Saturday, February 26, 2011

Singularity Redux

This is a response to a wonderful post on Elf Army Writes about the Singularity. I was going to leave it as a comment, but as I wrote it just kept on doubling in length until it seemed a bit unwieldy and better suited to be a post of its own. I highly encourage you to follow the link to the Singularity post, but let me try to summarize the contents.

Computing power doubles every 18 months to 2 years, this is often called Moore's Law. It is theorized that, at some point, computers will achieve the computational power of the human brain and begin self-improving, this event is called the Singularity. After this, futurists like Ray Kurzweil believe that we will be improved by the machines, or we will become machines. Dystopian story writers, of course, usually predict we will be subsumed, enslaved, or exterminated by the machines, but I digress. The method that, we predict, a computer would be able to implement these self-improving processes is called a genetic algorithm. A genetic algorithm is allowed to change, or mutate, itself and judges the "fitness" of the resulting program according to some cost structure.

Before we begin, some xkcd levity. Let me start with a pragmatic concern that I have with Kurzweil's work as I understand it. I only read a bit of Kurzweil for my Thinking Critically About Technology course, so I do not claim to be an expert. That said, it is my understanding that the Singularity is set to occur when the computing power of an artificial computer matches that of the human brain, where computing power is measured in the ability of a processor to perform a certain number of operations in a given time. This seems to sidestep the dual problems of architecture and software.

Architecture refers to the structure of the processor performing the calculations. Computers tend to be linear processors, although nowadays most home computers have two processors working together, each tends to do its own thing, so one will keep your game running while the other makes sure your music is playing from a separate program. In contrast, the human brain is massively parallel. Despite common aphorisms, it is not terribly difficult to walk and chew gum at the same time, and you are also breathing, regulating your circulatory system, probably thinking about something, and so forth. Not only are we able to run a truly massive number of processes simultaneously in our brain, the processes interact in our brains, for example, our mood subconsciously affects our mannerisms and demeanor. Suffice it to say that, even if a computer were to have the raw power of the human brain, it does not seem clear that it would be able to harness it to the same effect as a human brain. Writing software to take advantage of parallel processing requires a very different type of thinking than linear processing, and is still considered a tricky problem. Or, to put it a different way, any animal with a larger brain probably has more processing power available to it, but (I think) there is something unique that humans do with their processing power which cannot be explained without an appeal to a biological analogue of software.

Of course I could be wrong, and certainly wouldn't mind finding out that I am, and the Singularity could come right on schedule. I hope it does; it seems like the experience of collaborating with an intelligence that was not human could open up vast insights into ourselves and our place in the world. I like to believe that, if we could communicate with something that had a vastly different perspective, we would obtain a better all around view of our own existence.

As you may have noticed, after the Singularity the interesting questions, to me, become less technical and more philosophical, along the lines of what does it mean to be a person? Before I burnt out Fall semester, I wrote a three part series on the philosophy of consciousness, which is quite relevant to this topic if you are interested. I also recommend the Science Fiction novel Blindsight by Peter Watts; although rather bleak, it deals with the issue of consciousness in a compelling and thought provoking manner.

I would like to conclude with the subject of computers having feelings. The problem of other minds, which I mentioned in my post about the song Poker Face, implies that we don't even know that other humans have feelings, only that they tend to act in a manner that is consistent with how we act when we experience feelings. So, it would not be necessary for a computer to actually experience emotions for us to believe they have feelings, merely that they respond in a manner consistent with our expectations of emotional beings.

This brings me to the terrifying thought with which I closed my second post in the series on consciousness. It seems feasible that we could create computers that mimicked the responses to emotions, but did not actually experience emotions. If we were to replace ourselves with such computer replicas, we would destroy all beauty by forever blinding the eyes of the beholders.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Just a few apologies I have accrued the need to make over the past week. A short post and then to sleep.

First off, and most importantly, I am sorry to Natalie Munroe for caricaturizing her. Reading two of her posts, including the most controversial, carefully, it appears that she does not cuss out her students, only laments that cussing out students is not an option. While I still feel that her behavior toward her students in her blog leaves some respect to be lacking, certainly their behavior towards her, in the comments and the classroom, does the same. Whether or not her behavior was appropriate, it was not instigated in the context of the classroom, nor directly intended for her students, so I do believe her suspension is an inappropriate response, but that is just me. Her decision to remove her blog irks me somewhat, as it appears to admit guilt and simultaneously makes it more difficult to evaluate the furor in an informed manner. It is, of course, her blog to do with as she likes though.

Next, the Wisconsin debacle. The information that I have received indicates that the unions are willing to negotiate and compromise on pay cuts. Their main issue with the proposed legislation is not the cost saving measures, but the parts that are basically a bald attempt to cripple the unions. So, I apologize to the Republicans in Wisconsin for making the assumption that their policy had a moral leg on which to stand.

Finally, to my sister, I apologize for me Facebook status. Your series on relationships is VERY nice, not to mention incredibly brave to write! I stand by the rest ;)

Now, to sleep, hopefully!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Feminism Matters To Me

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." -Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

Although the above quote may be due to the cited sources, I was introduced to it by the wonderful Professor Lani Roberts of the Oregon State University philosophy department. Although it is not yet Feminist July, I want to take a post to discuss what Feminism means to me. I have recently read a series of wonderful posts by various bloggers about what Feminism means to them. You can find them here, here, and here. The first linked was prompted by the second, the second by the third, and mine, in turn, by the first.

In a post last year I wrote that, "[h]ere I am using Feminist in the sense of one who examines the interactions between one's gender and their lives, a more academic sense perhaps, rather than one who simply believes that they [women] are also people." As I note, this is a fairly academic definition of what Feminist, or Feminism, means. Here I hope to make a more personal account.

I want to begin by saying that the first post makes what I personally consider to be a very important point, so I link to it again. In liberating women from the necessity to reproduce traditionally feminine modes of personality and behavior, men too become liberated to more fully realize themselves, rather than attempting to replicate a traditional mold of masculinity. Thus, women's lib is also shy, caring men's lib, among many others' lib, which is of great personal importance to me. Because the first article addresses this issue at such length with great skill, I shall move on without devoting to it the length its importance deserves.

In addition to my own personal liberation, Feminism also means greater security for people that I love. According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, 25% of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and 20% of high school women experience dating violence. The National Organization for Women reports 232,960 instances of rape or sexual assault in the US in the year 2006 alone. According to Wikipedia there were 155.6 females in the US in 2009, so the rapes and sexual assaults in the year 2006 ALONE represent 0.15% of the female population.

I present these statistics not to scare or dishearten, although they certainly do sadden me, but rather to explain the powerful need that anyone who cares about any women in their life ought feel for Feminism. Statistics such as these provide explanation for the traditional notions of machismo, wherein a male would provide security for a select group of HIS females. However, in addition to being demeaning to women's humanity, this model is clearly dysfunctional considering the rates of relationship violence. In order to make the world safer for the women that we, as either men or women, love, it only makes sense to promote a world wherein all women are safer.

In a final note, I would like to preempt any possible deflection toward the plight of men. I am a man, I recognize how full of suck life can be for men. However, unless you can connect increasing the safety of women directly to increasing the injustices occurring to men, bringing it up in this context seems like naught but a feint or distraction, because male suffering neither invalidates nor justifies female suffering.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Car-less, Car-less Life

It is a matter of some personal pride that I have, in my nigh unto eight years off on my own, only driven a car for one summer in order to get to and from work each day. Of course, I was at my parents' home that summer, and driving their car, so it is of some debate how "on my own," I was at that point. I do, however, consider my choice to live car-less to be a good one personally, morally, and environmentally.

I ought not condemn those who make other choices, for it is by their generous sufferance that my lifestyle choice becomes easier. While I receive rides rather infrequently in Michigan, if the possibility of such rides were non-existent, the realm of possibilities for my life would become much smaller. It is not necessary that I avail myself of these potential rides in order to benefit, their very feasibility keeps me from feeling trapped in East Lansing. Of course, when I am in Oregon I receive quite a few generous rides.

My other main mode of vehicular transportation is the bus. In a way, this post is inspired by my sister's on her privilege at being a bus passenger. I must admit that I am a far less frequent passenger upon the bus than I have been in the past, and I am proud of this. But the reason that I am proud is not out of disdain for the bus system, rather I am glad that I am being active and turning unnecessary bus trips into solid walks.

In fact, you might be surprised at just how effective walking can be, if you have no need to transport a large volume or mass of goods. I actually took my first bus ride of the semester on Saturday, having already walked the 4 miles to Meijer (a big store) I decided a return trip via bus was in order, especially considering my purchase of a vacuum cleaner. Before that my previous two bus trips were from and to the airport in Detroit, and according to my bus ticket, prior to that I took a couple of rides on December 1st, for reasons unremembered to me, but likely involving my desire to avoid the elements.

In addition to feelings of self-efficacy and independence that my transportation habits engender in me, I obtain serious financial benefits. Last time I drove I was a teenage male and, consequentially, my insurance rates were awful. However, for a full year of local bus rides and two round trips to the airport I paid about $240 a year. Even though I am older and, presumably, more responsible now, I cannot imagine that the costs associated with purchasing, maintaining, fueling, and insuring a vehicle for a year would come close to being that low. Heck, even if there were not upkeep costs associated with the car, one would need to get a car for $2,400 and drive it for ten years to match my level of investment in transportation.

The picture becomes even rosier once I start walking most places. Since my last unlimited bus pass ran out at the beginning of July, I have spent less than $20 on local bus rides. This puts me at a projection of approximately $140 spent this year on Michigan transportation. That is about an extra 25 used books that I get to pocket (used books being, of course, the currency in any civilized society).

This is not to advocate that everyone become a radical pedestrian, as I like to think of myself. Not only do I benefit from the car ownership of my friends, but I also realize that there are some lifestyles in which auto ownership becomes a necessity. Furthermore, my ability to blithely walk to my destination at all hours of the day or, for the most part, night is an expression of my dual privileges of being male (thus possessing for the most part a feeling of physical safety) and somewhat indifferent to the weather (thus possessing for the most part an ability to wander around in a Michigan winter). I do hope to inspire consideration of the alternatives, while a car may be a necessity in one's life, that does not make it a necessity for every individual trip one makes. I do acknowledge that possessing a car would probably make it very tempting to use when I was running late or bound for a destination more than a couple of miles away, as possessing an unlimited bus pass made the bus highly attractive, but I assure you that there are valuable benefits to the lifestyle of a modest pedestrian.

I certainly do not deny the possibility that I shall need, or even just seriously desire, a car in the future and end up purchasing one. In fact, those Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) look mighty tempting for when I go out into the real world and acquire a terrifyingly disposable income. But, I do hope that I remember the lessons of moderation and self-reliance that I have learned as a radical pedestrian.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


A while ago, I noticed that the population of my Facebook friends list was approaching 500. Since 500 is a rather nice, round number in base 10, the thought occurred to me that it might be a grand thing to reach that number. However, as those of you who follow my every move on Facebook, don't I have an inflated notion of my own importance, might know, since the new calendar year I have shed a large amount of my friends list, it is a fair question to inquire what precipitated this alteration in priority.

Part of the explanation lies in the sense of alienation that I experience, to a greater or lesser sense, each time I return to Michigan. If my existence is often characterized by a deep sense of loneliness, then an overstocked friends list is, at best, a cruelly ironic joke, and at worst an attempt at self-deception. Paring my list down to include a higher concentration of people with whom I actually feel a social connection, whether only on Facebook for the most part or also in real life activities, allows me greater social satisfaction from my Facebook account. It is replicating socially what one does nutritionally when one cuts empty calories out of one's diet, except in this metaphor empty calories don't actually taste very good, once one realizes that the superficial satisfaction of appearing "popular" does not translate into the more substantive enjoyment of feeling "well liked."

The other satisfaction I obtained from the exercise was the enjoyment of better ordering my affairs. This is the same satisfaction I get when I utilize vacation time to assign my students grades or to straighten up my personal E-mail account. On a related note, during the vacation I spent an afternoon curled up on a friend's couch, in Oregon, working out what grades students had earned the past semester, that was a very fulfilling afternoon.

I suppose that if you are reading this, the odds of you being one of the people I removed from my friends list are rather slim, but I felt like explaining why it is that I did what I did, and may continue to do.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


A couple of quick notes. I remain firmly committed to keeping my updates to the at most one per day rule. Since I would like it if people read and thought about every one of them, it seems that one a day may actually be too fast a tempo. However, you may notice I make exceptions, this happens when I post something I don't particularly care if people think about, although I still like being read ;). These administrative posts are one example, nothing much deep happening here. Another was the poem yesterday, I like it and all, but, in my opinion, it really isn't deep thought provoking. So, that's just a heads up as to where I'm at in regards to update schedule.

Like I said, I like to believe that I am being read. The main way I achieve that is through your feed back. Sure, when I have time off I obsessively stalk the stats page, gazing longingly at the page view count, but since my cynical side assumes most of those are bots or other automatic processes sizing up my turf, I don't put a ton of stock in it. So, if you are not commenting out of some mistaken belief that what you have to say is not relevant or worthwhile, please feel free to comment, I love comments. If you don't want to take the time, please do not feel obligated too! But, if there is something you feel like saying but you aren't sure, as long as it is polite (and I don't mean you have to agree with me, in fact, I kind of prefer when people don't), go ahead and post it.

On a related note, I love feed back where ever it comes from, I especially like it when it is on the post itself. The reason for this is that, ideally, other people will respond not only to my post, but to the comments already on it, and we can get a discussion going, and discussions are some of my favorite things in the whole world; deep conversations and dancing, my two favorite activities. Of course, I understand that in the past there have been issues with posting comments for some reason, or maybe you just don't feel comfortable doing so, or just don't want to. This is, of course, fine. If you want to post a comment, but find yourself unable to, if you get it to me in another way and tell me that you want it posted, I will post it under your first name, or whatever moniker you prefer.

Finally, although I'm whittling down my backlog of blog topics, I still have a selection available. So, I was going to see if people have any preference which they see first. However, I will describe them in my own vague style, where a post about value, commercialization, and Monsanto is actually about a call to my Grandma. So, the choices you have are my third post on music videos about the song Dead and Gone, my third post on Kant's categorical imperative about homeless people, a post about football, or a post about public transit. I may do a post about Facebook next, because it is timely (I was going to do it tonight, but this is actually turning into a substantial post, so probably tomorrow), but, if people express a preference, it will be the first of the four options that I get to. That should be enough for today, have a good night!

Friday, February 18, 2011

How To Cuss Out Your Students

Now, as promised, how to cuss out your students. Before we begin, let me emphasize that I do not condone cussing out your students, they deserve better from you, if not as their teacher, then at least as a fellow human being. But, if you simply must cuss out your students, the method that I advise would be the same way that I vent my occasional frustration with my students, to a colleague (or a wonderful sister who has a similar job) in private.

In all seriousness, I think a good support network is essential to an educator. For one thing, you are dealing with people all day who are not, to some degree or another, your peers. For another thing, sometimes they want a lot of you, without seeming particularly interested in giving back much effort themselves. In short, teaching can be an extremely demanding job, emotionally, professionally, temporally, and in a ton of other ways that I'm sure that I'm missing. So, I strongly suggest you find people with whom you can be honest about your job, and let the crazy soak out of you from time to time.

These people you are honest with; they should not be your students! In fact, if you for some reason feel compelled to cuss out your students in front of every stranger on the Internet, please be very careful to remove all details that could be used by your students to determine that it is indeed you who are cussing them out. By now, you may have guessed that this is inspired by the Pennsylvania teacher who got in trouble for posting a blog where she, you guessed it, cussed out her students.

Having just read some of the hateful comments on her cached blog, I find myself slightly less eager to defend them. However, it has been my experience that the truly horrible students are about matched in number by the truly inspiring, and there aren't many of either. While the majority of your students may be entitled and... unmotivated, they have spent most of their lives in a culture of "social passes," so it should hardly be a surprise when they do not quickly catch the correlation between hand work, education, and grades. On the other hand, for the most part, my students have been altogether decent people, and it has been an honor to know them. Cussing out your students, publicly, does a great disservice to the truly decent among them, even if there are but one or two.

In summary, DON'T cuss out your students, it's disrespectful even if it never gets back to them. DO find someone with whom to commiserate and in whom to confide. DON'T say mean things about your students in general publicly on the Internet. DO love your job, because if you are a public school teacher who doesn't, then there is almost nothing in it for you. Oh, one last one, DON'T simply pass them on to the next grade by virtue of them achieving another birthday at some point during the year, it really does mess them up in college!

The Scream

I wish I could Scream
But I am hemmed in on all sides
Compressed by strangers I will never meet
And so I abide

I want to pour all by rage and frustration
Into a long, lingering ululation
Expel my soul deep consternation
In one violent exhalation

But should I give in and pour my soul dry
I'll not only share my sorrow with sympathetic sky
These people who endlessly cluster all around
Would also hear my primal sound

Though I may pass a hundred on the street
We never speak and we never meet
And while it may cause my heart to break
I choke down the Scream all for their sake

Far be it that I should let loose with a roar
And try to set free my soul to soar
If it t'would disturb the stranger next door
So I shall abide, just a little more

Thus I restrain, exhale, deflate
Return now to my slow demise
Try to accept that it is my fate
To hold the rage of the Scream inside

It's enough to make you Scream

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I am superseding several topics that I was considering writing about today to mention the debacle unfolding in Wisconsin. Since the whole thing is so much of a mess that I am unsure what I support, I'll just explain my thoughts on the situation.

Let me first make clear that I am against teacher unions. Partially because I believe that they have grown into impersonal systems that actually care about the teachers that they represent almost as little as the entities with which they negotiate. Granted, their business is getting good things for teachers, so they may treat them better than their adversaries, but in the department of being humane I am skeptical. My distaste is more because I do not believe that teaching should be the sort of profession that requires a union.

Unions represent labor that has been robbed of its power due to ease of replacement. Because individually the laborers lack power, they band together to regain equal bargaining footing with management. However, teachers are highly trained individuals tasked with preparing our youth to take their place in society, a mandate of almost unparalleled importance, that they should need a union seems ludicrous. Unfortunately, the actions proposed by the Republican party clearly demonstrate the continuing need for unions due to the systematic and unbelievable disrespect that educators receive in our culture.

If we want to get rid of the unions, and I am all for that goal, the solution seems to be treating teachers in such a way that the majority of them feel no need for the crude protection that a union offers. Attempting to gut the union of its power through statutory methods is about the farthest thing I can think of from a move designed to make teachers feel comfortable. Additionally, what business is it of the government how teachers decide to organize themselves to perform their bargaining?

Now on to the politicians. In order to prevent the legislation from passing, the democrats have fled the state. Although they do not possess sufficient numbers to prevent the passage of this bill, they have enough members to prevent congress from being in session in their absence. This is the worst form of partisan politics that I can think of, on the part of both parties. Granted I am not a big fan of our two party system, or our government in general, this seems particularly egregious. Because they have such a majority, the republicans have no need to work with the democrats, should congress be called to session. Collaboration flies out of the window in such conditions, and the thought of consensus building becomes laughable. On the other hand, while this might be the only way for the democrats to stall this despicable bill, while they are absenting themselves from government, no other governing is occurring.

In this situation, although I am ideologically more opposed to the republican position, I cannot fault their behavior any more than that of the democrats. However, because they do hold almost all of the power in this situation, the impetus to compromise and restore government to working condition lies squarely on them. While both sides are behaving like spoiled children, in my opinion, neither has stepped outside of the rule of law. This is the fundamental weakness inherent in a system of power invested in abstract, universal laws, although they guard against capricious rule, they also lack the compassion and humanity that is sometimes necessary to pull us through tough times in more or less one piece. Even if both sides play by the rules, sometimes life calls upon us to be better than the rules, and play according to our respect for each other as fellow human beings.

These events highlight two serious problems in our society. Firstly, we are losing sight of the importance of excellence in education, and losing the excellence of our education at the same time. Secondly, our political landscape is ossifying into a two party battlefield, which has consequent detriments of radicalizing each side, eroding the ability of our government to represent the interests of the nation, and distracting attention from important matters that are not current "hot topics." Should we fail to overcome either of these issues, then let me be the first to offer my apologies to whomever, if anyone, comes in to clean up the mess that the United States seems determined to make of itself.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The "Three 'R's"

"I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me and she becomes me. I cease to exist. Huh." -Oz, Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The Three 'R's represent an old idea on the fundamentals of education are, Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. While meandering through East Lansing, I fell to pondering why I still consider mathematics education relevant in a world where computers are increasingly able to perform the calculations that students are called upon to make. While answering this question, I also hit upon why I consider my dual background in math and philosophy a natural pairing, and an overall theory of education that can be explained by the Three 'R's.

To me, the natural product of education is not knowledge, but rather thought. In a society shaken to its foundations by the advent of the Internet, knowledge has become an increasingly available resource. On the other hand, thought, along with love, remain the cornerstones of that which is best in humanity. Thought can be further broken down into a three step process in which we must repeatedly engage to truly fulfill our calling as thinking beings. First, we obtain new knowledge, which I symbolize by Reading. Next, we synthesize the new knowledge with our existing knowledge and thought structure, aRithmatic. Finally, to complete the cycle we must make our new thoughts socially available so others to may obtain and respond to them, which is wRiting.

We can certainly specialize in one of these categories. Authors, advertisers, and my beloved educators focus on the presentation and sharing of information, all of which would fall into the wRiting category. Scientists and historians, for example, attempt to better acquire knowledge, and as such are Readers. Finally, people, such as mathematicians and philosophers, who seek to find structures in the raw data of life are practicing aRithmatic.

Although we may specialize, to fulfill our yearnings toward humanity we must complete the full cycle, although not necessarily completely alone. Thus, the mathematician need both examine previous works for background and present her or his own conclusions with at least a modicum of communicative savoir faire. Similarly, scientists need to synthesize their data, or find a mathematician to do so, then present their findings and educators must first educate themselves, then make their own separate peace with their subject material, before finally preparing it for classroom consumption.

To focus in on the middle step, the importance of aRithmatic lies in this. Somewhere between gaining knowledge and presenting our conclusions, we must add our own immeasurably valuable contribution and think for ourselves! Ideally this is the task for which we are made ready by our mathematics education. The true task of the mathematician is, once very basic ground rules are asserted, to go forth and discern what else must necessarily follow and why. Although this path has been blazed by mathematicians long dead, there is no reason that a student cannot walk it anew as they too are exposed to the shinning structure of mathematical knowledge. All too often mathematics serves the opposite purpose, and students are led to blindly memorize unmotivated methods, encouraging an arcane practice of "mathematics" which greatly resembles the showmanship of a magician, wherein things appear and disappear in somewhat predictable patterns but without respect for an underlying sense or reason.

My word choice here is not mere hyperbole, I often say to my students verbatim, "math is not magic," to emphasize that they ought know why the processes in which they are participating work. If one simply considers math to be the manipulation of numbers and symbols via memorized methods with the desire to produce some correct end value, then the questions, "why do I need to learn this?" and, "why can't I just use my calculator?" make perfect sense, furthermore, they have no good refutations. However, if one takes math to be a process by which one understands a set of rules and manipulates them to obtain logical, but not at all obvious, conclusions, then these questions make no sense, as well they shouldn't. The best computers we have are merely calculators, not true understanders.

This is why math, and more so philosophy, are so important to me. They are, perhaps even more than dancing, an essential expression of who I am and what it is to be human. Pure, magnificent, creation of new thoughts, MY thoughts, out of the read works of those who precede me, which I then write and send forth into the world that I may be known, and through being known create the possibility of fellowship and love. Thus, I implore educators to teach a comprehension, rather than calculation, based math. The math itself isn't important, it could be replaced by philosophy, law, debate, or any other subject based in the recombination of information. What is important is that we claim our birthright, the ability to create thought, without which not only may we never be human, we may never be loved.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Relationships, of the romantic variety, are something in which I am quite interested, albeit from a theoretical perspective most of the time. However, in my interest, I have run across some interesting information. Right before Valentines day, that celebration of the romantically entwined, I feel it is appropriate to share these factoids with you.

Both of these came to my attention thanks to Facebook links to the article, or a related article, so I must thank my ever interesting friends for their contributions. The first article, which comes from Psychology Today, explains that mystery seems more alluring than straightforward commitment. To paraphrase the article, a study of female undergraduates concluded that, while participants liked men who liked them more than those who were indifferent, they liked those whose feelings were unknown more than either category. In another interesting article, Ok Cupid member responses were analyzed to find questions that people felt comfortable answering, but which corresponded to data that is not "first date material." For example, whether a person prefers other people to be simple or complex, a light question, seems to have a strong correlation with how liberal/conservative that person is, a heavy subject.

Now that I have shown you a few psychological tricks to manipulate your relationships, let me encourage you not to use them. "Huh?" you might be thinking. Let me point out that I describe these results as providing ways to manipulate your relationships. As I have talked about in my post on Kant, the center of his ethical thought was the imperative (command) that we acknowledge that every person is the protagonist of their own personal story. To use his terms, we ought treat them as an ends in themselves, rather than just a means. This is quite similar to the "Golden Rule," that we ought do unto others as we want done unto us, and to my point in yesterday's post about every person carrying their own personal reality with them. I consider this post part two of my discussion of Kant, because my main point is to encourage you to treat others, but most importantly significant others, in a way that is respectful of their humanity.

Suppose you were on a first date, and your date asks you, "am I getting into your pants tonight?" I would find such a forward question off-putting, if not offensive. Now, suppose you were asked, "do you like the taste of beer?" No big deal, eh? However, suppose you were asked the second question, but what your date meant, and indeed how your date interprets your answer, is as though you answered the first. Feeling used yet?

So, don't use people. Whether the ends justify the means in general situations is a tricky question, but in a romantic setting your partner should be the ends, so manipulating them makes even less ethical sense than usual. When courting, one's means should be commensurate (in keeping with) to the ends, not requiring justification by the ends. Now go out, treat your romantic partner as though she or he is the most important person on this special day, have a happy Valentine's Day, and, for goodness sake, don't use your romantic partner for your own purposes!

PS The correlations these studies reveal are really cool, and interesting to study for their own sakes. But they are also a good segue into according your significant other the respect that he or she ought have. No evil social scientists please.

PPS Ironically, my post on Kant is the post that receives the most comments by SpamBots. Too bad the people who use them don't actually read the post.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What is Best in Life?

This post was going to be titled, "What is Good?" but who can resist a corny movie reference? It is, of course, directly inspired by my sister's wonderful post encouraging that we seek good, but it may also address the question, "what matters?" which has been brought up.

While I have my own answer to these questions, and have for a long time, I was initially only going to discuss what these questions might mean to different people. I do like to leave you to find your own answers, as it is both an immensely satisfying project and the only way you will truly believe your own answer. However, I am dismayed with how people often answer this question when they do not agree with me, with money, fame, religion, or power in some combination, so I think it worthwhile to advocate for my own answer.

My answer to these questions was determined when I was in high school, and has yet to change. At that time, I considered the question, "what is the most important thing in the world to me?" The answer that fairly quickly presented itself was the people around me. In some sense, other people are the only things in this world that are real. For example, while a car may exist on a purely physical level as a thing of steel and oil, it is only a construction in our minds that understands that a car is a vehicle. Perhaps more telling is the existence of a book, without our minds interpretation a book is nearly impossible to tell apart from a blank journal, both hold almost exactly the same physical form, but a book can impart so much more to our minds. On the other hand, each and every person you will ever meet, or even with whom you will interact, carries around her or his own mind. This means that it doesn't matter how deeply you consider their existence, they still exist. Which, to me, means that their existence is once of the most important things to consider thoroughly.

This is not to say that money, fame, religion, or power are inherently bad values, just that without including people as one of your primary concerns you dance perilously close to becoming a monster. Without a concern for people, revering money quickly leads to the types of exploitation we see in colonialism or in Enron's treatment of their employees. If you seek fame, but not common good, one might become a cult leader, or the heartless star of a reality show if one prefers to avoid the Kool-Aide. Religion fervency that is not tempered with genuine human compassion can lead to religion violence, something most every religion experiences from some followers, or evangelists whose aid is conditional upon displays of piety from the needy. The pursuit of power regardless of the cost to others paves the way for poster-child evil politicians. I personally consider fame and religion to be among my motivators, but I attempt to always temper my endeavors with a consideration for my fellow humans.

So, go, find what you think is important! Once you do, look for it! But I implore you to place other humans high in your priorities.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I recently received a "friend request" on Facebook from someone with whom I went to middle and high school. While I try to keep my friends list to people with whom I am currently in touch, people with whom I would like to be in touch, and people I fear would be offended if I were to un-friend them, I tend to relax standards when it comes to high school acquaintances. This is for the logical reason that, not having seen them in 8 years, I do not know if I want to be in touch with them, not to mention that it is possible they have a different memory of our interactions and would be upset if I were not to friend them.

However, the request I received most recently was not from an acquaintance, but from someone who was rather a bully when I first met them. Throughout high school I ate lunch in the classroom of a teacher who was willing to shelter me, the specific teacher changed from year to year, with the company of a book. I certainly do not blame this individual solely for my reclusive habit, but my middle school experiences played a roll. Furthermore, my personality is such that my feelings toward people tend not to change a lot over time, sure this leaves me with some deep friendships, but I also harbor some old grudges.

It certainly isn't that I think this is a bad person. Although we didn't interact much in high school, I seem to remember some decent memories. I know that toward the end of my high school years it occurred to me that there were definitely reasons that this person may have acted they way that they did. However, I still felt some resentment upon receiving the friend request, as though my desire to put forward a genial face obligated me to suffer their presence. I carry on a large amount of my social life on Facebook these days, and to accept that request would invite them into this rather important part of my life.

All this rumination on bullying led me to yet another memory. This one comes from the beginning of elementary school, and I can not be certain of its veracity. In truth, I deeply hope that this is simply a memory that I have made up, but I fear it is not. I remember writing, then reading for the class a disparaging poem that I wrote about an unpopular classmate of mine. In fact, the only reason that I cling to my hope that this is a false memory is that I cannot imagine a teacher allowing me to complete my recitation of such a harmful poem.

Later in elementary school I got to know this kid a bit better as well. I remember them turning out to be an admirable person, which, of course, does not assuage the guilt over what I believe happened. Especially considering how much experience with scorn, threats, and ridicule I have accrued in the intervening years. I can only hope that this kid eventually forgave me.

But, if this is my hope, then how can I do otherwise than forgive the bullies of my later life? And not the false forgiveness of the self-righteous, but an understanding forgiveness of one who has walked a ways along that path, who understands what the allure may well be, and who understands both the harm it does to the victim and the bully.

"But I am who I am, in the end; the comics I make are the result of my damage." -Jerry Holkins

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Society Gives You Hell

If you find repeated, unnecessary usage of the word "hell" offensive, I highly recommend that you don't follow the link to this video. In fact, the thought inspired by this song concerns the premise of the music video much more than the lyrics of the song, let's discard them for the most part. Sorry I just indirectly cussed at you a whole bunch for so little reason.

This is a song of which I had never heard before my Top 25 Mashup epiphany, from a group of which I have never heard. While the lyrics, which we henceforth mostly ignore, detail someone dealing rather poorly with a breakup wishing all sorts of ill will upon their ex, the video depicts two neighbors, one set very straight-laced and the other group quite alternative, embroiled in an escalating series of attempts to disrupt each other's lives. It seems that both find the lifestyle epitomized by the other distasteful and disturbing. Interestingly enough, the main character from both households is played by the same member of the band.

One might simply write this off as a gimmick designed to showcase how clever we can be with green screens, I think further thought is rewarding. Suppose, rather than simply being played by the same person, the two main characters actually are the same person. Then what initially appeared to be the conflict between two feuding neighbors actually becomes an inner conflict between the forces of acculturation and individuality.

Put simply. the straight-laced household, to me, represents our inner desire to "fit in." Although our culture has fetishized the "individual," or the "rugged individual," a desire to acculturate is by no means a bad thing. For one thing, forging your own way can be hard going, and perhaps not worth it for unimportant preferences. As Hegel notes, "in dress fashions and hours of meals, there are certain conventions which we have to accept because in these things it is not worth the trouble to I insist on displaying one’s own discernment. The wisest thing here is to do as others do."

Furthermore, participating in a shared cultural background facilitates the various modes a sociability that humans seem to require to live happy, fulfilled lives. Through our interactions with others we obtain both valuable practice in interpersonal skills and shared experiences and vocabulary, both of which, in turn, assist us in further social communication. Indeed, acculturation plays a critical role in our social, and consequentially, emotional well being. Those of you who know how well I fit into a crowd are probably waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That other shoe is the call of individualism. For now I would like to set aside that representing individualism with counter-culture is a flawed metaphor, as counter-culture consists of a group rejecting the dominant culture, and is therefore a culture of its own subject to all the benefits and woes of acculturation. Furthermore, the fact that our concept of ourself as an individual is heavily influenced by external stimuli, such as how we think others see us or what we think is the acceptable thing to do, shall be tabled for now. Both of these concepts are quite interesting, and provide fertile ground for thought, but to address either of them would make this post much longer than I intend it to be.

Although conformity has decided benefits, individualism makes valuable contributions to our personality. While, "being true to oneself," is vague enough as to lack all meaning, I think we all have been in situations where we did not feel our actions corresponded with our self image. Sometimes these feelings ought to be overcome, as we try new things, get out of our comfort zone, and expand our horizon, to borrow a few clich├ęs. However, at other times these feelings indicate that we believe that authority is directing us in an immoral or otherwise deleterious direction.

So, in conformity and individualism, we have two powerful, important, and opposing drives shaping our persona. Guess what, I'm not going to even give advice on how to reconcile them, sorry! For one thing, I wouldn't venture to claim that I have done a great job balancing them against each other. I also think that our search for a way to harmonize them within ourselves is one of the most important, difficult, and rewarding struggles that we may face in our lives. So, keeping in mind the importance of the oft uncomfortable interplay between conformity and individualism, I hope they give you much to think about!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Categorization of Violence

When engaging in logical discourse, it is of utmost importance that all parties involved agree upon shared definitions of the words that they are using. To do otherwise invites mistaken impressions and responses that address a corruption of the argument at hand. In contrast, when writing an expository piece, the author has much broader authority to define and use words as they deem appropriate. While the author may autocratically set the definitions of the words used, it is beneficial to their readers if the terms in question are explained, so that, once again, the argument at hand may be correctly received.

The concept of violence is central to many of the pieces that we have read thus far. However, the word violence has been used in different manners by the different authors, sometimes in multiple ways by a single author in different contexts. Three main categories of violence seem to exist, violence as a tool, violence as an environment, and violence as a relationship. This paper sets forth to explain the characteristics of each usage, primarily through examples from the readings. Finally, I conclude with an examination of what non-violence means with regards to each of these forms of violence.

Hannah Arendt's definition of violence is an easy starting point. Her attempt to disambiguate the terms violence, force, power, strength, and authority is closely related to the aim of this paper, and necessitates that she make clear what she means when she uses the word "violence." To Arendt, violence, "is distinguished by its instrumental character." (Arendt, 7) Thus Arendt's use of the word falls squarely within the traditional liberal concept of violence as a tool.

This instrumental sense of the word is evoked whenever violence is mentioned as a means by which an ends is accomplished. Malcolm X uses violence in this sense when he says, "in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or shotgun." (Malcolm X, 155) Violence, as represented by the firearms, is being conceptualized as a means to achieve the stated end, defense of lives and property. This is very similar to the use which Hobbes makes of the word, wherein violence arises out of individuals’ attempts to attain security in the state of nature; it is a form of defense.

However, Simone Weil asserts that the only end to which violence may be made to serve is that of further violence. Obviously this is a different characterization of violence than the purely instrumental. Weil evokes an environment of violence, where it permeates all facets of the decision making process. She asserts that, "violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim." (Weil, 384) Here she describes violence transitioning from a tool in the hands of its employer to an environment engulfing both employer and victim.

Arendt seems open to this concept of violence as environment, evoking it when she notes that repeated use of violence tends to devolve all authority into a system of violence. "Where violence is no longer backed and restrained by power, the well-known reversal in reckoning with means and ends has taken place. The means, the means of destruction, now determine the end--with the consequence that the end will be the destruction of all power." (Arendt, 10) Here Arendt uses the term "power" as she has specified earlier, to denote efficacy gained through mutual consent. She notes that as the use of violence grows more commonplace, it no longer remains purely a means, but rather becomes an end unto itself.

Correspondingly, Weil seems to accept, at least theoretically, the existence of instrumental violence not necessarily leading to an environment of violence when she comments, "moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness." (Weil, 384) Where they differ is in their estimation of how likely use of instrumental violence is to spawn an environment of violence. Arendt views an environment of violence as an outcome of excessive instrumental violence, whereas Weil's argument is that the environment of violence is a nigh inevitable outcome of instrumental violence.

One similarity between both Arendt's and Weil's environments of violence is that they arise out of the use of instrumental violence. Further complexity is added to the issue if one examines an environment of violence wherein instrumental violence is not necessarily ubiquitous. Examples of such environments are found in both Hobbes' and Hegel's work.

What characterizes Hobbes' state of nature is not the ubiquity of violence, but rather the perfect freedom of all living in the state of nature to employ violence at will if they believe it shall further their ends. Thus, it is not the presence of instrumental violence, but the common view of instrumental violence as permissible, that presents such a detriment to human well being. Or, to put it another way, it is not a sufficient condition for happiness that we are not immediately under attack, we require some assurance that attack is not immanent, and no such assurances exist in an environment of violence.

Hegel goes further to assert that an environment of violence is beneficial on a national level. "War has the higher significance that by its agency, as I have remarked elsewhere, 'the ethical health of peoples is preserved in their indifference to the stabilisation (sic) of finite institutions,'" (Hegel, section 324) where he asserts that wars are beneficial as they prevent social structures from ossifying. It is possible for Hegel to view wars as both moral and beneficial because, for Hegel, the state does not exist to protect individual citizens, a role it clearly fails in war, but rather to allow them to complete themselves through relationship to the community.

Hegel's emphasis on relationship provides a good segue to the concept of violence as relationship. The conceptualization of violence as relationship makes a great deal of intuitive sense, as violence, in most its forms, is a method through which multiple individuals relate to each other. However, of the theoretical systems of violence that we have examined, only Hegel's, as exhibited in the Phenomenology of Spirit where it describes lordship and bondage, seems to have a clearly relational concept of violence. Here, two individuals engage in a struggle which either ends in the death of one participant, denying the survivor the community necessary to complete his or her self relationally, or the subjugation of one individual to the other.

Having separated out three distinct conceptions of violence, it is productive to examine the different concepts of non-violence that each implies. Once again we begin with instrumental violence, which corresponds to an instrumental type of non-violence. We have, on occasion, described this as tactical non-violence, where the participants choose to employ non-violence because they believe it to be the best method by which they can achieve their goals. This purely instrumental form of non-violence clearly mirrors the concept of violence as tool.

On the other hand, violence as environment seems to steadfastly resist the development of a theory of non-violence. "To respect life in someone else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heartbreaking exertion of the powers of generosity." (Weil, 388) Here Weil is noting that immersion in the environment of violence erodes the preconditions for non-violence to be a viable strategy, that quality that Rousseau called, "an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer." (Rousseau, Part I) When we must inure ourselves against the agonies of our own suffering, caused by total insecurity of our fate in the face of an environment of violence, Weil does not believe it reasonable to expect people to maintain their concern for the suffering of others.

Arendt seems to concur, as she believes, "if Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy--Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England--the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission." In the face of an environment of violence, Arendt believes that any exercise of pure power is doomed to failure. This raises the question of how Gandhi’s unshakeable belief in non-violence would address this concern.

It seems that practitioners of philosophical, as opposed to tactical, non-violence are responding to the third conceptualization, violence as relation. If the relationship of violence presents the choice of responding via a death struggle or submission to dominance as Hegel asserts, philosophical non-violence is an attempt to transcend this decision. By taking suffering upon one's self, the non-violent person demonstrates that they are not a threat to the other, blunting the imperative to kill or be killed. However, the truly non-violent person does not submit to domination; Gandhi characterizes such submission as cowardice rather than non-violence. In its personal nature, philosophical non-violence sets itself up in opposition to violence as relation, rather than the dehumanizing violence as environment.

If one accepts these distinctions, it seems worthwhile to examine what conditions are necessary for an environment of violence to be transformed to such a point that some theory of non-violence again becomes relevant. Must violence be allowed to run its course, eventually extinguishing itself when its rampant flames run out of fuel to consume, or may it be brought to a quicker conclusion? If a quicker conclusion is possible, what role does violence as tool play in halting the unchecked violence as environment, do surgical or preemptive strikes have a practical role in restraining the expansion of violence?

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. "Excerpt from On Violence." Ed. Manfred B. Steger and Nancy S. Lind, Violence and its Alternatives. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of Right. " "

Malcolm X. "The Ballot or the Bullet." Ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, On Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Man. " "

Weil, Simone. "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force." Ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, On Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Science Fairs

Now, I may not be the best qualified to discuss a science fair, never having participated in one, but I recently read a New York Times article on the decline of the science fair, and I wanted to respond. The whole article is a quite worthwhile read, but the line that irritated me into action was, "many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require." It seems that viewing math and reading as somehow in opposition to creative, independent exploration is yet another example of why our education system is declining.

Setting aside, for now, the belief that reading and math are both inherently sources for creative, independent exploration, let me first argue that reading and math are cornerstones of science. While I may not have participated in any science fairs, toward the end of elementary school I did design and conduct my own experiment, with assistance from my parents of course. One convenient facet of moving so much as a child is that, if I can remember where something happened, I get a fairly accurate idea of when it occurred.

My experiment involved seeding multiple little, plastic flowerpots with grass seed, then covering them with plastic 5 gallon buckets for different durations throughout the day. My hypothesis was that, since sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, grass that was covered during less of the day would do better. More interestingly, I wanted to see how significant a small decrease in the length of the day would be and what would happen to the grass living in almost total darkness.

While I don't recall exactly what results I obtained, I do recall there being interesting differences between the pots. In order to describe these differences I used not only qualitative standards, such as the color of the grass, but also the quantitative standard of how high it grew. Any time you use a quantitative standard, there is a good chance your experiment can benefit from mathematical understanding. Most fundamentally perhaps, one can plot the data points then approximate a function to describe the relationship between sunlight and grass height. Then, if one knows math, one can translate one's knowledge about functions into further educated guesses about the behavior of grass. Also, if one is curious about the results that others have already obtained on the subject, the ability to read critically is probably going to be a crucial one to have.

That said, I happen to believe that reading and math are both fertile sources for personal creativity. Some of my most prized remnants of my grade school education are poems that I wrote, either for official assignments or personal gratification, I was a sad little emo-kid (see how I pretend that has changed...). To consider the ability to write as independent from the ability to read seems silly enough that I believe I do not need to address it, please correct me if I am mistaken. Another piece of paper that I treasure contains my verification that the power rule of differentiation works for arbitrary polynomials. This was not part of a homework assignment, but I knew the power rule and the limit definition of the derivative, and I was curious why it worked. If that isn't independent exploration, then what is?

I guess that my main point is that, not only are math and reading essential parts of scientific exploration, but personal exploration is an integral part of any education, math and reading included. Furthermore, we absolutely NEED educators at every level emphasizing this message to students. Otherwise we populate our college calculus classes with students concerned only with what is true and what the answer is, rather than why things are true and how to obtain answers for themselves. This trend is not only deleterious to our education system, but also to our society, as it seems destined to produce citizens who would rather be given the "answers" than wrestle, often futilely, with the important questions.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

You're Beautiful

There is a thing on Facebook called, "Tell Her She's Beautiful" day. Despite the gendered pronoun, it is intended to address the image issues that men and women face in our society, and hopefully help build positive body image for all of us. You know, women get called men and lumped into mankind all the time, get over it dudes!

Anyway, since telling any casual acquaintance of mine that they are beautiful in person seems uncharacteristically forward of me, I decided to do the next best thing and write a blog post about it. So, you are beautiful!

How do I know? Well, for starters I am of the opinion that most other people are good looking, yes, that includes you guys, I wouldn't call you attractive, but rather aesthetically pleasing. Secondly, I find that my appreciation of a person's appearance is correlated with how interesting I consider them as a person. Since you are still reading this post, I am inclined to think you find abstract thought and identity issues interesting, therefore you probably are an interesting person. Ergo, you are beautiful!

Body image is a tricky thing. Last summer I made some modest lifestyle changes for health reasons that, as an incidental side effect, caused me to lose some weight. When this happened I began to hope that, should I lose enough weight, I might gain some self confidence. However, the rational part of my mind soon pointed out that I have always considered myself the "fat kid," and no matter what I look like, as long as I am the "fat kid" in my mind, my personality is unlikely to be altered significantly.

We, especially women, are exposed to unrealistic and unhealthy standards of appearance in our culture. I think it is important that we support each other in attempting to achieve health, not some unimportant number like weight or waistline. As a professional mathematician, I will let you know that there are a lot of very important numbers, your weight is not among them.