Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

I started reading Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes while I was in Istanbul last November and finally finished it last week. It’s a really solid and absorbing book, and far too dense and rich with detail to zip through, which is why I read it a dozen or so pages a night over months (it is 600+ pages, plus 200 odd pages of notes and references).

It’s rare for an actual history book, just a straight-up telling of a dense, long tale, to reorient your sense of history. I read my first world history book in high school and have felt pretty well-oriented since then. Books I’ve read since then have mostly served to deepen my sense of particular periods in particular times. They didn’t change my overall sense of history. This one did.

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Storytelling — Philosophical Stakes

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Via the latest issue of Simon de la Rouviere’s excellent Scenes with Simon newsletter, I found a video on good endings by Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, that basically answers the question I explored in Just Add Dinosaurs, where I argued that Matthew Dicks’ approach to analyzing stories in terms of stakes falls short because it leads to obviously ridiculous (to me) conclusions like “Jurassic Park is about Alan Grant’s relationship with children rather than dinosaurs.” In Dicks’ model, the dinosaurs are “just” stakes. In a treatment that’s in other ways very similar to Dicks’, Arndt unbundles the idea of stakes into three kinds: internal, external, and philosophical. He argues that the difference between good and great endings lies in some sort of moral inversion around the philosophical stakes (which not all stories have), and that these stakes in fact constitute the meaning of the story. Without these philosophical stakes, other bits feel mechanical.

In these terms, it’s easy to see what is actually going on with Jurassic Park:

  • Internal stakes: Alan Grant’s relationship with children is flipped
  • External stakes: Hammond’s dangerous scheme of starting a dinosaur theme park is thwarted
  • Philosophical stakes: A world with live dinosaurs is shown to be cooler than one with just fossils

This point is subtly made in the original, with the climactic battle being raptors vs T-Rex, rather than humans vs. T-Rex, and with the ominous shot of the Barbasol can. But it’s in your face with the series arc finale. By Jurassic World: Dominion, we’re just living in a world where dinosaurs in the wild is normal, and the theme park villain is trying to weaponize them. The philosophical stakes are now trying to save the cool world.

So yes, my first naive instinct was correct. Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. Why does an accomplished, champion storyteller miss this point that’s obvious to any narrative-illiterate 8-year-old?

I think it’s because Dicks specializes in telling personal stories from his own real life. In fact it’s a rule of his that’s the only kind you’re allowed to tell in the oral tradition his book is about. You’re not even allowed to tell someone else’s story. So while his theories may be sound for that narrow scope, Jurassic Park doesn’t actually belong in the reference set.

Personal stories are of course very meaningful to those who live them, but let’s be honest: Most have zero philosophical stakes. They may be entertaining yarns with fun external stakes and modest internal stakes, but the nature of reality and the moral dimension of the universe aren’t involved.

This also explains why personal stories mostly bore me. Even my own. If there are no philosophical stakes, I’m not interested. If there are good philosophical stakes, I’m actually fine without either internal or external stakes.

Philosophical stakes are a neat lens. They explain many puzzles. For example the original Toby Maguire Spider-Man worked much better than the Amazing Spider-Man because the philosophical stakes (“with great power comes great responsibility”) are front and center in the former and basically missing in the latter. They‘re front-and-center again in the Tom Holland reboot (“be friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, not Avengers member with all the status and perks and famous friends”). You know it’s the right decision because Tony Stark gives him the fancy suit anyway. The Friendly Neighborhood stakes are apparent in the sequels as well. Even if Holland Spider-Man is fighting cosmic battles in the multiverse, he’s always fighting for friendly neighborhood stakes over Nick Fury stakes. He’s never going to want to be a god even if he has the required abilities (in contrast to Hawkeye who plays cosmic god hero without quite having what it takes, often neglecting his friendly-neighborhood scale life to do so).

History is More Like Science Fiction Than Fantasy

I’ve been slow-reading Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities for months now, ever since I visited the city (on Kindle, so I didn’t realize when I started that it’s 600 pages plus another 250 odd notes). It’s dense and absorbing and I’ll probably do a reflections post when I’m done, but the fact that I’ve stuck with it made me think about how good history books scratch the same itch as good science fiction. The past is an alien planet. They do things differently there. Yet you recognize signs of the same lawfulness in the universe that governs life in your own time. You can feel kinship with people in 18th century Istanbul. Or 6th century Constantinople. Or Trantor in 47,000 AD.

Though history has a stronger cosmetic resemblance to fantasy (the past had actual knights and wizards, and unironic belief in magic), I think it has a deeper kinship to science fiction. Ted Chiang’s much discussed distinction between science fiction and fantasy (he’s made versions of this point in different speeches and interviews but I can’t find a canonical source or quote) makes this kinship legible. He argues that science fiction posits a lawful universe that may have strange laws but they apply to everyone, while fantasy posits a universe that recognizes some people as “special,” with special laws applying to them. Chosen ones. This is the essence of “magic” as the chosen mode of escapism, as opposed to “time travel” or “hyperspace jumps.” I almost made the same point in a 2007 post, Harry Potter and the Concept of Magic, but ended up making an adjacent less provocative and less interesting one.

At a certain level, science fiction is more true than fantasy. The universe really is lawful (though not in ways we might prefer in our idle speculative fancies). The universe really is not magical, in the sense of recognizing specialness in some living beings and responding differently to them.

Aside: I think the appeal of the Three-Body Problem is that it posits not just a lawful universe, but an inconveniently lawful one. Instead of fun affordances like time travel, the universe lobs 3-body chaos and dark forest shittiness on its living beings. Not only is nobody special, everybody is actually worse off than we imagine because the universe is lawful in a shittier way than we imagine. It’s a sort of hyper science fiction.

Good history may not offer clean-edged lawfulness, but it at least obliquely suggests a universe that’s some mix of noisy lawfulness and path-dependent arbitrariness. There is no room for magic. There is no room for Chosen Ones. Or Chosen People. Or Manifest Destiny type narratives. While there is of course plenty that is uncertain in any work of history, it is not uncertainty of the sort that opens the door to magic. Despite the desperate belief in magic that suffused Istanbul through the millennia, the city never actually enjoyed the workings of magic.

In good history books, as in good science fiction, there are no Chosen Ones. There may be characters who believe other characters are Chosen Ones, but you as reader don’t have to (to really appreciate and enjoy Dune, you kinda have to recognize Paul Atreides is not actually special, whatever the Bene Gesserit nuts and Fremen think, but to enjoy Lord of the Rings, you kinda have to buy into the specialness of elves and wizards, even if Frodo is not that special).

There is a genre of history, if it deserves that label, that resembles fantasy: hagiography. Any approach to history that posits the existence of “greatness” of some sort (Great Man theory, Great Nation exceptionalism narratives, One True Religion, One True Ideology) is hagiography. Unsurprisingly, hagiography sells better than history, just as fantasy sells better than science fiction.

Not surprisingly, I don’t enjoy fantasy much, and can’t stand hagiography at all. To fans of those genres, this probably comes across as some sort of weak-spirited reluctance to recognize greatness or Chosenness, and resentment over my own ordinariness, but that’s really not it. Greatness is simply deeply unsatisfying as a feature of an explanation for anything. It’s a deus ex machina. I’m happy to acknowledge and admire exceptional accomplishments by individuals and groups. I’m happy to admit I’m in the wrong half of distributions of many, perhaps most, desirable traits. I just don’t find explanations in terms of greatness (or Chosenness, or Specialness) to be explanations at all, let alone satisfying ones. In both natural and human laws, if you’re forced to posit two kinds of laws for two kinds of people, you’ve basically failed to make sense of your world. (There are two kinds of people in the world — those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t).

There are kings, knights, gods, saints, and wizards aplenty in Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, but it is not a story about magic or their specialness. There are many characters parading through the book who had “Great” attached to their names (Alexander, Catherine, Suleyman…), but the account of history does not rest upon a presumption of axiomatic greatness possessed by some actors. That many saw them (and continue to see them) as “great” certainly affected the course of history somewhat, but it’s not part of the explanation. It’s not even particularly important as a feature of the story needing explanation.

At most, in good histories, belief in “greatness” helps explain the actions of some actors, just as belief in god helps explains the actions of others. Neither god, nor greatness, is necessary for good history writing, and in fact unironic belief in either on the part of the historian weakens, often fatally, the quality of the history. The effects on fantasy literature aren’t as bad. Positing greatness (or Chosenness or any of many equivalent traits that divide humans into two types based on laws that apply to them) can make for fun narrative premises. Preferring hagiographic histories centered on greatness suggests intellectual weakness to me (the primary failure of Straussians), but preferring fantasy over science fiction seems more like a harmless preference for a particular mode of escapism.

Harberger Tax

It’s always nice to see trails of thought connect up.

An idea I first encountered and really liked in a 2014 Steve Randy Waldman (interfluidity) post has apparently since acquired a name and a more extended provenance. Waldman’s post, Tax price, not value, presents the idea as a LVT/Georgism-flavored solution to NIMBYism enabled by artificially depressed property tax rates like so:

…There is, of course, a much easier way to gauge what a property would sell for: Solicit from its owner a price.

The price at which an owner would be willing to sell a thing has a particularly valuable characteristic. It limits the burden to alternative users of the exclusion in a property right. If the price is set low, a user harmed by exclusion can simply purchase the thing and have at. If the price is set high, alternative users may be seriously burdened yet be unable to buy access.

So, for the sorts of exclusion that do impose substantial burdens to alternative users, a natural policy intervention would be to require property owners to declare a price at which they commit to sell the property (for some period of time), and levy a tax of some legislatively determined percentage against that actual, actionable price, rather than a hypothetical market value. Property owners could pay as much or as little tax as they choose. When they set their price, they face a trade-off, between the risk of being undercompensated for losing the asset if the price is too low, and an exaggerated tax burden if they set a price so high that the risk of sale is negligible or the required overcompensation extreme. The owner is free to choose how much she values certainty of continued ownership, but she must pay for that.

The price set by the property owner might constitute an option to buy for all comers, or just for the state. (I’m not sure which would be best. What do you think?)

Posner and Weyl talk about essentially the same scheme in Property is Only Another Name for Monopoly and trace it to a 1965 paper by Arnold Harberger (which has a Latin American context/motivation — something about LatAm seems to encourage economics experimentation; probably US economists operating under moral hazard in authoritarian labs?). They’ve since written a book about such ideas I’ve been meaning to read, Radical Markets. The idea seems to be becoming increasingly popular in the Ethereum world as a way to actually set real prices in meaningful markets.

Schemes like this tend to be too simple, but in a good way. Starting incentive and mechanism design from a radical core can lead to meaningfully radical systems. A formula can beget revolutions. Vannevar Bush’s introduction of indirect cost support, the Black-Scholes formula, Vickrey (second-price) auctions come to mind. And if we’re lucky in the future, ranked-choice voting etc.

But for a scheme to have such potential there have to be mathematical rather than merely ideological reasons to prefer it. The Waldman idea stuck with me because it suddenly made Georgism make sense. Land-value taxation as such seems simply like non-property owners fighting an ideological battle with property owners. Tax income or wealth? Where you stand depends on where you sit. How much of each you have or expect to have. But Harberger tax? That elegantly threads the needle with a certain mathematical doomsday logic.

For the record, I’m not a pure Georgian/LVTist. The idea that all wealth derived from property stinks of mercantilist zero-sum thinking to me. I’m too Schumpeterian for that. I think wealth is a process not an asset. But Harberger tax… there’s a there there.

A naked Harberger tax would probably have all sorts of unpleasant consequences, but as the kernel of a more complex scheme, hmmm. A good formula is like construction material. You still have to learn to build with it. What can you build with Harberger taxes? Here’s a website I just found that seems to have some ideas.

Protocol Entrepreneurship

I’m running the Summer of Protocols program for the Ethereum Foundation again this year. Here is the Call for Applications. I’d appreciate any help getting it in front of the right candidates. The core of it is what we’re calling Protocol Improvement Grants (PIGs): 90k for a team of two to work on improving a real world protocol (any kind, technological, social, organizational) over 4 months. We will be awarding 5 PIGs. We anticipate this is going to be tough because we’re trying to catalyze a new category of entrepreneurship: Protocol entrepreneurship. It exists in the wild of course, but naming and characterizing a wild pattern of behavior is often the first step to consciously cultivating it as a learnable capability that can be refined and systematically made more powerful.

I’ll be unpacking the concept a bit during a live information session on the program next week (Wednesday at 9 AM Pacific; details here). Attend if you’re interested in applying to the program, or even just curious about this idea of protocol entrepreneurship. In the meantime, here’s this Venn diagram I made for the short talk I’m prepping.


There is also a small grants program: 20 development grants of $1000 to work on a creative work, such as a short story or comic, that might “protocol pill” people. This is the PILLs program: Pill Incepting Lore and Literacy.

I can tell already this year is going to be much tougher than last year, since we’re trying something much more focused and ambitious and there’s the additional challenge of meeting and beating the standard set by the pilot year, which turned out very well. We’re effectively trying to speedrun the pioneer –> settler –> town-planner evolutionary trajectory. But if it works, the outcomes should really be worth it.

In case you missed my various posts about it in other places, the pilot Summer of Protocols program was an open-ended exploratory effort to map out the territory. You can read the research output as it is published here, and if you want to go deep you can request one of the limited number of Protocol Kits with printed copies of all the research (they’re not for sale; we’re distributing them for free people/organizations who might help drive the emerging protocols scene forward).

Wish us luck (“us” is a small team; besides myself, it’s Tim Beiko and Josh Davis of the EF, plus Timber Schroff and Jenna Dixon). We’re going to need it. And do forward this post to people you think might be a good fit for the program.

Storytelling — Just Add Dinosaurs

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Narrativium

In a previous part, I covered the storytelling model of Matthew Dicks, who specializes in live, spoken-word competitive storytelling from real life. He has a theory of stories I found deeply unsatisfying: That the essence of a story is a moment of character change where the protagonist changes in an important way from the way they were. Everything else is “just stakes.” His key example is Jurassic Park, and according to him, the story is about Alan Grant flipping from disliking children to liking them. Everything else is just stakes. The dinosaurs are just stakes.

I don’t know about that. I think the story is about dinosaurs. That doesn’t mean Dicks is wrong. Dinosaurs might just be the stakes in Grant’s story, but Grant’s story is not the story. I think the problem is caused by the adjective “just.” Most literary writers, storytellers-from-life like Dicks, and writers in genres like romance are enormously interested in ordinary human life, including their own. Everything revolves around ordinary concerns, especially ordinary human relationships. But these writers don’t particularly feel the need to throw dinosaurs into the mix to create sufficient stakes. Not only are ordinary lives interesting enough, they supply enough of their own stakes. This says more about the personalities of the writers than the world.

A lot of storytelling in speculative genres on the other hand, seems to feel the need to introduce dinosaurs. By which I mean any outlandish stakes-increasing element. Time travel, FTL space travel, aliens, magic, wizards, and so on. Occasionally literary writers do this too, though they seem to feel more of a need to code in symbolism projecting back to ordinary life.

But why might you need dinosaurs for their own sake? No Freudian symbolism. No deep morality tale about not messing with genetics. Just… put in dinosaurs because dinosaurs are cool.

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My Post-AI Writing

I was asked in a DM conversation whether I use AI for writing, and I said no, it would be like going for a walk in my car. The only people who seem to directly use AI for writing are people who don’t write for pleasure, but have to write a lot of functional, business-like things that are too varied for boilerplate templates. The sort of writing that might require intelligence or expertise, but which doesn’t offer much pleasure or creative challenge to the writer. It’s an instrumental sort of writing.

Which is not to say AIs can’t do creative writing. I’m only saying that people who enjoy creative writing purely or mostly for the process itself have no real use for AI assistance. To a lesser extent this seems true of coding as well. A lot of the use I’ve seen is for the tedious bits. And as with writing, that’s not to say AIs can’t do creative coding requiring insight. But people who code for fun probably have less use for it, though I suspect “copiloting” is likely more fun with code than writing.

The more the ends matter more than the means, the more AI is helpful. If you like flying a plane, a copilot just cuts in on your time at the controls. If you’re just trying to fly somewhere, you’re happy to let the copilot fly. For me the “ends” of writing barely matter at all. It’s all about the means.

Can AIs enhance creative satisfaction of exercising the means? I imagine so. I can imagine an assistant that I explain my goals to, and it acts like an improv partner, perhaps writing every other sentence. I suspect ChatGPT can already do this well. But that’s a different creative process I’d have to learn to derive satisfaction from, like learning to go rowing as a substitute for going on walks.

But AI has had an indirect positive and enjoyable effect on my writing: It has made me lower my craftsmanship standards, which were never very high to begin with. This is one reason I’m writing a lot more this year. The causal chain from AI is subtle, and AI is not the whole explanation for changes in my writing, so let me try to unpack the part that is.

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Matter and Life

Two articles about matter and life have been on my mind for a while. The first is Life Helps Make Almost Half of All Minerals on Earth, in Quanta magazine. The second is this article in Nature, Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass.

We rarely think about matter as a first-class subject of philosophical inquiry, the way we do space and time. Or about the divide between non-living and living matter except through the lens of the presumptive specialness of living matter. Physics, in a way, has been a centuries-long exercise in trying to subordinate matter to time and space (and more recently, waves, fields, and information which are all spatio-temporal flavored abstractions). Non-living matter, of course, likely comprises the vast majority of all matter, even if the universe is teeming with life. But life likely accounts for the vast majority of the variety in matter. Stars make all the heavier atoms when they go supernova (a fact that some people make way too much of). But then when you get to molecules, I suspect most molecules are either themselves organic, or have their macro-structures shaped by life. The Quanta article is about minerals and rocks, which we don’t think of as organic matter — and they’re not in compositional terms, since they’re not complex carbon compounds — but in a procedural sense, which seems more fundamental, they might be. And we’re not just talking simpler examples like sand being made of sea-shell powder or oil from ancient marine organisms. It looks like lots of rocks are shaped by life. Basically half of the material variety you see around you is connected to life and its cycles.

The Nature article takes it one level of abstraction higher. The built environment is also shaped by life. We normally focus on the spatio-temporal; aspect, the geometries and the lifecycles, but consider the material aspect of the majority of the built-environment mass:

  1. Concrete
  2. Reinforced concrete
  3. Asphalt
  4. Glass
  5. Metals and alloys

None of these materials are “non-living” per se. Some, like metals, wouldn’t exist in pure-ish form in an oxygen atmosphere without life. We find pure-ish metals in meteorites of course, but on a planet, except for a few precious metals like gold and silver, pure metals don’t exist. And even the precious ones don’t occur as bulk masses. Arguably reinforced concrete is an “organic” material — a composite that wouldn’t arise in matter without life.

Speaking of oxygen, that too of course, only exists in free form because of life. Several natural cycles of simpler atoms — oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, calcium — are pumped by life. Without life, the cycles of these atoms would be pretty dead (heh!)

Of course, pure non-living processes help. Life as we know it can’t form without tectonic activity starting the churn.

The point of this discussion is that where life exists (based on our n=1 case) living matter is a significant phase in the cycles of all matter, perhaps even the dominant phase. We often talk of life as though it’s a fragile bit of material poetry that is alienated from, and in thrall to, the far vaster non-living processes of matter, but it isn’t. We talk as though the processes of life are less powerful than those of non-living matter, such as wind, rain, or earthquakes. They’re not. Life punches in the same weight class as non-life where the two touch. We should think of “life” as a material-energetic-spatial-temporal phenomenon with the same sort of raw, irresistible power as wind or waves. We say earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but we could say, with equal justice, life to life as the karmic destiny of non-living matter. Under the right conditions, non-living matter can no more resist the irresistible tug of life than living matter can resist death. We lament that there have been half-a-dozen mass extinctions on the planet. We might equally say, there have been half-a-dozen mass vivifications of non-living matter.

Yes, “life” is a lower entropy (but higher-information) more complex emergent state, so non-living matter is in some broad sense “lower,” but the Earth, bathing in the rays of the sun, is not a closed thermodynamic system. Entropy-increase is not the defining feature of life and non-life on Earth.

This macro-scale balance of power between the forces of life and non-life seems to me at least as important as the specific details that define the boundary, like the structure of viruses (which are between living and non-living). I suspect we need a science of macro-scale life comparable to the science of weather. It will be to virology what weather is to basic statistical mechanics.

There are two practical reasons to be interested in the philosophy of matter and life today. The first is climate change. The second is computing.

We talk of the Anthropocene as though life reshaping non-life is “new” but it is as old as geology; as old as sand and free oxygen. We have to get our terms of reference right to think straight about climate action, or as I prefer to think of it, terraforming 101. What’s new is life consciously embracing its material nature and its entanglement with the non-living beyond the mere cosmetic layers of “built” environments. Our material natures run deeper than our inclination to build things.

The materiality of computing is perhaps even more consequential. Computers are, as the line goes, “rocks that we zapped with lightning and tricked into thinking.” I find the fact that you can skip life altogether and make “thinking” a property of all matter — living or non-living — to be more interesting than the fact that the “thinking” can be “intelligent.” It seems to take life to get matter to “thinking” states but this is just a limited perspective. This is more like the fact that it takes life to produce free oxygen than it is a fact about technology and invention. Non-living processes first produced life that produced thought, but that thinking in turn gave rise to new kinds of rocks that can think.

But more than these practical concerns, I think there is a deeper point here about the materiality of life and the vivifiability of matter. Our estrangement from non-living matter, with which we are so obviously entangled at all scales by powerful processes, is the perhaps the last bit of our anthropocentrism (or biocentrism rather) that remains to be broken down before we can truly feel at home in the universe. We are not in the universe, we are the universe.

We’ve already embraced our spatiotemporal nature. We aren’t in space, we are space. Our bodies have volumes; they have extent. Crushed too close together, bodies flow like fluids. That’s what a “stampede” is. We don’t exist in time, we are time. Memories are life and those are just another face of time.

Curiously, it’s been harder for us to achieve this sort of explicit, conscious awareness of our material natures. Many science fiction writers handle space and time well. Few handle matter well (Iain M. Banks and J. G. Ballard come to mind). Many artists do amazing things with space and time through audiovisual media. Materiality has been a harder dimension of life to explore. What’s the Mona Lisa of density? The Beethoven’s Fifth of porosity? (I find most modern explorations of materiality in the fine arts rather underwhelming compared to explorations of space and time). Much of our sense of materiality has remained at the level of craft (weaving, pottery, metalwork) and unexamined felt experiences (have you ever wondered much about “solidity” the way you’ve likely wondered about “time”?). Matter is hard to intellectualize, perhaps because variety is its very essence, especially when life gets involved. Platonic geometry is a very successful philosophical abstraction of space. Music is a very successful philosophical abstraction of time. But earth, fire, water, wind, ether kinda misses the point of matter. The point of matter is variety. Which is, in some ways, the antithesis of abstraction. To try identify 5 “basic” substances is to miss the point.

And life is perhaps just matter’s way of creating more varieties of matter, which makes it even harder to think about, because that just seems to make the variety explode even faster.

Civilizational Functionalism

For much of history, the grand narrative of civilization, such as it is, has been viewed in terms of capital-P Purpose. Life on earth supposedly has a Purpose. Until modernity, that Purpose was generally understood in religious terms, which meant it was understood in incomplete-by-design ways, with the most important bits of the Grand Design driving the universe to strive towards that Purpose being hidden from view beyond the veil of death. We could only guess at it through mythologies of afterlives, karmic cycling, Judgment Days, and so on. Your part of the Divine Design was to serve the Purpose by living out a small-p purpose driven life, with the two being connected by a shared positive-valence quality called Good/good. You served the Greater Good of the Grand Design by striving towards your small-p purposes doing small-g good, which fed the larger Purpose. Doing so generated Meaning and meaning.

This is all conveniently unfalsifiable, self-serving, and self-soothing. Which is one reason that when humanity discovered Science! it took care to retain that unfalsifiability in new Purpose narratives that rejoiced under a new label: Progress.

I find this whole scheme rather an insult to the intelligence. Is there a better way to understand whatever larger-scale coherence civilization has, and how it aligns with any small-scale coherence we may experience in our lives and actions? I think there is, and the key to it is the word function.

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Poison-Depilling Problems

Occasionally, we all find ourselves attracted to what we might think of as poison-pilled terms (by analogy to poison-pill clauses in contracts or pieces of legislation). Terms that point to interesting and useful ideas but fatally compromised by a) political baggage, b) unsound analytical provenance, or c) plain distastefulness of associations.

Subjectively, a poison-pilled term feels like the right term for a thing, coined in the wrong place, by the wrong person, for the wrong reasons. Where wrongness is of course relative to a presumption of our own rightness.

Assuming we are not sufficiently persuaded by the power of the term to change sides on the underlying issue, or operating definitions of rightness/wrongness (that would be a powerful term indeed), we are then faced with a poison-depilling problem.

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