Friday, March 30, 2012

Fortune Cookie Morality

For Valentine’s Day at work there was a morale event where they served, among other things, fortune cookies with white frosting and sprinkles. This in itself is a very strange idea, since fortune cookies don’t actually taste good. But what was even more disturbing was the “fortune” I got:

The value lies not within any particular thing, but in the desire placed on that thing.

Okay, first of all, that’s not a fortune. But no fortune cookies have “fortunes” anymore, presumably because they don’t want to get sued by people who follow them. That’s not what’s annoying.

I assume that what they were trying to say was that the amount of value we place on things isn’t necessarily tied to its intrinsic worth – for instance, a diamond ring can’t keep you alive, while food can, but we put more value on the ring.

What we have here is an equivocation – in the literal sense of trying to use two definitions for a word at the same time. The word “value” here carries two different connotations – “perceived value”, or the amount that people value a thing, and “actual value”, the potential benefit a thing can have.

If by “value” the cookie makers mean “perceived value”, then they are not really saying anything at all; they are just stating the definition of “perceived value” – they are saying that perceived value is based on how people perceive something. Duh. That’s so obvious that even fortune cookie designers wouldn’t bother writing it down. So that’s probably not what they meant.

But the only other thing I can imagine they meant was for “value” to mean “actual value”. But then if we use that definition, then what they are actually saying is that perceived value determines actual value. If you believe that, then a car that everyone likes has more worth (actual value) than a person that nobody likes. So with this ostensibly “feel-good” message, you actually end up with an argument that could be used to justify all sorts of horrible acts. And while I don’t think anyone would actually base a moral code on a close inspection of a fortune cookie message, this mentality is actually not that foreign to a lot of modern thinking. You know, the notion that believing something is right makes it right for you.

So who knows – maybe this fortune cookie really is part of a worldwide plot to undermine the moral integrity of humanity. Just in case, please think twice before making a decision based on anything you read in a cheap dessert.

Friday, March 23, 2012


When I first heard about Pluto not being called a planet, I didn’t care much, but it did seem like an instance of scientists getting overly picky about technical terms for colloquial concepts. (This happens all the time in biology – like trying to distinguish between “true spiders” and other spiders. Like it matters – they’re all evil monsters [or as my brother would say, “pure darkness”].) But after listening to the professor in one of the introductory astronomy classes I took in college, I’m convinced. It’s not a planet. It shouldn’t be called a planet.

The beginning of the argument is that there are all sorts of icy rocks like Pluto orbiting the sun beyond Neptune (or crossing its path like Pluto does). They have weird orbits and sometimes become comets. Pluto is the biggest of these Kuiper belt objects, but that’s not really that special. What really convinced me, though, is the matter of Ceres. Have you ever heard of the planet Ceres? I didn’t think so. See, a while ago they discovered a big rock between Mars and Jupiter, roughly spherical and maybe even with some atmosphere. They named it Ceres and classified it as a planet. Then they discovered another rock. Then another one. Then another one. And pretty soon it became clear that Ceres didn’t count as a planet because it shared its orbit with all sorts of random little rocks. The fact that Ceres is bigger than the other rocks doesn’t make us want to call it a planet. It has hydrostatic equilibrium (an awesome way of saying that is has enough mass to smash itself into a sphere), but it hasn’t cleared its orbit of similarly-sized objects. So we don’t call it a planet.

The thing is, Pluto is just like Ceres, only a little bigger and a lot farther away. Yes, it has a moon, but so do some asteroids. So unless you want to lobby for calling asteroids “planets”, you pretty much have to accept that Kuiper belt objects don’t count either.