Words with doubles give me troubles

Here is a list I’ve been maintaining for myself for a few years now:

  • successful
  • occurring
  • acceleration
  • vanilla
  • corollary
  • Jennifer
  • accommodate
  • appalling
  • embarrassing
  • beginning
  • Renaissance
  • happening
  • questionnaire
  • recommendation
  • tomorrow
  • etiquette
  • graffiti
  • terrific
  • necessary and necessarily
  • traveling
  • Caribbean
  • committee
  • commitment
  • committed
  • commission
  • commodity
  • interrupted
  • palette
  • modeling
  • asymmetry
  • occurrence
  • my colleague Mubbasir (who says he gets Mubassir regularly (i.e. not just from me))
  • dissemination
  • assessment
  • Moroccan
  • satellite
  • reconnaissance
  • possession
  • accessible
  • vacillation
  • palette

You’ll notice that most of these have a double. This says something (to me) about how we (I) encode words. I seem to be sensitive to whether a words has double letters or not, but not where they go or even how many pairs of doubles there are. The result is that even if you a word has doubles, it’s often tough to remember where the double goes (Is it “grafitti” or “graffiti”?), and also to know if a word should have one pair or two (“graffiti” or “graffitti”?). Call this a heterophenomenological dispatch from my head to yours.


This entry was posted on Monday, May 21st, 2018 and is filed under lists.

Words with dundant or fluous fixes

Words that aren’t opposites

  • real — unreal
  • canny — uncanny
  • valuable — invaluable
  • credulous — incredulous
  • fact — fiction (this is actually a deep one. Roots of both are in proto-indo-european words for “to make”)
  • mure — demure
  • vert — invert
  • aging — imaging
  • pact — impact
  • mediate — immediate
  • predate — postdate
  • toward — untoward

Prefixed words that aren’t words and don’t have prefixes. Some of these are words that aren’t opposites because one of them isn’t a word.

  • ert — inert
  • molish — demolish
  • venient — convenient
  • dundant — redundant
  • fluous — superfluous
  • becile — imbecile
  • agining — imagining
  • plicate — replicate
  • gruntled — disgruntled
  • sidious — insidious
  • whelmed — overwhelmed
  • rageous — outrageous
  • cursion — recursion
  • imburse — reimburse
  • burse — reimburse
  • fluous — superfluous
  • cilious — supercilious
  • quited — requited
  • quited — unrequited
  • vagant — extravagant
  • bolé — hyperbole
  • bolic — hyperbolic
  • luctant — reluctant
  • hap — mishap
  • pugnant — repugnant
  • dolent — redolent

Also, words with redundant prefixes, and

  • reiterate — iterate
  • concatenate — catenate
  • intercatenate — catenate
  • encompass — compass
  • eminant — preeminant
  • perception — apperception

Other fixed words whose meanings don’t correspond to those of their bases

  • irrespective
  • consummate
  • insure
  • ensure
  • fulsome
  • remiss
  • relax
  • reply
  • reflux
  • reflex
  • convent
  • effable

This post was formerly “Words that aren’t opposites,” but it’s bigger now. Obviously, there’s room for more.

See also, islands that don’t exist, and list of fictional guidebooks.


This entry was posted on Monday, March 20th, 2017 and is filed under life and words, lists.

Stop, look, and listen: A tour of the world’s red crosswalks

My favorite thing about traveling is the little things. And with Google’s Maps, you can celebrate those without going anywhere. Here are “stop walking” signs from cities around the world.


As expected, Europe has a lot of diversity, particularly Switzerland:

Geneva, Switzerland has this skinny person
Lucerne, Switzerland has a lanky Giacometti type
Zurich, Switzerland also goes lanky, but a little more of the Age of Aquarius, Platonic ideal, smooth edges, hard ideas style that you get in that city.

More of Europe:
Berlin, Germany is v. different.
Vienna, Austria, which put these up during a recent Eurovision contest, gets the prize.

Oslo, Norway means business!
Stopping and going, Brussels, Belgium has style

North America

The huge US is depressingly homogeneous, especially in comparison to the much smaller Switzerland. Maybe there’s a monopoly in the US traffic-light market?

St. Louis

Zooming out to the rest of North America doesn’t seems improve things, though I admit I could have looked harder.
Montreal, the least Anglophone Canadian city, deviates from the US mold by only a bit, by hollowing out the hand. It’s “walk” guy is better though — I’ve got a picture of one below.
I pathetically couldn’t find any lights in Mexico City and haven’t checked other major Mexican cities, though I’m guess that border towns at least will look American.


In Africa, I tried Addis Ababa, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, and even Cairo, but Google hasn’t shot any of them. I only found Streetview in South Africa. Here is Pretoria

East Asia

There is also very little Streetview in China. I tried Beijing, Shanghai, and a few other Chinese cities. All I found was Hong Kong. I guess that by the time we come to envy China for not having been scanned, Google will have them scanned too. China has over 200 cities of population over 1,000,000. There are only 9 in the US that big. Other parts of east Asia, like Japan and South Korea, are much better.
Hong Kong is realistic enough to automatically have its identity fizzed out by Google’s algorithms.
Tokyo, Japan. Looks like a worker. I was told that, in Japanese, the word for jaywalking translates to “red light, don’t care.”
Seoul, South Korea

South Asia

I didn’t have any luck finding lit crosswalks in south Asia, but that could be my problem.

Southeast Asia

In southeast Asia, I only looked in Manila, which only recently went up on Streetview in the past year I think, but they mostly only have crosswalks in their upscale neighborhoods, and, in-line with the USA-philia over there, those few look very much like the American ones

Middle East

In the Middle East (and outside of Israel), I only found usable intersections in Dubai, whose lights look like the Swiss ones above. Only connection I can think of is that that’s where they keep all their money

Israel has more. Here is Tel Aviv. Pretty manly, right? Wait till you see Sao Paolo.

South America and Latin America

South America is also very diverse. I only looked a bit, and many cities are unscanned, but it seems that there is a lot more interesting variety there than in other parts of the world. In fact, you can find different lights in the same intersection! In Santiago you’ll see a silhouette of the “walk” light — sprightly fella — and a more generic “walk” light guy walking in the other direction. These two really are from the same intersection.
Santiago, same intersection, walking guy walking the other way
Bogota, Colombia
It looks like Sao Paolo, Brazil has a burly burly strong man. I can’t figure out if the crookedness adds to or subtracts from his apparent virility.

“Walk” lights

“Walk” lights are harder to catch in Streetview than “stop”s. That said, I got a not-bad collection of those too. The lessons above stick: the US is homogenous; variety happens elsewhere. And, outside the US, the walker tends to be green and walk to the left instead of the right.
London, UK
Moscow, Russia
Tokyo, Japan
Seoul, South Korea

If there is some important cross-walk of the world you think I really missed out on, I’m happy to add more.

Words whose acronyms take longer to pronounce

  • WWW
  • WWII
  • WTF
  • maybe any acronym with W in it, possibly no other acronyms

Oh, just thought of an acronym with a W that might be an abbreviation of its source: WWF. Theory-wise, this phenomenon should be a puzzle for researchers who assume that efficiency is an important factor in language change and evolution.


This entry was posted on Saturday, June 21st, 2014 and is filed under life and words, lists.

A list of things I wanted to know in July 2013

  • the biology of mushrooms
  • the mathematical methods of physics: how to wreak havoc on equations
  • the name and history every plant I step on
  • when we should have decentralized control, when we should have bosses
  • the contributions of statistical physics to social science
  • more theoretical neuro
  • more theoretical bio
  • more theoretical ecology
  • how to evolve modularity, and how modularity evolved
  • birds by their songs
  • more about soil ecology
  • how palm wine tastes differs in every country that you can find it
  • every Mediterranean climate in the world
  • the influences of Greco-Roman culture that elicited Christianity from Judaism
  • the cultural histories of Heavens and Hells
  • how to never lie to myself unintentionally
  • how to keep changing forever
  • how I’ll change when I leave this town for the next
  • why there aren’t more worker-owned businesses

FYI, I don’t know yet.

Enfascination 2013

29742_396066756605_704462_n“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King Jr. in a great endorsement for humility, curiosity, and discovery.

On Thinko de Mayo, from 1PM, you will have five minutes to help us see how dangerous we are. You may share anything at all during your five minutes, as long as you personally think it’s fascinating. Your goal is to transmit your sense of fascination to others. FB page: https://www.facebook.com/events/498466006869981/

If the constraints of themes help you brainstorm, try “Science towards nescience.” But generally, you should trust yourself. If you manage nothing more than five minutes of wobbling, inarticulate, ecstatic blubbering then Well Done: You have successfully expressed the unfathomable depth of your subject.

This is the ten-year anniversary of these lectures –– ten years since I attempted the world’s nerdiest 21st birthday kegger. This will be the fifth and probably last in Bloomington. Ask me for help if you’ll have slides or a demo.

Past topics have included:
Slide Rules, Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Twee, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Infant Visual Perception, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, The Paleoclimatology of the Levant, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies.

Last year’s audio:
And video/notes from before that:


UPDATE post-party

Here is what happened:

  1. The Tiger Café by Ronak
  2. Jr. High School Poetry Slam by Lauren
  3. The “Border” language by Destin
  4. Perception/Objectivity by Paul Patton
  5. Readings from James Agee by Jillian
  6. “A signal detection theory of morality” or “The morality manatee” by Seth
  7. Dreams and the four candies by Danny
  8. Pick Two by Adam
  9. Trust and Trust Experiments by Jonathan

Never too smart to be very wrong

A lot of my life choices and habits of thought have been devoted to never letting myself get permanently attached something that’s wrong. That would be my hell, and I think that there’s always a risk of it. Somehow there is no being humble enough. As an exercise for myself, and as an illustration of the risks, I went on a hunt for examples of famous scientists who got stuck and went to their graves as the last major holdout for a dead discredited theory. I figure I might learn some of the signs to watch for in myself.

It has been one of those things where you don’t fully understand what you’re looking for until you find it. The understanding happens in the process of sifting through lots of examples that you thought would fit and finding just one. Slightly different from what I described above –– the existential to my universal –– is the otherwise-incredible scientist who proposes a batshit theory that never catches on. There are lots of those, and they’re listed separately. I value them less because, well, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the subtle differences between superceded theories, pseudoscientific theories, fringe theories, and unscientific theories. [Ed. It took me a day, but I’m interested in the difference between attachment to a superceded theory and to a fringe theory. I’m focusing on the former, and I think its more dramatic.]

I found other side-categories over the course of refining my main list. There are enough Nobel Laureates going off the deep end that they get their own section. There are plenty examples of experts adopting wacky views outside their area of expertise. I also eliminated lots of potentially great examples because the scientist’s wacky commitment was one that was reasonable to believe at the time –– take physicist Einstein’s discomfort with quantum mechanics, anatomist Paul Broca’s affection for phrenology, and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson’s pretty violent and unreasonable dismissal of plate tectonics.

There are also people who flirted with a crazy idea but didn’t let it get the better of them and those who, while they believed crazy stuff, didn’t accomplish enough for me to say “this person is way way smarter than everyone I know.”

I did my best, and I learned a lot, but I couldn’t research all of these totally thoroughly. If I had any doubt about someone’s being in the “way too smart to be a paleo holdout” category then I put them in one of the less impressive lists.

The vast majority of these examples are from other people’s brains. The branches of the taxonomy were also influenced as much by people’s comments as my own here-and-there experiences of dissatisfaction. Biggest thanks to Micah Josephy, Finn Brunton, Michael Bishop, all the people here, and at less wrong.

“I’m smart, but I will never stop believing in this wrong theory”

The most interesting cases are where a contested theory became consensus theory for all but a few otherwise thoughtful holdouts, like:

  • Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle who never accepted the Big Bang.
  • Biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who campaigned against vaccines
  • Physicist Heaviside against relativity.
  • Physicist Phillipp Lenard against relativity, thanks to Nazi Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Johannes Stark against relativity, also from Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Nikola Tesla against relativity.
  • Tesla against other chunks of modern physics.
  • Chemist Joseph Priestley‘s sustained defense of phlogiston.
  • Statistician and biologist Sir Ronald Fischer‘s rejection of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.
  • Physicist and early psychologist Ernst Mach‘s rejection of atoms! (and relativity). He was arguing for a very subjective philosophy of science well after Einstein’s pre-relativity work to confirm the kinetic theory of gases.
  • Biologist Peter Duesberg‘s rejection that HIV causes AIDs, and his advocacy of alternative causes like drug use.
  • Biologist Trofim Lysenko‘s rejection of Mendelian inheritance, thanks to Michurinism, the Soviet Lamarckism.
  • Psychologist B. F. Skinner‘s rejection of the idea that humans have mental states (from his books, like About Behaviorism; This is cleverly falsified by Shephard and Metzler’s wonderful 1971 experiment).

Honorable mention

These people, despite their notability, didn’t make the list, either because they saw the light, because they weren’t a scientist, or because they are part of an ongoing controversy and might still redeem theirselves. Erdös and Simpson make it because of how badly behaved they were for the short time before they realized they were wrong.

  • Mathematician Erdős and the simple elegant Monty Hall problem. He was adamant about the solution until he was proven wrong. In fact, an embarrassing chunk of the professional mathematics community dismissed the female who posed it until they were all proven wrong. Recounted in The Man who Loved Only Numbers.
  • George Gaylord Simpson’s violent attacks on plate tectonics. Bad form Gaylord. He accepted it when it finally became consensus (p. 339 of this).
  • Florence Nightingale on miasma theory and always keeping the windows open in the hospital. She doesn’t make the list because she’s not really thought of as a scientist.
  • Psychologist Daryl Bem’s recent work on psi phenomena might count towards what I’m after, if the recent failures to reproduce it are definitive and Bem hasn’t recanted.
  • Recently, Luc Montagnier mingling in homeopathy and wacky autism theories (Nobel mention).
  • Maybe this is too political of me, but I’m going to add Noam Chomsky’s rhetorical maneuvers to make his linguistic theories unfalsifiable.
  • René-Prosper Blondlot and N-rays. Thanks to Martin Gardner, he’s usually considered to have taken these to his grave. He was deceiving himself, but I’m guessing he probably recanted after the big embarrassment.

“My pet fringe theory”

There are lots of examples of an otherwise good scientist inventing some crackpot theory are swearing by it forever.

  • Linus Pauling on Vitamin C (that it prevents/cures cancer) (Nobel)
  • Linus Pauling on orthomolecular medicine (Nobel)
  • Similarly, Louis Ignarro on the positive effects of NO on your heart (Nobel)
  • Physicist Gurwitsch on biophotons
  • While working on radios, Marconi was apparently v. predisposed to thinking he was talking to Martians
  • William Crookes on “radiant matter”
  • Ernst Haeckel’s pet continent Lemuria
  • Wilhelm Reich’s pet power Orgone
  • Tesla may have gone over the deep end for wireless energy transfer
  • Physicist Albert Crehore and the Crehore atom, recounted in Martin Gardner’s pretty purple book on fringe science
  • Biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s allout occultism
  • Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson, ESP and homeopathy and PK and cold fusion
  • Carl Reichenbach, chemist, and the Odic Force
  • Physicist Samuel T. Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and of “red mercury” nukes

“Sure I considered and even experimented with this wierd idea but I probably didn’t let it get the better of me”

Another less exciting category for people who redeemed and thus disqualified themselves from consideration above.

  • A lot of early 20th century scientists on established supernatural and extrasensory powers, incl. Albert Einstein, William James, and many more.
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds
  • Maybe Thomas Gold and abiogenic petroleum

“I’m smart and I believed this crazy thing but back then everyone else did too, so no biggie”

These are just people who believed in theories that became superceded, and there are more examples than I could ever enumerate. These are just the ones I sifted through looking for better examples

  • Anatomist Paul Broca and phrenology (covered in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies)
  • Isaac Newton and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and all kinds of other occult topics
  • Johann Joachim Becher and phlogiston
  • Einstein’s and Jaynes’ discomfort with QM
  • Astronomer Simon Newcomb was very skeptical that human flight would be possible, until it became possible. He was probably just being a good skeptic — after all, it is something people wanted to be true.
  • Michelson and aether. He accidentally disproved it and put lots of effort (too much?) into trying to show that his first experiment was wrong. Again, that’s maybe just good science.
  • Mendeleev’s coronium and the abiogenic theory of petroleum

“I’m not qualified to say so, but I’ll insist that this well-established thing in someone else’s field is a crock”

You’ll see that Nobel Prize winners are particularly susceptible

  • Hoyle against the Archaeopteryx
  • Hoyle on microbes from space
  • Lord Kelvin on microbes from space
  • William Shockley and eugenics (Nobel)
  • James Watson and his wackinesses (Nobel)
  • Kary Mullis off the deep end (Nobel)
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen’s controversial approach to autism (Nobel)
  • Arthur Schawlow and autism (Nobel)
  • Physicist Ivar Giaever against climate change (Nobel)

“I’m utterly fringe or worse”

Again, more of these than could ever be listed. These are just the ones I sifted through while hunting for better examples

  • Chandra Wickramasinghe carrying Hoyle’s panspermia flag
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_Wickramasinghe
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masaru_Emoto
  • Andrew Wakefield and vaccines
  • Terence McKenna & timewave zero
  • Cleve Backster & primary perception
  • Franz Mesmer & animal magnetism

Recaps of the Nobel Prize winners

These are the best resources for learnings about Nobel Prize winners going off the deep end

  • http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nobel_disease
  • intelligent design specifically: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/seven-nobel-laureates-in-science-who-either-supported-intelligent-design-or-attacked-darwinian-evolution/
  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/11/23/luc-montagnier-the-nobel-disease-strikes/
  • and two guys not on either source (thanks), Johannes Stark (the other Lenard), and Arthur Schawlow (autism)

Leads I would go to if I was looking for more examples, and also relevant or cool stuff

I’d love to continue to grow this manifest. Ideas welcome.

  • Many medical professionals and focal infection theory
  • Any big names that got caught up in polywater, cold fusion, and the hafnium bomb. I don’t know any.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathological_science
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fringe_science
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_topics_characterized_as_pseudoscience
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_mother_theory
  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/11/23/luc-montagnier-the-nobel-disease-strikes/
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Lilly#Later_career
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Henry_Gosse and Omphalos
  • Chalmers and Searle are dualists
  • The aiua of Leibniz
  • Barbara McClintock’s haters
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharashka and
  • Kronecker against Cantor’s revolutionary approach to infinity

Rock-Paper-Scissors ms. on Smithsonian, NBC, and Science Daily blogs.

This is my first (inter)national press, I’m a little embarrassed to feel excited about it. Its also a pleasant surprise, I wouldn’t have expected it to have general appeal.


The Reesee Cup and other bits of the southern Indiana dialect

“Libary”, “supposably”, and other wonderful nuggets welcomed me to southern Indiana five years ago. I no longer have inSUREance, I have IN-surance. I eventually also learned that the grass needs mowed, the fence needs painted, the dishes need washed, and the car needs fixed and sold.

But the best ones are those that it takes you five years to realize you’ve been hearing the whole time. Natives will ask for a Reesee cup. Tonight I saw a father and daughter walk in. The dad said Reese’s pieces, the daughter said Reesee pieces, both referring to the same thing. I asked about it, and not even they had realized that they were saying it different. Its been getting as far as my ears the whole time I’ve been in the state, but it took me this long to actually let it as far up as my conscious awareness.


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 28th, 2013 and is filed under life and words, lists.

My Awe Talk: Inventors who were killed by their own inventions

Awe Talks are a 5-minute fun lecture series started by my pal Kyle. He asked me to record one, here: http://vimeo.com/59541529

Enfascination 2012

Some things take time, but it only takes an instant to realize that you have no idea what’s going on. This epiphany—every time it happens—is punctuated by the sound of 500 stars around the universe literally exploding, dissolving their planets and neighbors in flaming atoms, in silence. It happens every instant, forever. As right as you were, it’s impossible for you to know how right.

Enfascination is a very tiny event that celebrates the act of being
caught. You have five minutes to share something that you think is
fascinating—that’s the only rule. You will find that the people you
are sharing with are fascinated too, and you will be caught by things
you’ve never thought to catch.

The 2012 Enfascination Lectures
Why: I would love for you to share.
When: Saturday, May 5th, or “Thinko de Mayo,” starting at, say, 5PM.
Where: Probably in the basement of Woodburn Hall, on the IU campus
Really?: Probably, maybe not. I just made this all up now so times and places can change. Check this webpage for updates.

This year’s occasion is my 30th birthday, but this is the ninth year that I’ve been hosting this birthday lecture series. Past topics have included Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies. There is video for some of it, notes for others, collected here.

see you there,

What it means to know things about early Christianity

I’ve been reading a lot about the history of early Christianity, and a lot of the theories and ideas that define it. A lot of the scholarship is totally wild, and a lot is pretty sound; some is both, but its all confusing, because these things get mixed together indiscriminately. It motivated me to create a taxonomy of “knowability” for theories about Christ and early Christianity. The taxonomy allowed me to craft a test by which I judge if a theory is worth taking seriously. For me to take a Bible theory seriously, it has to have more evidence than the suspicious theory that Jesus was a hypocrite and demagogue.

First, the taxonomy. It isn’t exactly a scale, and there is room for overlap and grey. It is still loose enough that two people could put the same theory into the pragmatic or reach categories, so this is currently only a personal taxonomy for establishing one’s own sense or the sense of a community that shares one’s assumptions.

  • Universally know: Assert the truth of. The existence of this type of knowing is justified by faith and only faith. The type of knowledge that good Christians hold for the existence of Christ and God.
  • Humanly know: know as well as its possible to know something (that I’m standing on a floor and its not demons). Beyond reasonable doubt. It can be proven wrong. The existence of Pilate, and of Jews and early Christians in the first century A.D. Probably the existence of Paul. Herod killing all those kids on 0 A.D.
  • Functionally know: Whether theory is completely satisfying or not, you can’t imagine an alternative. Not necessarily a failure of imagination; often any competing theory that accounts for the evidence is much more complicated. Existence of the apostles and maybe Paul. The books of the Torah existed around 0 A.D. and people in the Levant often knew someone who had actually read them. They were acquainted with the lore of those books.
  • Pragmatically know: Probably the best theory. Alternative theories could be maintained by a reasonable person, even the same person—there is still reasonable doubt. Every physicist knows that Newton’s billiard ball mechanics is “wrong,” but indistinguishable from the truth in an impressively wide range of problems. Existence of a Yeshua from Nazareth. Existence of Q document.
  • Reach: Theory could of course be true, but no more plausible than its opposite. Still, one may be more accepted than the other for historical reasons. Birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and then to and fro Egypt—Could as easily have been ad hoc fabrication to satisfy prophecies in Isaiah. I’m putting here everything else that was prophesied by Isaiah, because these are things that people at the time wanted to be true: a Christ will come, he will be killed, resurrected, and seen, virgin birth/immaculate Conception, and he will perform miraculous healings (which have really gone out of fashion in modern Christianity).
  • Fringe: Theory could be true, other reasonable theories are more supported, or better supported. Existence of secret gospels from the first century.
  • Spurious: Fundamentally not knowable except below Pragmatic sense. More specifically, not knowable given current knowledge, and possibly future knowledge. Things prophesied by Isaiah, the existence of secret gospels from the first century. Armageddon happened way back in the first or second century A.D.. Armageddon will happen. Armageddon won’t happen. Mary M. and Jesus were doing it. Mary M. was an Apostle.
  • Wrong (Know not): theory has been falsified. That is, it could always wriggle its way to being true, but there exists current evidence on the subject (itself impressive when it comes to the history of early Christianity), and that evidence speaks against the thing. Infancy gospels were almost certainly not written before 200 or 300AD.

I’ll only warily assert anything into the faith type of knowing, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a luxury reserved for very few aspects of Biblical history. In general, I’m wary to assume that I know anything with more certainty than I know that I’ve got two feet on the ground, and even that is fair to call suspect. Going down the ladder, none of the theories I’m willing to work with can really be proven false, so I’m lowering the bar; falsifiability is too strict a standard for ancient history. Even without it, historians can establish things that are worth trying to establish. So how far down should I go?


Now that we’ve got a scale of knowing things about the history of early Christianity, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and pose a reach/fringe theory that Jesus was a demagogue and a hypocrite. Its purpose is to serve as a criterion for judging other theories, and for establishing the legitimacy (in my eyes) of theories of ancient history. I’ll consider your theory if it is more plausible than the theory that Jesus was merely a human demagogue.

Here is the theory: Demagogues are people who preach a populist message, often to the poor, while themselves living within the means that they criticize.* Demamgogues happen. People want supernatural, and a demagogue can convey that without doing anything impossible. Here is the case that Jesus was living large, using only evidence from the Gospels, the most legitimate accounts of the Life of Christ: getting his hair perfumed, breaking Sabbath by not fasting, the thousands of loaves, the parable for rich people. From this theory it makes sense that he would say he isn’t having wine tomorrow night, and it explains the doting entourages that retrieved him donkey and presented lepers and blind people to him.

This theory is reach/fringe, but it errs on the side of pragmatic. It obviously has lots of problems as a theory, but that’s the point. I think that a more sympathetic read is at least as plausible, but also that a reasonable person could believe all of this.

Whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. It is at least as true as the New Testament case against (for example) homosexuality *. Things I’m willing to work with: I think Q passes the test, also the existences of Herod and Pilate *, even the existence of Godfearers.

These theories that I’m willing to work with are above the border between reach/fringe and pragmatic. That’s the line I’ve drawn in helping myself know what I think.

A list of human universals

This is a list of some of the things that pretty much all cultures have in common. It is drawn from Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct (pp. 413-415), citing anthropologist Donald Brown:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least “one,” “two,” and “more than two”), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not,” “and,” “same,” “equivalent,” “opposite,” general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built a round a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More childcare by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgment of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts.

Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always nondictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites

If that isn’t enough for you, try:
J. Henrich, S. J. Heine, A. Norenzayan, The weirdest people in the world?, Behavioral and brain sciences 33, 61–83 (2010). * It pitches itself as rejecting universality, but in the process presents the best review of robust similarities that I’ve found.

Known self-proclaimed gods

The funny thing is I expected these lists to be longer:
You’ll find more among some of these:


This entry was posted on Friday, February 24th, 2012 and is filed under believers, lists.