earth is rotating on its axis. It’s also revolving around the sun and whirling around the galaxy and for all I know it’s disco dancing through the cosmic microwave background, but the rest of those aren’t relevant.

Here’s why the earth’s rotation is a problem, helpfully explained in comic form:

Little did Calvin know that if he ever invented teleportation his life would depend on this very thing.

The point toward the middle of the record is a point toward one of the poles, closer to the axis of rotation. The point on the edge is a point on the equator, away from the axis. They’re moving at different speeds. Say you’re in San Antonio, and you teleport to Mexico City. Well, Mexico City is moving seventy-eight miles per hour faster than San Antonio. The nearest wall rushes you at 80mph from the west, and I don’t like your chances. And that’s two cities that are pretty close together.

But that’s with cities that are basically on the same line north to south. If they’re not, then it’s both more complicated and way more dangerous. Places at different latitudes are moving at different speeds, but places at different longitudes are moving different directions.

Suppose this diagram represents the earth, with us looking down on it from above the North Pole. (This is in fact exactly what it represents.) The earth rotates counterclockwise around its axis, which is helpfully labeled A. There’s nothing at point C; don’t bother going there. It’s spinning counterclockwise: If you’re at point D then your current movement is directly left.

Your speed is based on your latitude: at the equator it’s about 1080 miles per hour, where I am in Los Angeles it’s about 895, at the North or South Pole it’s zero. So if you’re at point D, you’re moving to the left very fast. If you then teleport to point B, you’re still moving to the left very fast. You smash into the earth instantly and die.

The obvious solution is to teleport to the point precisely ninety degrees east of you. For instance, from B to D on that diagram (Just pretend they’re ninety degrees apart.) Then the direction you’re currently traveling in is straight up. You go up, eventually gravity turns you around, and you come back down into the middle of the Atlantic. Bring a parachute and a life raft. Or, if you’re Indiana Jones, just a life raft.

This doesn’t work. Partly because the very fast speeds in question are in fact faster than the speed of sound. You’re not surviving that. More importantly, even if you do use that trick, it just cancels out the momentum you already had. It doesn’t get you moving in the direction Point D already is. Stopping only helps if you’re aiming for one of the poles; you need to match the speed and direction of your destination.

OK, next obvious solution (spoiler: this one doesn’t work either). You can try to get to the point 180 degrees across from you like this: Teleport 90º east, as before. You fly up. When gravity remembers to pull you back, you start falling. Note that, if you started at the bottom of the circle, you are now on the far right, and “falling” means falling left. At some point before you hit the ground, teleport straight up and keep falling. You speed up, gaining 22 miles per hour each second. (I’m starting to regret not using metric for this post.) Eventually you’re moving at the right speed. Since you’re already going in the right direction, you can now safely teleport to your destination. (This can get you to one of two points: The farthest point on Earth from where you started, or the point that corresponds to that one but on the other side of the equator.)

Except that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because of one of the most annoying things in the history of physics, air resistance. Human terminal velocity is around 120 mph, and you can’t get much faster than that while falling through air on earth. Depending on where you want to go, you might need to be moving several times that.

So you do it from higher up, outside Earth’s atmosphere. On the bright side, there’s no air. It won’t interfere with your attempts to speed up. On the less bright side, there’s no air. If you know enough to not hold your breath, you’ll survive with no permanent damage for up to ten uncomfortable seconds. But by fifteen you’ll lose consciousness, presumably lose your ability to teleport, and then die. So let’s keep it under ten seconds of vacuum exposure.

Unfortunately, this can’t work. Earth’s gravity can give you 22 miles per hour extra speed for each second you spend in freefall, but you only have ten seconds. Say you’re falling at 120 miles per hour the regular way, then get another 220 from doing that insanely dangerous thing for ten seconds. That’s still not fast enough. If you’re aiming for somewhere equatorial, you need to be able to reach 1080 mph.

The problem here is that Earth’s gravity can’t accelerate you enough. (And no, you don’t get to bring rockets with you.) So, it’s time for another obvious solution: Teleport to Jupiter! This involves some major headaches, because it turns out that your departure and destination cities are not actually in the same orbit as Jupiter. So now we actually do have to think about position relative to the sun as well as position relative to Earth’s axis.

The plan is the same as before: Teleport to a specific point above Jupiter. Spend up to ten seconds letting its gravity pull you toward the planet. This will never take more than ten seconds thanks to Jupiter’s gravity; exactly how long it takes depends on how close to Earth’s equator your destination is. Pick the point above the planet in such a way that the line from where you are toward Jupiter is the vector that will, in a few seconds, make your velocity match the velocity of your destination. Once you’re going at the right speed in the right direction, teleport to where you want to go. You’re travelling at insane speeds, your destination is travelling at insane speeds, and if you did the math right then you’ll match up perfectly.

We can’t always do this. Earth and Jupiter are moving at up to 100,000 mph relative to each other depending on the time of year, and it would really suck if you forgot about that and burned up in its atmosphere. In order to avoid complicated math, let’s say you only do it when Earth and Jupiter are moving along parallel lines. This happens about twenty-two times every twelve years.

With the two planets moving in the same direction, or in directly opposite directions, you just have to pick the time of day when that direction is the vector you want. (Or, once again, the exact opposite direction.) Then you teleport directly in front of or directly behind Jupiter, get the velocity to match your target city, and there you go. Because “teleport interplanetary distances instantaneously and use a gas giant’s gravity to change your velocity at 10g for a few seconds in hard vacuum before teleporting back to the planet you started from” is totally a reasonable thing.

Cleanliness is next to COOKIE!

A Facebook friend of mine posted a question about whether, under the Levitical law, Cookie Monster would be considered a clean or unclean animal. This is a surprisingly arguable question.

Both sides agree that it is highly unlikely that there is a specific exception for Cookie Monster one way or the other. Aside from the exceptions, the general rule in Leviticus 11:3 is that an animal is usually clean if it both chews the cud and has cloven hooves.

Start with the part about the divided hooves. This is a difficult question due to the fact that Cookie Monster is in fact a puppet. The most common portrayals of the mythical beast have no legs at all, so we may have to make a guess about the biology of the animal itself.

Since Sesame Street doesn’t answer this important theological question, there are other options. Consider another creature from the same source:

See those hooves? They can’t get more divided than that. And if the great and powerful wizard Frank created such a being once, it’s reasonable to suppose that the same applies to Cookie Monster. Not certain, but at least reasonable.

Here the opposing side may interject that that’s not a fair assumption. This is serious business, and we don’t want to hazard an answer based on a guess. Besides, simply from looking at any of the Cookie Monster toys that have been sold it is obvious that at least some people think the species has feet, not divided hooves. But those toys are apocryphal, and their canonicity is disputed. The short answer is that we don’t know whether Cookie Monster has hooves, but there is a factual answer even if we don’t know it. It could reasonably go either way.

The other requirement refers to how a creature chews its food. Whether Cookie Monster’s method of eating cookies counts as chewing a cud is a subject of intense debate among theologians. The phrase used in most contemporary English translations of Leviticus is “chews the cud,” which is far too specific. While Cookie Monster’s method of eating does not fit the strict definition as used by modern biologists, we don’t really care about the current definition.

In fact, mentioning a cud at all is a bit of a mistranslation. Cud-chewing is what ruminants do, where they swallow their food, regurgitate it back into their mouths, chew some more, and swallow it again into their nuclear-powered adamantium extra stomach. That is not what cookie monsters do. But it’s not what rabbits do either, and Leviticus 11:6 clearly states that rabbits count.

According to the people who argue about this kind of thing, one of the Hebrew words in question is “ma‘alat,” meaning “chew.” In the Hebrew, it’s a participle form of the word ” ‘alah,” an extremely broadly used word meaning “to bring up.” (Allegedly, anyway, I don’t know Hebrew and this is coming from people with a vested interest in Cookie Monster being considered clean under this verse.) Supposedly ” ‘alah” is used in pretty much any context: Raise a sword, raise a child, flood a river, even carry a box horizontally.

The other word is “gerah,” meaning something along the lines of a thing that has been chewed.  Literally it means something that scrapes the throat, which clearly does happen when Cookie Monster eats a cookie. This word never appears in any other context, so there isn’t a lot of information on it. But it’s clear that a cow chewing and swallowing, then unswallowing and chewing some more would definitely fit this description, hence the cud translation.

The standard argument is that rabbits count as cud-chewers for the purposes of the book of Leviticus because they engage in a disgusting-to-humans process most politely referred to as—pardon my Greek—caecotrophy. Eating the same matter twice is apparently enough to satisfy the requirement of “bringing up the thing that has been chewed.”

And if that’s a small enough stretch to be reasonable, then Cookie Monster definitely counts as well. The proof is seen in this documentary footage of a wild cookie monster’s mastication process. Almost every crumb of what gets chewed gets brought up, thereby ending any debate.

See? Absolute proof.