My favorite tweets

The four tweets I have designated as favorites on Twitter, the first because I teach property law and the others because they are sublime:

@ShitMyDadSays: “‘The dog don’t like you planting stuff there. It’s his backyard. If you’re the only one who shits in something, you own it.  Remember that.’”

@DalaiLama: “Noticing a single shortcoming in ourselves is far more useful than seeing a thousand in someone else. When it is our own: we can correct it.”

@DalaiLama: “The nature of our motivation determines the character of our work.”

@TychoBrahe: “I overheard my son in his room:  ‘I know you’re just fabric and stuffing and plastic,’ he said. ‘But you’ve been a wonderful friend to me.’”

I submit these four tweets alone justify all the social capital invested, sometimes wasted, and diverted into the production of Twitter.


Reason is nothing without the sensation of it. Absent emotion, we’re just thermostats, inert. When feeling is drained, and our everyday is drawn over us like a tight sheet, we lose the desire to push further and the sense to know whether we have. Because that’s what it is and what people too often deny: creating something new from reason is all about the feeling of it. Even down to the “pure reason” of math. And I keep thinking of David Foster Wallace’s “horrifying billowing black sail at the edge of perception,” one of Infinite Jest’s lasting images and the purest portrait of a hellaciously tormented mind. I can’t truly empathize with it, but like most of what he wrote, it gives me a window into what it must be like out at the further edges of things, and it also stands for something much more basic. The desperate fear of being rendered inert. A pearl.


It’s difficult, but I’m trying to avoid using the blog as a running commentary on my favorite 5by5 podcasts. I’ll indulge this time, though, because John Siracusa’s rant on what’s wrong with Wikipedia raises an illustration of a broader problem I’ll write about in an upcoming post on the freedom of speech. For now, I want to add something that I think Siracusa intuited but did not say. As always, it’s about the institution, not the rules per se.

The gist of the rant, which begins at about the hour mark of the podcast, is that Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion probe a fact’s verifiability, not truth value. If you know a fact, you are not permitted simply to assert the fact in a Wikipedia entry. If a fact is published in a “reliable source,” then you can write that fact in a Wikipedia entry. Siracusa points out the various ways that this approach and the other criteria, like notability, which are similarly biased towards appeals to authority rather than truth, undermine truth seeking.

What Siracusa did not say, but which I think he intuits, is why these rules are the wrong fit, institutionally, for Wikipedia. He argues, and I agree, that Wikipedia’s rules seem calculated to appeal to exactly the kinds of people, older school teachers and librarians, who now discount Wikipedia and forbid reliance on it even as they allow other tertiary sources like encyclopedia. Whether that was the intent, the rules do seem to replicate those of the encyclopedias that Wikipedia has, in fact, made obsolete.

The trouble is that verifiability criteria are a solution to the institutional problems of encyclopedia editorial boards. These problems are not those of the free-market-style collective that builds Wikipedia. Encyclopedia editorial boards were, of necessity, limited to a small-ish group of people. The challenge is to ensure that such boards are good agents of the readers, meaning dedicated to accuracy and free of undue bias. By restricting inclusion to information verifiable elsewhere, readers have a means to hold encyclopedia producers accountable. After all, the biggest danger in a disconnected world in which information comes to us from a small number of gatekeepers is that those gatekeepers will manipulate the information for their own selfish ends. Verifiability is a strategy to deliver the truth given the particular institutional structures that produced encyclopedias.

But that’s not Wikipedia’s problem, at least not to the same extent. Self-interested and misleading assertions need not stand unchallenged. The “marketplace of ideas” has a chance to work on the Internet to ferret out falsehoods that a cabal of editors might have been able to sneak through decades ago. Wikipedia’s difficulty is to govern the commons, to regulate an open market of speakers to produce a high quality result. For this institution, verifiability is perhaps the wrong strategy to deliver the truth.

This is not an argument that Wikipedia should lift all its restrictions and let the market work out what articles are included and what their contents are. Like other markets, speech markets can fail. But that’s the subject of a forthcoming post.


Human beings like to find out not only what people say but why they say what they do. The impulse to search for motivation, I’m guessing, is highly adaptive. In many circumstances, it serves us well. And it even contributes to valuable discussion. When I hear what you mean and not what you say, I’m able to be more generous and more responsive. It’s a tenet I try to follow.

Like most traits, however, the search for motivation has downsides. When we ascribe bad but hidden purposes to our enemies, we start down a useless and destructive road. Most recently, I have in mind the assertion that those advocating a higher marginal tax rate on high wage earners and increases in tax rates on unearned income do so out of “envy.”

I don’t know how often the various political factions engage in motive-fixing. I feel it most acutely when conservatives ascribe to me reasons for my positions that I know I do not have. And it’s not only in politics. I’ve been lumped in as a purely status-conscious computer consumer on account of my longstanding use of Apple gear. In reality, I’m a nerd, not someone trying to adopt a look or posture by my choice of nerd equipment.

So what of this “politics of envy” thing? Obviously, I can’t say that everyone who advocates for higher top marginal rates does so for reasons unrelated to coveting the privileges of the wealthy. I only know for sure that I am not and never was so envious of such things that it led me to advocate for forcible redistribution. Many people would prefer to acquire more wealth, sure, and a salutary social goal is to increase everyone’s wealth. But just because someone would like to make more money does not mean that they are so jealous of those who already do that they want to seize that wealth for that reason.

That the public advocates for more progressive taxation are not motivated by envy strikes me as so obvious that I, naturally, wonder at the motivations of those who suggest they are. But this takes us further down the road from debating the actual question in front of us. Once we start the motivation war, I’w swept in. Frankly, I think the “envious of the rich” message bearers are of two types. First are those who know it’s bullshit but need the appearance of an argument that has emotional appeal. They need this so that cable news can present the debate as having two sides and therefore a matter of opinion rather than an analysis of facts. They need it also to check the impulse of the struggling to complain about their lot. To do so, the envy-propagandists assert is to be truly sinful. Nothing keeps the disadvantaged in line like really making them feel they have a moral duty to stay there.

Second are those who actually believe that progressive advocates are envious of their greater wealth. I suspect that, in many cases, holding that view is a strategy to dissipate cognitive dissonance. The people advocating for taking more of my wealth are envious. They want to be me. On that, they have rights far inferior to mine. So my keeping my wealth is not selfish, as giving it up would not be for a public purpose but only to enrich the looters - and I should decide how I want to help my fellow man. In this way, the idea that some additional redistribution might actually increase the size of the pie in addition to alleviating some suffering is cast aside, and the negative feelings about one’s own selfishness are forgotten.

You see how these suspicions about the motivations of the other side do very little for us? In speculating, I’ve just taken us further down the spiral and away from what’s actually at stake. But how are we supposed to respond to a charge of “envy”? That emotional appeal is just not effectively combatted by sober analysis showing, in a nutshell, that a society is more prosperous, including its rich, when a very broad part of it can comfortably buy shoes, computers, games, food, and other goods. Even if you’re unmoved by appeals to do what we can to decrease suffering, you can surely understand that some distributions of wealth generate greater gains over time, just like some allocations of capital within a firm will promote better growth than others - and that the market may not always deliver optimal allocations.

But the envy-peddlers have sought to turn a policy debate into a base, emotional one. I’m not one who believes emotion should be drained from politics, but calling out your opponent for what you believe is his or her motivation injects emotion in all the wrong ways. I wish we could expunge it from political discourse. As suspicious as I am of the motives of the Republican leadership, I’m going to try to keep my mouth shut about it. What matters is to debate what they say, not what I think their ultimate purpose is.

This is all a somewhat long way to say that in all walks of life that involve disagreement, we need to foster a generosity of spirit. The cost of that is being occasionally played for the sucker in someone’s long game. But intelligent engagement with the immediate arguments is often sufficient to disrupt any such longterm, nefarious plots. And it’s a far better way to live one’s own life.

Anniversary Post: Against True Love

My twentieth wedding anniversary was last week, and we finally went away together to celebrate. Ergo, the lack of posting. While sipping mojitos and relaxing by the beach, I kicked around this post for awhile, but kept putting it away and hating it as pablum. Even if it is, it’s an antidote to other nonsense I used to believe. So here goes. Maybe I can combat, even a little, the dangerous, malformed view under which I labored as a young person. For me, growing up meant gradually letting go of lots of comforting ideas and learning how to embrace reality. This is about one of those: true love.

You’re either groaning because you think true love is such an absurd idea that it’s essentially a straw-man or because you’re pained that anyone would lead the empty life of a romance-atheist. These antipodes, and I’ve experienced the eye rolls from each, are yet another instance of the opposing forces always at play when working out our place in the universe. Is our position privileged or not? And if it’s not, what’s the point?

True love, soul-mates, destiny, all of these are ways of describing a deeply embedded but wildly destructive cultural myth. Your partner is that one person for whom you were meant and whom you really, really love, the one who makes your heart beat faster, the one who is supposed to be so close as to be a part of you. It’s psychologically comforting. It affirms our specialness and provides an aura of security so unbelievably tempting in this life that seems otherwise perilously close to being cast adrift in rough black seas, at night, alone. Even if we don’t believe in the Myth, and most people probably don’t intellectually, we may grasp onto it in dark times. Some days we just need it to be true.

You probably already know all I’m about to say in response and are wondering why I thought it worth writing down. Well, it wasn’t obvious to me as a young person, and I know too many others sabotaged by an attachment to some part or other of the Myth. Our culture, our movies, our music, and our books are filled with it. Marriage ceremonies too often pretend simply to recognize true love’s existence. We’re overrun with the message that love is something that happens to us, that we either feel or don’t. I’m convinced that this belief, even if only subconsciously entertained, causes too much suffering to be ignored.

The answer to the Myth’s seductive promise is to be mindful of reality. There are thousands of people out there with whom you could fall in love. Thousands and thousands. If you were in a boat with forty random people and shipwrecked on an island, you’d probably fall in love with one (or more) of them eventually. The supply of people with whom we could fall in love is vast, and we’ll keep meeting members of this set throughout our lives. Obvious, yes, but dangerous to deny.

For me, love is not faith in the idea that the universe has delivered to me my one, true companion. Rather, it begins with the adherence to a wager, the most important choice I’ve ever made. I’m betting that this single, precious life will be best spent with a single, compatible person. Again, the wager is this: life will be better lived with steadfast commitment to one partner than with one’s devotion lurching from person to person, wherever the sensation of love takes it. I can’t tell you whether this is always the right choice, but it is mine.

Love starts, of course, with biologically-driven infatuation. But the body will keep doing that to you, if you let it. Every time you meet a new member of the set, if you leave open the possibility, infatuation will lay in its hooks and begin to do its work. Part of love is deciding that you will not let this happen, that you will draw boundaries so broadly that you never give infatuation with another a fighting chance to become something more and so broadly that your partner is never asked to wonder whether you’re still together in all this. It’s your obligation to reassure. Deep and whole-hearted sharing of a life, my definition of love, cannot really happen without that security.

I wish I’d understood marriage this way from the start. You grant each other the luxury of knowing that your loyalty will not depend on a day-by-day calculation of competing desires. If you’re guided by momentary calculations of happiness, you’ll sooner or later jump ship. That’s human nature. But together you’ve made the long bet. And once you’ve both committed to that, truly committed to irrevocability, infatuation with each other never really goes away for long.

After twenty years, the love I have for my wife is not at all how it began. My feeling of it is inextricably bound to our shared history. Whether either of us could have been happier with someone else is not a relevant question. That’s a life we didn’t lead. We’re betting not that we’re happier together than we would have been with any other people in the world, but that we’re happier living irrevocably together than conditionally, and thus, in a real sense, alone. Soul-mates are made, not born. And we are soul-mates, because we choose to be.

The power of the Myth of true love lies in the assurance it provides that our seemingly secure lives are destined, that our love is embedded right in the moral fabric of the universe. Life is a story we’re living out, a movie in which we’re the sympathetic hero. But what happens when what you feel isn’t the “outside this universe,” timeless, emotion as the voice of God, overwhelming conviction that you’re in love, when you don’t feel that electric jolt of infatuation for your supposed soul-mate? Well, then how could this person really be your soul-mate? If he or she were, there would simply be no way you could have the feelings you do for someone else. The people in the movies sure don’t seem this ambivalent about the love they find. So your soul-mate must still be out there somewhere, and, obviously, this relationship must end for the next one, the destined one, to begin. But that way lies sadness, because love is not a sensation, but the sharing of your one, precious life. Don’t waste it trying to chase a phantom. Love is yours to choose.

Why You Should Follow European Football (aka Soccer), Even If You're Generally A Non-Sports-Fan Geek Like Me

Let’s say you don’t follow soccer, but you enjoyed watching some World Cup matches. (Yes, I’m going to call it soccer. I usually call it football, and you will too if you get into it. But I’m talking to my fellow Americans now, and many of them will probably already be suspicious that this is some sort of hippy thing without my self-consciously appropriating the name of the Sport That Tebow Plays.) If you’re a fan of other sports, I can’t imagine it will be very hard to convince you that soccer is worth following. So let’s suppose you’re not. Maybe, like me, you watched a sport or two as a kid, but you became a Mathlete and games came to mean either Dungeons and Dragons or Autoduel. Guess what, you’re going to like soccer.

It is indeed a beautiful game, even when viewed as a one-off affair. Matches between top clubs are, in my opinion, even better than those in the World Cup, as the quality of teamwork and concentration of top players can be higher. But here’s the real hook for geeks like me, the key mechanic that absolutely makes the sport: every year a league’s worst teams are demoted to the league below, while the best are promoted to the league above.

Maybe you know something about baseball. Well, imagine that in baseball the worst teams each year went to the minor leagues and the best were promoted to the majors. Now imagine that rather than two such tiers, there were twenty-four. Now imagine that a bunch of other countries had quality leagues and that the very best teams around the world competed in both their own leagues and in a true world series. And now imagine that the games reliably lasted two hours at most and that there was continuous action. Read on.

The game itself

Soccer is really, really simple to understand. There’s a ball. There are eleven players on each side. Your team scores one point every time you put the ball in your opponent’s goal. You can’t touch the ball with your hands or arms, unless you are the one player on your team designated as the goalkeeper and you’re within a box around your goal. The team with the most points wins.

A few more simple rules: If the ball is kicked out of play on the side of the pitch (i.e., the field), a player will throw it in. If it goes out at the end, it will be kicked in from a corner. Each team can substitute up to three players during the course of a game, meaning at least eight players have to last the entire ninety minutes. That’s basically it.

Unfortunately, there are two impurities that make the game a bit more complicated, but it’s unavoidable. First, offsides. In a nutshell, you can’t receive a pass unless the ball or a defender other than the goalkeeper is between you and the goal. It’s easy to understand both how the rule works and why it has to be that way after watching a game or two.

The second impurity is fouling. Action stops, and the other team gets a free kick when you improperly kick, trip, or push an opposing player. The rules are detailed, involve judgment calls, and encourage faking. The gist is that dangerous or repeated fouls (or faking fouls) will lead to the referee’s showing a player a yellow card, a warning. If a player receives two yellow cards, he’s shown a red card and is out of the game. The team must then make do with ten players. Particularly bad fouls, including those preventing goal-scoring opportunities, may bring on a straight red card, and the player’s out without a warning. Also, fouls in the box give a penalty kick, a close-range shot on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat.

The leagues

In each of the top leagues in Europe there are about twenty teams. Over the course of a season, each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away. Winning gets three points. A draw earns one (no overtime). Losing gets nothing. At the end of the season, which typically runs from August until May, the team with the most points is the champion. Wait! What about the playoffs, the championship game!? No, none of that. The team with the most points wins — and it’s awesome. It means that every game of the season matters.

When I say every game matters, I mean that nearly every game matters to nearly every team. This is where relegation and promotion come in. Though it varies from league to league, usually around three teams at the bottom of the table (the listing of teams in order of points) are relegated to the league below. The top three teams are promoted to the league above. In some leagues there are special play-offs for one of these spots. For example, the play-off final for the third promotion spot from the second tier of English football (the Championship League) to the top league (the Premier League) is played at Wembley Stadium and is worth millions of pounds to the winner, perhaps the most valuable single game in any sport. In a league of twenty, there will usually be a good handful of teams competing for the top three spots and another good handful competing to avoid the bottom three. Lots of teams have something to play for right until the bitter end.

The biggest, single prize in European soccer, however, is not winning the league. It’s winning a pan-European league comprising the top teams from the various leagues. You see, the top few spots in each nation’s top league lead to participation in the next year’s European Champions League. The Champions League is played very much like the World Cup, with a group phase in the fall (like a mini-league from which two of four teams advance) and a knock-out, play-off style competition in the spring.

But wait, there’s more. Each country also has a national cup tournament, contested by all the teams in the top few leagues. And all of these competitions — the league itself, the cup tournament, and the Champions League — are all going on at the same time. The greatest honor is to win the European triple, called different things but meaning to win the league, the cup, and the Champions League in a single season. (There are other kinds of triples and doubles and more than one domestic cup competition. Doesn’t matter for now.)

What’s so cool is how, in concept, a rag-tag group of amateurs can build a team that rises all the way through the English league system to win the European crown. And a mighty team can fall through the floor. About twenty years ago, Fulham was in the fourth tier. Manchester City, leading the Premier League as of this writing, was in the third tier in 1998. It’s a high-drama, fascinating system (with interesting economics to boot).

How to watch

You don’t need to understand or think about every competition, every country, or every team. Pick one league, and pick one team in that league to follow. That’s what I did when I started rooting for Arsenal about a year and a half or so ago. (Yep, big newbie here.)

For those in the U.S., the English Premier League is the easiest to keep up with. It’s also quite competitive, with six or so teams in the hunt for the top spot, and features top players. Other excellent leagues are the top flights in Spain, Germany, France, and Italy. Spain features what are probably the two best teams in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Madrid-Barcelona games are worth watching no matter what league you follow. (Unfortunately, they so dominate that the Spanish league is mostly a battle for third place.)

ESPN will usually play a game or two a week (with many European matches on, and Fox Soccer carries far more. I watch online and subscribe to, which is a bit pricey at around $20/month. But by far the best way to get started is to watch a match a week at a local soccer pub. For me, that’s The Royal Peasant, a ten minute walk from my house. Search the web or ask around to find yours. Even for a non-sports-fan like me, it’s a blast to be at the local pub with fans from around the world when a goal leads to cheers that blow the roof off.

Many of the English games begin at 10 or 11 and, remember, last two hours. So it’s a perfect way to enjoy a Saturday or Sunday lunch, without spending hours in front of the TV. I’ve found to be an easy place to check schedules, standings, and results. Don’t get overwhelmed, just follow the results in your team’s league. Welcome to the beautiful game.