Thursday, March 31, 2011


The sign today was:


...which resulted in a complaint by someone to the police, a conversation with the police, and my writing on the back of the sign and putting up:


...which attracted fewer people than I would have anticipated (are students so fearful? are they completely uncurious?). The sign did, however, attract curiosity seekers of different species:

This first sign was up for exactly one hour before I decided to take it down. I did so because two university police officers informed me that if there were someone standing on the Quad near my sign who then said to them that they felt their life was directly threatened by the content of my sign, they would have to take me to jail. (See the complete transcript of my conversation with them below). News of the sign was posted on facebook within two hours of putting the sign up.

Reactions to the messages:

- some agreed that there is value in contemplating one’s mortality

- one guy said he found some of my signs inspiring, but this one he found unpleasant

- two guys walked by, saw the sign, laughed, and said “Cool”

- one guy suspected I made up that the police were called to attract attention to the sign

- one guy suspected nothing was written on the back of the sign

- one girl said, “The police were upset with that sign? It’s just a fact; a philosophical statement.”

- one elderly man said I should have left the first sign up to make a stand for free speech

To those who wanted to see the reverse side of the sign I would first ask: "Do you feel threatened by me?" or "Do you promise not to call the police on me?" or "Okay, are you ready to see some hardcore child porn?" This last question seemed to offend some people.

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 31.

Here is the full transcript of the conversation with the police:

11:53 I see two police officers come out of Miller Hall

11:59-12:31 officers R. F. and A. E. come up to me
- hello - is this your sign? - yes - is this your bag? - yes - could you please take your hands out of your pockets - [i take my hands out of my pockets, and with them my cell phone] - can you show some identification? - i'd rather not - [pause] - do you insist? - [the senior officer indicates wordlessly that he does] - okay; may i record this conversation? - no, you may not - may i take notes? - yes, you may - [i take out my notepad and pen and take down the officers' names and badge numbers and record the time and topic of our conversation; i hand my passport to the senior police officer] you are campus police…- no we’re university police – i’m sorry - do you have any Washington state ID? - no, i do not - are you a resident in Washington state? - yes, i am - you don't have a driver's license? - i don't drive - do you have any other form of identification? - no, i have no credit cards or anything else; i used to have a Washington state driver's license but i let it lapse about 20 years ago - [they give information over their police radios about my passport] - we're here because someone called us saying there was a man dressed all in black threatening that they were going to die - my sign is simply stating a fact - it can be understood to mean you are threatening someone - i have stood here for the past three months with 20 different signs; people know me and that i am not threatening – what kinds of signs did you have? – “DON’T THINK”, “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU” [I deliberately leave out mentioning yesterday’s "BEAT WOMEN” sign]; when I had the sign “THIS SIGN WILL NOT BE SHOWN ON TV”, two university police officers came up to ask me what the sign meant; it was a woman and a black man – we know who they are – they said they’d come on to the Quad because someone was filming something; is filming on the Quad not allowed? [I get no answer to this question]; i keep a blog about the signs that is read on every continent in the world except Antarctica - can we see your blog? - yes - [the quieter officer takes down the address] - please take a look at it - i will - the problem is people can perceive the sign as a direct threat; if there were someone standing right here telling me they felt there was a personal threat to their safety, i would have to take you to jail - but the meaning of the sign is the following: it is a statement of biological fact and is at the same time a philosophical statement; i believe contemplating one's own mortality is extremely important for personal development and becoming happy; in addition, many of the enlightened masters from the Buddhist school began their path to enlightenment with a contemplation of their own mortality - [this seems to be at little over their head of the officer i’m speaking with] - if someone told me they felt there was a direct threat to their safety, in this day and age, i would have to take you to jail - but my intention is not to threaten anyone - that does not matter - then you are saying that the interpretation of what i say is what takes precedence, not what i intend to say - yes, i am [* see Postscript below]- this seems to be a slippery slope: if 400 years ago in Salem i said i saw a star in the sky in the middle of the day i would have been burned at the stake as a witch because that's what i would have been perceived to be - if someone feels there is a direct threat to them, i have to respond - but for there to be a crime, there must be mens rea; you must establish criminal intent on the part of the person being charged with a crime - today when you have people who come on to college campuses and shoot people we have to be especially careful – but you had the man shoot people on the University of Texas campus in the 70s – actually that was in the 50s; the man was taken down by police together with assistance from citizens – yes, i read about that; i guess i should take down my sign if you say you can take me to jail - that's probably a good idea; i'm not telling you to do that; this is a public campus; but if someone perceives the sign as a threat i will have to take action - [at 12:04 i turn the sign around so that it is not visible] can i add a clarification to the sign so that people know it is not a threat? - that would definitely help to let people know you're not threatening them - what if i write something like: "I was informed by campus police that this could be perceived as being a threat and that in order to ensure it is not so perceived I should add this disclaimer to the sign"? - i don't know how you would fit that on a sign - did you receive a call from someone about the sign? - yes, we did; we received a call stating that there was a man dressed all in black threatening them that they were going to die; again, we are not telling you to take the sign down, but if you were to stand out here for another five hours with the sign, my guess is that we would get about five more calls - i don't want to waste your time... - it's not wasting our time; it's our job - can i see the statute that relates to what i'm doing - [they produce a piece of paper] - may i have this - no - may i read it aloud and record it on my phone? - yes, you may - [i sit down on the bench and do so] - please don't think i'm being a smart aleck, but what if i were to call you and complain about myself? - you can't call in a complaint about yourself - i mean i would do it anonymously; i wouldn't say who i was - no, if someone makes a formal complaint we take down their name and number - what about this? if i put a disclaimer on the sign explaining that my intention is not to threaten but to generate a philosophical discussion about mortality, but someone doesn't come up close enough to read it and reads only the "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE" part, can you still take me to jail? - if someone is at the far end of the campus looking at the sign through binoculars and sees the sign, i would argue they could not perceive it as a direct threat...[at this point i decide against asking about a hypothetical situation in which i may have planted a bomb on the campus] all cases for there to be a crime there must be a victim, except in the case of a drug-related crime in which case the society is considered to be the victim - what about suicide? - suicide is classified as a crime - i mean, in the case of a suicide who is the victim? - do you mean after the person kills themselves? - i mean who would be classified as the victim under the law? would he be his own victim? - if someone is standing out here with a knife held to his throat threatening to hurt himself, i will do everything possible to get that person medical treatment - could you tackle him - yes, i would do what i could to get him help - could you, say, shoot him in the leg? - if he was threatening our safety or [with emphasis] your safety, i could use force; it's my job to protect people - if you were a really good shot, could you shoot him in the hand so that he dropped the knife? - again, i'm here to get that person the help they need - can i ask how many university police officers there are? - there are 47 of us, from the chief all the way down to recruits...

12:20 Will comes up, dressed all in black as usual
- [the police address Will] are you connected with this sign? - no, i just came up to look... - so, again, we're not telling you to take down the sign; but if we get a complaint we'll have to come out here again - ok - goodbye - goodbye

12:31 the police leave


With respect to the interpretation of perceivers of forms of expression trumping the intention of the author of that expression...

In 2008 some male students at Colorado College composed and distributed anonymously a flyer they called “The Monthly Bag” that parodied a flyer from the feminist and gender studies program called “The Monthly Rag.” The parody flyer included references to: "tough guy wisdom," "chainsaw etiquette," the range of a sniper rifle, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website The college subjected the authors of the parody flyer to an hours-long hearing and disciplinary letters were placed in their official files. [you can read about the incident here].

In a letter to one of the students responsible for the parody flyer, the Vice President for Student Life/Dean of Students of Colorado College wrote:

”I recognize that your intent in posting the publication was not to threaten but to parody. But in the climate in which we find ourselves today, violence—or implied violence—of any kind cannot be tolerated on a college campus. I believe the issue here is not whether or not you intended to threaten anyone. The fact is that your publication was received as a threat by members of the Colorado College community. The content of “The Monthly Bag,” in particular the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality, combined with the fact that is was distributed anonymously, led it to be received as a threat. As a liberal arts college, we pride ourselves on the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of education, and we support freedom of speech. However, as a private institution, we cannot support forms of speech that disrupt our community to the point of causing members of it to feel threatened or afraid.”

The full text of the letter is here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Message on sign:


March 30, 2011
Within five minutes of the sign going up, two UW campus police officers rode by on bicycles and read the sign. 
- no woman expressed offense to me, though I saw what appeared to be angry looks on the faces of more than a few

- one girl who was not offended thanks to having read the fine print said that, maybe sadly, a sign reading "BEAT MEN" would not be as offensive as "BEAT WOMEN", but a sign "BEAT CHILDREN" would be even more offensive

- one girl came up and told me her boyfriend asked her to tell me he loves my blog; she then dictated the text of today's sign to him over the phone

- one woman said it was prima facie absurd to think that someone would compose a blatant call to beat women, put it on a sign and stand next to it

- one guy called the sign offensive 

- one guy said that he "got" the sign but that it was a horrible word choice

- one guy did not understand if the sign was supposed to be funny; he did not understand the play on words of the text 
- one guy said it is ironic that women would be offended by the sign since it is in fact calling on men to become more like them

- two guys posed by the sign giving the thumbs up sign while their girlfriends took pictures of them

- one girl thought the sign was a call for people to be more "feminist". Do people today not know the difference between feminism and femininity?

Will had the idea of going out onto the Quad with a clipboard and collecting signatures on a petition to have me and my signs removed from campus. We decided that would prejudice judgment on the sign and contradict one of the purposes of the messages on the sign, so we decided Will would survey passersby on their opinions about the sign. One girl's sarcastic comment was: "Well, that's a gentleman." Another girl said: "He must have a God complex." Another girl said she walked through the Quad two or three times a day and had never seen me or my signs before because she always looks down.


Here is a demotivator with the text: "I LOVE BEATING WOMEN...TO THE DOOR SO I CAN HOLD IT OPEN FOR THEM."
Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up with different messages on each side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting."

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 30.


Message on sign:

[in mirror image]

March 29 - March 30, 2011

Opinions expressed:

- the sign is a work of art

- the sign is an aesthetic, ironic, introspective call to reflect on one's thoughts. Because the letters are written in Husky colors, the thoughts you should reflect on are those learned at the university. Because the letters are written in mirror image, everything you learned at the university you have backwards.

- you should come up to the man standing by the sign and express a thought to him, after which he will give you a counter-argument to what you've said, as if your thoughts are related back to you in reverse.

- wherever you may be, your perception of that place and the experiences you have there will be colored by what your own thoughts about it are

- maybe people walking by will think: "How can that guy know my thoughts well enough for them to be reflected there?"

- one girl took the time to come up and let me know my sign was backwards

The "original" idea:

Language is not "owned" by any one person alone. All speakers of that language change the meanings of the words and other composite elements of that language. It is therefore impossible to compose a phrase which would be completely unambiguous. Whatever meaning I might intend the message on a sign to have, the meaning the perceiver infers will depend on his or her own thoughts about the subject of the sign.

Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up with different messages on each side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting."; for the first two hours two men handed out flyers and held a sign reading: "Invisible Children Help Silent War Tonight 7:00 Kane 120 TONY [advertising a film about children abducted in West Africa and forced to fight in wars]"; from 1:15-2:00 the Lyndon Larouche people stood by a table with their literature and signs reading: "END BRITISH OCCUPATION DUMP OBAMA" and "IS CALIFORNIA NEXT? [referring to earthquakes]"

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 29-30.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Message on sign:
March 28, 2011

Opinions expressed:

- one man angrily and loudly asserted while walking by: "YOU are not free. Who are you to tell me I'm not free? I'm free. I'm FREE!"

- "The sign is true. Society sets all sorts of rules it expects us to follow. I want to be free and do what I want all the time."

- "We are not free because we are raised to have certain perceptions of the world which color what we see and dictate how we behave. Most people are not capable of thinking for themselves. They are not free."

- "The sign is true and not true. I can go to class if I want, but I have to do what my parents tell me to do."

- "Yes, we're not free. We're all being tracked all the time. We all have to pay taxes..."

- "We are freer politically than people in many other countries but maybe less free than we used to be. But we have free will, so we are free."

- "I've been reading the book 'What the Buddha Taught' and it says we have no free will. How can we have free will when everything is relative, bound by the before and the after?"

- "I don't understand why people would agree to give up their freedoms to the state? They don't even know they are doing it. They do so with the best of intentions and under the banner of doing good for others, but they don't realize they're giving their freedoms away."

- "Goethe said: 'None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.' It's ironic that if people knew they weren't free, that knowledge would free them."

- one guy walking by said: "Not yet..."

Surprisingly, no one interpreted the sign to mean that no one is free in the sense that each person has some monetary value or worth, or that anyone can be bought, but only at a price.

Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up on the Quad with different messages on either side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting." Near the George Washington statue there were people with signs reading: "STOP CRUELTY TO ANIMALS".

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 28.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Message on sign:
March 14 and 17, 2011
This week was final exam week, so traffic on the Quad was very light. Many of those who spoke with me were Christians (members of the group Navigators) from other universities spreading the gospel and doing good works during their spring break. Therefore many discussions touched on the theological implications of the sign.

Answers to the question, "What does the sign mean?":

- there isn't much time left because final exams are soon

- time is merely a figment of our imagination

- given the increasing incidence of phenomena such as birds falling from the skies dead in droves, earthquakes, financial crises, revolutions, etc., we seem to be entering a time of rapid and dramatic change

- it is a reference to something spiritual, specifically the idea that the end--the Apocalypse--is near, hence the phrase "tomorrow is already [here]". But what then would "yesterday is still here" refer to? 

- it is a reference to something spiritual, specifically the idea that there is a God who is an extra-temporal entity. Thus in the Bible we read "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end." From God's point of view, all of time exists simultaneously ("already").

- it's important to be completely in the moment, to free oneself from the constraints of memory of the past and planning for the future in order to step outside of the confines of time itself

- there is unfinished business we have left over from the past; and the seeds of future events are being sown now, in the present

- "yesterday is still here" means that the memory we have of what has happened preserves the past, and thus it is still with us in that form

- it means "seize the day"; tomorrow could bring us death, and the past should not keep us from experiencing the present moment fully

- one guy was reminded of the George Carlin quote: "There's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past."

Theological and theoretical discussions:

- How do we reconcile the idea that God granted us free will with the notion that God is omniscient? If He--from His position outside of time--knows everything that will happen, is not then everything in our lives predestined? There is a solution to this paradox which would find support from some physicists and in the esoteric literature. If it is true that each time we weigh several alternative courses of action, a portion of ourselves creates an alternate, parallel universe (not unimaginable if one accepts the notion of the infinite nature of God and His creation), everything that could possibly happen already has happened. Where our free will comes in is in our ability and opportunity to choose, from among the infinite possibilities that have occurred, that one which we desire to experience.

- Time is not what we have traditionally thought it to be. There is evidence that it is not an absolute, objective, external phenomenon, but its apparent duration can be altered by our subjective perception if we free ourselves from the societally inculcated habit of retroactively bringing our memory of lived events into conformity with clock time. For example, the passage of time seems interminably slow when a man is waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, and then regrettably seems to pass all too rapidly when he is with her.

- There exists the theory that all moments of time--past, present and future--exist "simultaneously" in some way we cannot yet fathom.

Other signs on the Quad: on March 14 a single-engined plane flew above the campus for about ten minutes in the afternoon trailing a banner that read: "SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC"

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 14-17.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shameful graffiti seen in restroom on UW campus

Below I have documented--with remorse and shame--what I was forced to see while a captive of biological necessity in a stall in a men's restroom on the campus of the University of Washington.


- two drawings of penises urinating (or ejaculating--hard to make out clearly) next to one of which was written: "UDICK" [a clumsy pun on "U-DUB"?]

- a drawing of a guy smoking a joint

- the word "México" inside a "forbidden" sign



"The world sucks"

"USA" [written--apparently by a real patriot--in big letters with stars in them]

"They get the dollar,
I get the dime,
That's why I shit,
On my company's time."

"Smoke weed all day everyday!"

"But do you need to pay tuition?" [with an arrow drawn to the previous message]

"Do a barrel roll"

"Wilco is a very, very good band"

"Neggers" [or: "Naggers" (disgracefully illegible)]

"Oh my god, my shit is fat,
When I said hi,
It said hey right back."

Below I have recorded a chain of graffiti messages that refer one to the other in sequence, but which were arranged visually in a way I cannot recreate using only a text editor.

1. "Weed makes me NOT poop"

2. "therefore potheads
in addition to being grafittists are also
full of shit" [with an arrow drawn to #1]

3. "Hypocritical" [with an arrow drawn to #2]

4. "Coffee makes me poop
Tobacco makes me poop"

5. "on a related note,
drinking coffee makes
my pee smell like
coffee" [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the sentence: "Coffee makes me poop"]

6. "This is very true. Actually the reason
why I'm pooping right now." [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the word "tobacco"]

7. "FACT" [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the word "tobacco"]

8. "(also) pretentious" [with an arrow coming from #7 and drawn to #2]

9. "Smoke salvia"

Numbers 7 through 9 were collectively referenced by an inclusive circle cum arrow to #2.

But by far the most egregious--and freshest--message was:

"Attention grafittists!
You are quoted here:"


Sometime between March 14 and April 1, the graffiti described here was erased, leaving only this now invaluable record for future historians and sociologists...

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Message on sign:


March 2 - March 3, 2011

Credits: adapted from an idea created by Vitaly Ivanov

The weather was terrible these two days so few people came up to talk.

Ideas expressed:

- the difference between you and me is: all of reality. Perception of the world is entirely subjective and your world is therefore completely different from mine. However, if you asked me to answer the opposite question--how are we alike-- my answer would be: "less than you might think." What people want most out of life varies very little even across cultures, races, nations and other divisions.

- one guy spoke of how different his life was before he established a personal relationship with Jesus Christ a year ago

- how do I know you exist and are not dreamed by me; or that I exist and am not being dreamed by you?

Ways mentioned that people can be different:
- bearing
- demeanor 
- age
- experience
- height

Other signs on the Quad: there was a rally near the state of George Washington when I arrived. People held up signs: "UW to UW Wisconsin Solidarity", "Freedom of Assembly"; there was a giant inflatable "fat cat" with a diamond ring on its pinky choking a construction worker. For coverage of the rally go here.

The fat cat choking the construction worker looked like this:

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 2-3.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Message on sign:


FEBRUARY 28 - MARCH 1, 2011

Other signs on the Quad: "Please Give Blood"; a man handed out flyers: "Judgment Day! May 21, 2011/The End of the World October 21, 2011/Does GOD Love You?"; a woman stood on the Quad collecting signatures for a petition to expand Mt. Rainier National Park

Credits: the idea for this sign grew out of discussions with Vitaly Ivanov

Some ideas discussed and thoughts expressed:

- many people smiled when they saw the sign; some shook their heads "No", apparently in response to the question

- some people said the internet does know more than they do. They said they go to sites like wikipedia to get information they need to write papers

- some said they wouldn't want computers to know (or seem to know) more than we do as then we would rely on them too much; for example, a computer might be programmed to catch criminals before they commit crimes (like in the film Minority Report) but make mistakes we would overlook and send innocent people to jail; overreliance on computers could also make us even lazier about learning than we already are; for example, with so much information at our fingertips it becomes too easy to learn

- one person said his answer to the question would depend on whether the "internet" was understood as the connective devices between people or the people themselves contributing to it

- one person said the internet could theoretically know as much as a human being could if we constructed a mechanical model which replicated all the neurological connections in the brain

- one person said the internet knows more than he does, but the individual person who answers his question on Yahoo Answers maybe knows less

- some said the answer to the question would depend on what was meant by "know"; he said the internet could store a lot of information like a library, but that it could not make use of it because it did not have the necessary will, desire or intention 

- most people said the internet does not know more than they do; even if it could contain more information, it could not put its knowledge together with experience to acquire what human beings possess, namely wisdom

- one person made the point that a computer could not know love since love is an emotion impossible to describe; but then again, if a computer did acquire sentience and came to know love, it might be equally (as we are) unable to describe the feeling so we could not know whether the computer had truly learned to experience it

- one person made the point that it is possible to have knowledge about something, or even to be able to do something, like solve a mathematical equation, but that does not necessarily mean that a person understands what they are doing; so there is knowledge and there is Knowledge...

- in any case, the issue is an important one. If computers acquire the ability to take on the tasks carried out by, say, lawyers and doctors, why do we overemphasize rote learning, erudition and the more mechanical intellectual tasks to the detriment of developing the the imagination, creative abilities, the intuition and the ability to apply ethical principles?

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, February 28-March 1.