Thursday, March 31, 2011

100th Post

As I have mentioned, I look at the statistics for my blog a lot, perhaps somewhat obsessively. One of the things that interests me is which posts receive the most page views. Of course, this is a rather imperfect way to gauge which of my posts are having an effect, if people don't leave comments I rely on what I must.

So, for my hundredth post, I want to share the five most viewed posts, according to page views, my ten favorite posts, in hopes of changing the most viewed list a bit, and talk a little about what I have planned, and I, as always, welcome input about future content. I was going to list my top five favorite posts, but, quite pleasantly, I came across 16 posts that I really liked, so I decided to compromise and do a top ten. So, without further ado, the top five most viewed posts are:

5. ???
4. In Defense of Pi
3. Mathematics, A Eulogy?
2. Travelogue II: Fear and Hope
1. Kant Touch This

The first two are somewhat of a disappointment, I say almost nothing in ??? aside from asking if people have questions to suggest, and I think that In Defense of Pi, while a hot button issue, is a bit trivial, although I had fun writing it. The next two are posts of which I am proud, so I am glad to see them there. Kant was a solid post, but I find it uninspiring. Furthermore, I'm pretty sure that it showed up on this list, and was #1 by a large margin, for a reason related to the fact that it has generated half of my total spam comments. As usual, SpamBot pageviews count as heavily as the ones that I actually want. So, which posts do I actually wish people would remember me for?

10) Happy Independence Day!: This post hearkens back to when I expected this blog to be more political than philosophical. I also appreciate that it lays out some of my most foundational beliefs about our political system. Finally, I was just in a really good mood when I wrote it, and I appreciate that too.

9) A Call to Grandma: I like how this post fairly accurately captures how my mind works. It also manages to address how perception affects what we are willing to pay money for, and even what we can call property. Having read a little Marx now, I think there might be another post's worth on that topic.

8) Relationships: While not something I have as much empirical information about as I might like, an important topic nonetheless. This managed to do double duty as a Valentine's Day post and the second in my series on Kant's categorical imperative. I also like the interplay between the facts presented in the psychology articles and the ethics on how we ought respond to this info.

7) Why Am I Here?: Not only was this post reader inspired, something I really appreciate, it also gave me a chance to reflect on who I am, who I was, and how the two were bridged. I also was glad to have a reason to express my gratitude to those I could think of who helped me get here.

6) Mathematics: A Eulogy?: This post inspired a rich comment thread, that alone is something I very much like! While the above post talks about education in relation to my life, this is the first post on the list where I talk about the education system in general. As a math educator and student this is an important topic to me.

5) Education in Culture: What do you know, another post about education. This one addresses what I believe to be the fundamental problem with our education system overall, namely that our culture does not value education.

4) Travelogue II: Fear and Hope: In addition to reminding me of my most recent visit to Oregon, this post addresses race, our fear of "the other," and why libraries are not only awesome for pragmatic reasons but also for their implications for our society's philosophy.

3) Only a God Can Save Us: I think that the struggle to connect with our fellow humans is one of the, if not the, most important struggle that faces us in this world, and Nazis are not exempt from humanity. Sometimes we may try to set Nazis somehow beyond humanity, beyond the pale, but I think this is a serious error, and by contemplating the horrors spawned by the last century, in some ways we contemplate ourselves. I plan to write more on this in a post soon. This post also lacks a single comment, and I am unsure why, do people think I am way off base, or am I saying something so obviously true that it hardly bears mentioning?

2) Poker Face: As I have already mentioned, I think relationships and other people are kind of important. This post, in addition to being the first in my series on music videos, addresses the problems with knowing other people and being known to them, and the importance of continually trying.

1) The "Three 'R's": While much of this ordering was difficult, I am sure that this is my absolute favorite post thus far. Another education post, I attempt, with an indeterminate amount of success, to address what education and thought itself mean in a fundamental way, and why I believe them to be important enough to devote a large portion of my time to. Another post which has sparse feedback, and again I am unsure if it is because I am on the mark or well off of it. On the other hand, I seemed to inspire my sister to write a post in a similar vein, so I guess this post inspired someone other than myself, which makes me happy.

As mentioned, there were sixteen posts which I thought were quite worthy of note, so if you think I missed one of my most important posts, odds are I agree with you. My posts on feminism were almost overlooked in this list, although they are certainly of great importance to me. Again, aside from #1, much of my ordering was haphazard, chosen only to get a decision made.

In regards to the future of the blog, I always welcome inspiration from my readers, or their own blogs, and I have my sister, Karen, and ElfArmy to thank for the inspiration for quite a few of my own posts. If people want to see posts on a specific topic, or more posts on a theme that I have previously explored, please feel free to express that desire. That said, I also have a backlog of post ideas sitting in a draft, and the list has reached the rather impressive number of 13. I plan to do at least a couple responding to various TED talks I have watched, and also a couple responding to inspiration from webcomics that I read.

As I noted earlier, this blog has deviated quite significantly from my original idea of a political blog. As such, I am considering renaming my blog, and perhaps redecorating while I am at it. However, as I am not one who adapts to change easily, I felt it would be good to see what others thought about the idea of making such drastic, if cosmetic, changes to the blog.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Am Dead and Gone

Sorry for my prolonged absence; last week I was quite busy/productive, this weekend I danced a bunch, nearly all day Saturday literally, somehow amidst all this I (finally) read The Hunger Games trilogy, and this week I am sick. However, the post's title neither refers to myself, nor my commitment to this blog, but rather to the song about which I intend to talk. That's right, as promised, this is my final (planned) installment in the series on music video philosophy. For those in the home audience paying attention, you might expect that this would be my 100th post, but as I was looking through my archive I found a post that was just a placeholder and deleted it, so 100 should be the next one, barring further deletions.

Anyway, on to Dead and Gone. Let me first say that while I really enjoy this song, and I really enjoy a lot of N'Synch songs, having Justin Timberlake featured in your song really diminishes its street cred', you feel me? Although, maybe this is appropriate, as Dead and Gone is about an ex-gangsta who has since left the life, citing fear for family safety and remorse over dead friends. Central to the song is that "the old me is dead and gone," hence the title.

While I am not familiar with a past of violence and crime, the message of alienation from one's past self rings true. In fact, the continuity of self is a serious philosophical question. We experience our lives as though we possess a single identity, yet with reflection, it is clear that fundamental things about who we are change as time goes by. It happens so gradually, usually, that at any one point it is easy to believe that you are who you have always been, but viewed over time it becomes clear that one's identity is in fact quite malleable, and the old you may indeed be dead and gone.

Of course, when major life changes are made quickly, and one's environment becomes extremely tumultuous, for example moving nearly across the country to try one's hand at grad school, the effects of personality drift can seem more pronounced. This is, of course, a big reason this song has such personal relevance to me. Whether one's personality shifts to accommodated the new environment, or simply due to a lack of familiar cornerstones that had previously anchored one's personality, is a question I fend interesting.

This line of thought also raises interesting questions about the nature of accountability. If sufficient time has elapsed since I did something that I truly am a fundamentally different person than the person that committed the act, in what sense can be held accountable for the action? This is immediately related to my reflections on mornings when I sleep through class and, although I am logically forced to conclude that I must have turned off my alarm at some point, I have no recollection of the event. If the me who wakes up neither remembers these actions nor condones them, but rather finds them seriously irresponsible and worthy of condemnation, in what manner am I to be held accountable for them?

In the end however, while the old me may be dead, he is certainly not gone. Who we are may not be identical to who we were, but it is intimately wrapped up in our past experiences and personalities. If I realize that I am no longer someone who recognizes myself as "myself" it may be a long and futile journey to, "find my way back home," to something that feels comfortable to consider as "myself," but it is a worthwhile journey, even if the destination remains ever out of reach. The quest to, "know thyself," remains as important as it was in the times of the Ancient Greeks, made all the harder by the realization that the "self" which we are to know is constantly in motion.

In conclusion, I just wanted to note a common theme I noticed in my posts on music videos. My first, "Poker Face," dealt with the difficulty to know others, and our desire to both know and be known. The next, "Gives You Hell," talked about how our self is being shaped by both our personal attributes and societal intervention. Finally I discuss the difficulty in even knowing ourselves. This leads to one last question, is the search for a sense of identity widespread through modern music, something common to these songs which causes me to become interested in them in particular, or something about myself which I am projecting onto these songs?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kant and the Homeless

I consider this the third, and for the moment final, installment in my series on Kant's categorical imperative. The first dealt with call center employees and the second with romantic relationships, now I shall address the homeless; a topic that has long been on my mind.

For those who do not want to read my previous posts and are not familiar with Kant's caterogical imperative, a refresher is in order. How I most often hear it phrased is that we are to at all times treat other people as ends in themselves, never purely as a means. What this means to me is that we are to be aware that each human we encounter is as complexly motivated as we are, and out of respect for their moral agency interact with, rather than manipulate, them.

Rewind back to last August, as I visited my beloved Oregon. I was wandering the streets of Portland one lovely afternoon when I was addressed by a homeless man lying against a building. Because I think it is rude to simply ignore talk explicitly directed at me, and it violates the categorical imperative as I use the ignored to expedite my current project by ignoring, rather than engaging with, them, I stopped to hold a conversation.

Eventually he seemed to want a hand getting to his feet, and I obliged. Here I am unsure how satisfied I am with my decision, although it was a well lit hour of the day I think it compromised my safety. I guess I would do the same again, but I wouldn't be so bold as to encourage others in this path. Once he gained his feet he maintained a hold upon me, and did nothing menacing or harmful, but I found myself quite uncomfortable. Since he showed no sign of recognizing my discomfort, nor of ending the conversation, I begged leave with the notion that I had to hurry on toward my destination. As this was not quite true, I was running quite ahead of time in order to simply wander the town, here I violated the imperative.

My question, and I don't have a firm answer, is what ought I have done? Bluntly expressing my disinterest in continuing a conversation seems rude, something I try to avoid in general, but especially when in the grasp of a man of questionably sound mind. Can I justify violating the imperative on account of the man's diminished capacity?

It seems clear that our polite interactions are greatly predicated on a set of shared social habits. When one member of an interaction seems oblivious to the sub-contextual messages of the other, the preconditions for polite exchange begin to erode. And here I believe I have answered my own question, as I too feel like I often am missing a layer of information that somehow others interpret instinctively, and I would prefer to be told when I misstep as a result, rather than manipulated into proper behavior. So, I probably ought not to have lied to the nice homeless man, oh well.

One final note, considering the topic yesterday of ethical caring. I find it quite wondrous that, when interpreted through the categorical imperative, Kant's ethic agrees so well with a personal ethic of care. On one hand Kant is often seen as the epitome of universal rationality, and on the other hand is the very particular and personal ethic of immediacy, yet they seem completely in accordance on how we ought meet our fellow humans as we encounter them.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Good Samaritan: Love the One You're With

Let me first disclaim that I have reservations about the song I use in the title. If you cannot be with the one you love, settling for the one you are with seems to do her (him) a disservice. On the other hand, if you are with someone, I should hope that they are the one that you love. Anyway, moving on.

You might note that this post is about neither Kant nor philosophy inspired by music videos. Since no one commented to affirm my choice for the next two posts, I felt fairly free to change them. I will get to those two posts, eventually, of course. Instead I wanted to take a moment to write a post related to one by my sister on Love, specifically the part about the story of the Good Samaritan, because posting my thoughts as a response to someone else's feels more personal, or relational, than simply broadcasting my own ramblings.

Her post seemed very relevant to what was on my mind, as my walk home was occupied with thoughts about the insufficiency of liberal "rights based" ethics, and universal ethics in general. To explain, what I mean by a universal ethic is a system of deciding what is good to do wherein all moral agents, which you can usually just think of as people but some try to sneak animals into the mix, are given the same consideration. The liberal tradition is certainly universal, as anyone familiar with the little phrase, "[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal," will recognize. While we may all be, in some sense, created equal, and we may want society to endow us with uniform rights, any personal system of determining good actions which treats everyone as equals turns out to be fairly monstrous.

One quick example, suppose you want to buy your parents a gift for their birthday, because you are a better human being than I am. While you COULD spend your money on a gift, you could also spend it to feed a starving child in Africa, and if we are going to consider all people equally, it seems than preventing someone from starving is more important than purchasing a birthday gift. Thus, in a universal ethic, birthday gifts have to wait until all hunger, curable disease, and similar conditions are taken care of, unless your birthday gift happens to actually be Malaria medicine. Similarly, how could you justify conceiving a brand new baby when there are so many perfectly serviceable babies already languishing in orphanages waiting for adoption? While the world might seem like it would be better if we all subscribed to a universal ethic, I think we would actually end up with a world that was less humane, where the value of genuine care and human relationship was so deformed as to be a caricature of its intended appearance.

This is the problem addressed by relational ethics, sometimes called ethics of caring. Under systems of this form, one is allowed, even encouraged, to give special consideration to the people one encounters most immediately. The Jewish law expert's desire not to love absolutely everyone is a perfectly human response, which by no means makes it the one God would like us to have, but it does make it the one we have with which to work. Notice, however, that Jesus didn't say that the Samaritan was just cruising the desert roads looking for someone to assist. Since the Samaritan left the beaten man with an innkeeper, it seems reasonable to assume he was traveling in pursuit of his own business. However, when confronted with the immediacy of the beaten man, the Samaritan responded with an ethic of care, and cared for the man's injuries.

I am not arguing that we externalize suffering, by buying our fiancée an engagement ring with a blood diamond for example. Simply because we have a higher ethical duty to our loved ones does not excuse sociopathy towards strangers that we encounter, and when we make a choice that effects someone, we encounter them, if in a highly attenuated manner. The immediacy of our personal relationships will grant them higher ethical salience, but this does not entirely negate our ethical duty to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, when we directly encounter suffering, as in the case of the Samaritan and the robbed traveler, then our relationship is quite immediate, rather than attenuated. So I am not arguing against the validity of the parable of the Good Samaritan, just attempting to frame it within a context of immediate caring, rather than universal duty.

One argument against the humanity of current urban living conditions is that the abundance of stimuli overwhelms our ability to process it all. This leads to a dulling of the immediacy of encountered events, as we filter them through more relevance criterion to deal with the sheer weight of information. A dulling of immediacy quite naturally dulls the prospect of encountering a stranger as a fellow human being, which forms the basis of an ethic of caring. Simply put, if one steps over the beaten traveler on the sidewalk, without even noticing that they are there, one never has the opportunity to meet them and relate to them as a caring human being.

In conclusion, someone is born every day, but you really ought to make special effort to remember your parents' birthdays.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

We're Planning a Party!

As post 100 continues to creep closer, I have been wondering what I want to do with these last few posts leading up to it and with my 100th post. In my next couple of posts I want to write up some ideas I have had for a while. While my blog idea list continues to expand more than it shrinks, I would like to put out the third and final (planned) post in my Kantian respect and in my philosophy of pop music series.

That will take me up to post one hundred. As for that post, while I have some ideas, I also would like to know if you have any thoughts. It is clear to me that the main reason I have stuck with it so long, albeit erratically, is the pleasure I get from reading your responses, especially those that present a new perspective from which to view the situation, or expand on a point I may have overlooked.

It is not often that someone as inherently flighty as I am puts this much effort into a personal hobby; there is an embarrassingly bad set of webcomics to attest to that, and even my math blog has been lacking in updates lately. That I made it this far is because this isn't just a personal hobby to me, this is a shared undertaking. So, it only makes sense that I at least invite you to help plan my 100th post, since you have already helped me get to a place that I can talk about writing it.

I check my pageview stats slightly obsessively, because it is nice to know that what I write is being read. However, in addition to corrupted data from reporting computerized accesses, by SpamBots and the like, pageviews cannot tell me how much people are thinking about a post. To gauge that I basically rely on comments. Nothing heartens me more than to see commenters engaging in discussions independent of my participation in the comment thread.

If you have a thought regarding the 100th post, please feel free to leave it. And, as always, feel free to respond if you feel the urge! I'm sure I'll say it again in a couple of days, but it bears repeating, thank you for getting me this far!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Only a God Can Save Us

The Nazi's murdered an estimated 6 million European Jews and a like number of undesired individuals. You probably knew this though. Of course, if you are like me then you do not keep the exact number stored in your mind, as confronting calculated slaughter on that magnitude is not a comfortable thing to do every day.

This evening I watched a film on the philosopher Heidegger and his Nazi ties. It is a matter of some great consideration how philosophy can reconcile Heidegger's monumental contributions to 20th century philosophy with his staunch support for the Nazi party. In a way this mirrors the wider quandary that has faced humanity as a whole since the Second World War, how to reconcile being human with the will to inflict such massive suffering.

When talking about the link between capitalist economics and industrial technologies, Marx held that technology did not usher in capitalism, but rather the other way around. Once our economic system became capitalism this created the impetus for us to develop the technologies of the Industrial Revolution. It is interesting to examine the link between the World Wars and the Atomic Age in a similar fashion.

Throughout much of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon was a very genuine and very widespread reality. However, did our newfound fear of global catastrophe stem more from the recent advances in technology, or from the recent revelations at just how far humans were willing to go in their quest to destroy each other? What is more unnerving, simply the fact that we had the technology to kill a million or so people with a single bomb, or that we had the will to systematically murder tens of millions of people to pursue a political ideology?

One direct result of our attempt to come to grips with the Holocaust was the Milgram Experiment. In this experiment, the subject, at the order of an actor playing a scientist, was ordered to administer a set of increasingly powerful shocks to another actor, who simulated being shocked, in another room. The subject could not see the actor being "shocked," but could hear the actor screaming and complaining of a heart condition. Of the participants, 65% went ahead with the final 450 volt "shock." Milgram's conclusion was that, if prompted by a percieved authority, people are quite capable, if not willing, to do things that they consider far outside the bounds of morality.

Personally, I find the Milgram Experiment, which has been repeated in numerous variations, simultaneously disturbing and comforting. It is disturbing for the obvious reason, no one really likes to be confronted with scientific evidence that, while humans may be inherently good, we do not inherently do good. However, I think that it is comforting in that it allows us to gain some perspective on the Holocaust.

At first blush, one wonders how something as horrible as the Holocaust could be permitted to occur. What kind of monsters must the Germans have been to become cogs in the vast machine of death? But, considering the results of the Milgram Experiment and related studies, there is evidence that, while the Germans may have been monsters, they are no more monstrous than the rest of us. We do not need to struggle to understand the dysfunction that allowed the Holocaust, because it is a dysfunction which we most likely share.

Of course, accepting that we too could have been Nazi's does not exculpate the Holocaust of its horrors! Rather, it condemns humanity as a whole for this crime. I think this is a good thing for two very important reasons. Firstly, it allows us to respond to Nazi's as fellow human beings, and I am generally of the opinion that promoting the shared bonds between people, even if it is that between myself and a Nazi, is good for the human condition as a whole. Secondly, it is a call to vigilance, as recognition that we could perpetrate a similar atrocity ought engender a cautionary response to, hopefully, enable us, on a personal rather than societal level, to avoid committing such a horror.

Heidegger himself never expressed remorse at supporting the Nazi party. Does this mean that, unlike countless other Germans, he never came to the conclusions that his actions under the regime were unconscionable? Maybe being a Nazi was tied so deeply to his philosophy and his own being of self that to deny Nazism would be to repudiate his own sense of self. Or perhaps his silence merely demonstrates a deep shame at the subject. Whatever the case, I encourage you to consider Heidegger's guilt not as an impartial judge, but as a fortunate co-conspirator who, thankfully, never had to find out whether you would truly make the leap to accomplice.

Notes: The movie we watched was called "Only a God Can Save Us," after a quote from Heidegger later in life, on an unrelated subject unfortunately. If you think you see influences from Christianity in my post (none are righteous, love thy neighbor, judge not lest you be judged, forgive!) you are not wrong. Some other interesting psychology studies include the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Solomon Asch.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Take Arms Against a Tide of Sorrows

Well, I was trying to do something special for my 100th post. Then I noticed that Blogger also counts saved drafts as blog posts, so it looks like I have a few more posts to write before I can celebrate, kick back, and rest on my laurels. So today I'll flesh out one of the ideas I had while being unable to sleep Monday evening. Then I'll be one step closer to my planned self congratulatory celebration!

I was recently reading an article in the State News, MSU's student operated paper, concerning the aftermath of the disasters which occurred last week in Japan. What struck me most was a section talking about the concern for MSU students studying abroad in Japan. I am saddened, but not particularly phased, when I hear that the International Studies program cancels a trip to a South American region due to unrest, or when a friend is evacuated from Niger because of a murder. However, this is Japan!

I felt that this was a thought worth considering, that even in Japan, a fully industrial and, arguably, safer society than our own, tragedy can strike turning the region into a danger zone. This has serious implications for our own sense of safety. We can play the odds, avoid walking alone at night down the streets of Ciudad Juarez, but eventually our number will come up, and something will be the cause of our death. I am not advocating a complete disregard for one's personal safety, but if you are lucky enough to find a cause for which you are passionate, it seems reasonable to weigh realistic decreases to your life expectancy against the fulfillment of pursuing your dream, since no place is truly safe.

That is the extent of my, slightly, nihilistic call that you go forth and seize the day. A few other responses to the events warrant mention, but are not dignified enough to receive well thought out refutations. The idea that this disaster was somehow karmic justice for some historic Japanese offense or another is sickening! That type of filth is no better that the hatred that spews from the Westburo Baptist "church." Trolls who would joke about celebrating this incident, if anything, seem less dignified. At least the hate filled are sincere in their ignorance, to claim to believe that this is a tragedy, then feel it appropriate to publicly joke about to incite a reaction seems a particularly callous response. Do not misunderstand me, I have made some horrible jokes in my time, but I keep their circulation low, and tell them in person so that I may apologize if they seem to offend. Finally, in regards to the lady from UCLA who decided to complain about Asians on their cell phones less than a week after these events, seriously bad timing. I think material of similar tone could be found lingering in obscurity in the darker corners of the web at any time, what makes this one notable is not so much the content, but the timing. Of course the content was objectionable, but I don't think it was any more so than when Rosie O'Donnell made similarly themed comments. Neither event, of course, warranted death threats or such an outpouring of hatred. If you were to devise a strategy to overcome bigotry, would you rather rely on overpowering it with a counter wave of hatred, or winning it over through increased education and opportunities to interact with people of a different background?

One of the, if not the only, reasons I overcame my conservative indoctrination against homosexuals was the simple fact that I met some. It is easy to dismiss or oppress ideas in a way that most of us will not feel comfortable doing to people with whom we have built a relationship. It is for this reason that hate speech and personal attacks have no place on any side of a respectful relationship, we must always be seeking to open up positive relationships with others. If I felt that people making the types of comments I deride in the previous paragraph, a) were going to read my blog, and, b) were likely to respond well to reason, then I would post a rational refutation of these remarks. As it is, I settle for a brief condemnation of these remarks, although not necessarily the people making them, because such remarks must be condemned if we are to move past this type of discourse and embrace our shared humanity.

Amidst all this doom and gloom, let us not lose sight of the grandeur of the shared humanity towards which we aspire. I saw an article earlier remarking on the absence of looting in Japan, as citizens and businesses support each other and chip in to recover. A friend also posted about the extraordinary heroics involved in managing the evolving disaster at the Fukushima Daiishi plant. Humanity may have some ugly warts and serious scarring, but there is beauty too in our tragically flawed visage.

Monday, March 14, 2011

In Defense of Pi

I don't often do this, but, in honor of Pi Day, today I shall take up my words in the defense of traditional values. The traditional value in question is Pi itself. Much fuss has been made by proponents of a new circle constant, Tau, which would be equal to two times Pi. As much as it pains me to argue against the enigmatic and engaging Vi Hart, Pi is very much right.

While all concerned, except perhaps politicians and Biblical literalists, agree that Pi is an irrational value which is about 3.14, the argument is whether Pi is the value that we should consider important. Tau proponents argue that Tau is more sound pedagogically. Instead of half a circle being Pi radians, it would instead be half Tau radians. A quarter circle, a quarter Tau.

I cannot argue against this claim, it seems that high school mathematics would be made slightly simpler if we were to switch our focus from 3.14 to 6.28, however, arguing that we ought do this ignores a wealth of mathematical history. Humans have been seeking the decimal value of Pi as long as there has been civilization. The use of the Pi symbol to represent the value is over 300 years old, and was popularized by the mathematical great Euler. To cast Pi aside for slight notational clarity would be to show a remarkable disrespect for the historic foundations of mathematics.

Make no mistake, a slight notational clarity is the only true advantage of "Tau." Because "Tau" is just 2 times Pi, moving from one notation to the other is a trivial computation. If you have a value which is c*Pi, it will be (c/2)*Tau, if you have a value k*Tau, it will be 2k*Pi, easy as pie! Whatever notational clarity is gained by making the change, I would imagine more confusion would be created as we introduce a second, unnecessary, symbol for a concept that is already well represented.

Despite my nostalgia, I understand the systematic logic behind revoking Pluto's status as a planet. Despite my upbringing, I envy the computational clarity of the metric system. So please believe me when I say that I see no significant computational advantages to "Tau" over Pi!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nothing Lasts Forever

It sometimes feels like once you put something on the Internet, it will last forever. If you've ever tried to delete your embarrassing Facebook photos, I imagine you know what I'm talking about. Once I put something on the Internet, I no longer have to trust the frailties of my own memory, I can immortalize my every thought in the bedrock of our society, as though we were young lovers, simply by publishing a blog post.

However, this is a false confidence, a brittle permanence. Although the electronic memory may seem perfect in a way no human memory ever could be one minute, upon its deletion it is gone in a way no repressed or forgotten memory ever will be. With a click of a mouse a thought, a paper, a profile, even a friendship can be obliterated.

This frailty is not reflected in the real world. A computer stores its memories, each in their place, each separate from the memories stored around it. People, we live our memories, we are our memories. We don't remember things because they are "stored," we remember things because they have become a part of us, and who we are is a part of our memories. Every single thing that I remember is connected to every other, because they are all, in some sense no matter how small, a part of this thing I call myself.

On the other hand, I too am terribly impermanent, so although the memories stored within me may be more flexible and, consequentially, more durable than those in a computer, they too shall be obliterated as time wears on. I would like to thank everyone who participates in this blog for sharing something more than bits and bytes with me, for, in some way, making me who I am.

Nothing lasts forever, except loss.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grad School

A short post, to give a reprieve after yesterday's post, about how grad school makes me question my own identity. I think the biggest problem with being a grad student is that one doesn't fit in a broad category. On one hand we are students, and I still, for the most part, consider college students to be my peer group. However, I also am an instructor to said students so, at least with regards to the specific students in my classes, I do not consider myself their peer. When you consider them, I am much more like a professor, and indeed they sometimes call me a professor. However, I too have professors teaching my classes, so they are not my peers.

Another thing is that I am, sort of, not very competently, running my own life. I have a job, which gives me a paycheck, with which I rent an apartment, buy food, make my computer work, and all the other serious adult-y things that one might imagine adult-like people doing. But, as mentioned above, I still think of myself as a student, someone preparing for life, rather than living it (this might be worth an elaborating post in itself some time, but not now).

Sometimes I worry that one of the functions of grad school, similar to boot camp, is to break down the participants sense of self in order that I can be re-molded in the form desired by her or his superiors. Whether or not this is the case, I certainly have, in previous semesters, lost myself over the course of the semester. Granted, over the past few years, even before I came to grad school, I haven't had the strongest grasp on who I thought I was. However, I feel like it has been worse since coming to Michigan. Upon returning to Oregon over winter break this year I remarked to a friend that as I was leaving to walk over to his house I had the strangest feeling, as though when I had done the same thing last summer was much more immediate than anything that had happened to me in the intervening semester.

This is one of the reasons I try to keep up with the blog, it keeps me thinking important thoughts, and not sleepwalking through life. And I appreciate all those who are willing to share that journey with me. One last piece of advice, always go for the red pill!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Das Klassenraum

I have not been terribly prolific this March; part of the reason is that I was fairly stressed last week, but mostly it is due to how much mental wrangling this post entailed. Whenever a post tries to tie together wide ranging concepts, I struggle to get my thoughts into a linear form suitable for communication. As to how well I have succeeded in this case, I will let you be the judge.

A while ago I shared this link, on Facebook, to a wonderful, but heartbreaking, post from an Oregonian elementary school teacher. The author clearly feels called to teach, and apparently was quite good at her job. Her love of teaching survived the overwork and underfunding of Oregon's early years cutting the education budget. However, the trend toward larger class sizes and increasingly varied competency in her students have robbed teaching of its joy for her. Pupils with special needs which would previously have been met in supplementary programs such as English as a Second Language or Special Education curriculum began overwhelming her ability to meet each student at their own level, simultaneously homogenization of desired outcomes, signified by scores on standardized tests and rankings for No Child Left Behind and related legislation, leaving her with the sad realization that she no longer wishes to be a teacher

That alone saddens me immeasurably, that someone who clearly loved teaching, and devoted her professional life to its craft, has lost their passion for it. But that is her story, and one she tells, far better than I could, in the linked article. What I want to explore in the rest of this post are the structural changes she talks about, specifically in relation to Marx's theorization of capitalism. If you are having an adverse reaction to Marx's name, I ask that you bear with me, I do not advocate a teacher revolution to solve these problems, I merely intend to explain how these problems fit almost eerily well into a Marxist view of capitalism.

While the battle in Wisconsin has the traditional image of Marxist class struggle, you might be wondering why I would invoke Marx in relation to the linked article. In his work Capital (Das Kapital) Volume I, Marx examines the structure of capitalism. He theorizes that the ability of the capitalist to invest money and somehow end up with more money than originally invested can solely be explained by the capitalist buying labor power (hiring workers) for less pay than the value of the work they did in their time. Since he placed capitalism on this foundation, Marx concluded that it was greatly in the interest of the capitalist to keep labor costs as low as possible, two major tools in this undertaking were keeping labor unskilled and interchangeable.

While related, these are separate concepts. Unskilled labor is easier to produce, which means unskilled laborers have fewer costs which their wages must repay (think student loans for those who have gone to college). Because there are fewer expenses involved in creating unskilled laborers, they are able to be paid lower wages. Furthermore, their lack of skill limits their marketability, inclining them to remain in a position once they are hired. Interchangeability refers to the ease with which a worker can be replaced, or the cost of replacing a worker. If there is a high cost to replacing a worker, then that worker has greater leverage to obtain higher wages, so the capitalist strives to keep interchangeability high. Certainly the less skilled labor is, the easier it is to replace, so interchangeability and unskilled labor are related, but they are not the same. For example, one can increase the interchangeability of skilled labor without reducing its skill level by creating a pool of individuals certified to be skilled laborers from which to choose.

In Marx's day, during the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of an industrial factory for capitalism was of immediate saliency (obvious relevance). In this metaphor, the recent idea of replaceable parts represents interchangeability while how easy a specific part was to produce correlates with how skilled the labor is. The industrial factory represented the pinnacle of capitalism to Marx for another reason. Once most of the work was being performed by machines, and human laborers were reduced to the tenders of said machines, the jobs humans were called upon to perform were both unskilled and easy to be filled.

If we take this model and examine modern education, I believe that an unsettling trend becomes apparent. Centralized curriculum planning, as represented by standardized tests and the mandate to teach to the tests (teach the material of the test in the manner it is presented on the test), serves to reduce the skill needed to function as a teacher which, of course, also makes teachers more easily replaced. In fact, as noted in the article, this race to the bottom also serves to drive out experienced, highly skilled teachers, so much the better to keep costs down! It seems a little amazing to me that a nation which so soundly rejects any notion of economic central planning, which I agree is a disaster, is so complacent about the rise of educational central planning, also a disaster in my opinion. Perhaps this is because one is bad for the capitalist, while the other seems quite favorable.

A still more horrifying picture is revealed if we look at the effects of capitalizing education on the students rather than the teachers. In addition to providing a set of standardized certifications so capitalists know they have a ready labor pool for even skilled labor, I think that our modern educational philosophy serves to beat a love of learning out of many students. Students of a capitalist education come out of their schools with the specific set of skills for their vocation, limiting their flexibly in the job market. As an undergraduate, I had to take Baccalaureate Core courses, which were courses representing a wide array of subjects from Systems of Power and Dominance to Western Culture to Science, Technology, and Society. I absolutely adored being exposed to this stunning breadth of thoughts and information, but some students complained that it had nothing to do with their program, or wasn't useful to their job. This is also related to the common complaint about mathematics, "when will I ever use this?" which I have addressed previously in my "Three 'R's" post and my sister has also wonderfully argued against.

Lumping all students together in ever larger classes, then holding them to draconian inflexible standards in no way seems like the ideal of education. But it does seem like an efficient way to produce a fresh batch of workers, and if some students are incapable of meeting the standards, such is life, in production there will always be a certain percentage of defective goods. Furthermore, by including students with high levels of need in the standard classroom, and by adding task after task to the teacher's job, we can simultaneously free parents from child raising responsibilities, enabling them to be more efficient workers themselves, and systematically demoralize educators, to keep them from feeling as though they deserve better wages and conditions. All in all, a rather bleak picture of education.

So then, how might one attempt to effect a solution? Smaller class sizes, restoration of special needs programs, and localizing control of curriculum are obviously going to be on my list of positive steps. This may not entail increased educational spending so much as re-prioritized educational spending. A recent examination of Oregon State University's finances, and the Oregon University System's in general, by a third party economist (from Michigan!) produced the recommendation that administrative costs were ballooning at the expense of academic budgets and students' tuition costs. The recommendation was to curtail administrative budgets and focus on the core mission, academics and research. I believe the education system as a whole could benefit from that mentality. I would, of course, also like to see teachers given the type of respect and compensation required to pull some of the brightest in the field into education. Of course, if one feels called to teach, one will probably go into that profession as long as it is a viable life choice, the question is what kind of teacher do we want to make up the gap between the number called to it and the larger number that we need to educate our children?

As always, I welcome further questions, alternate proposals, related thoughts, rebuttals, and any other thoughtful responses that may not be covered by those categories.

Note: For you German speakers, I apologize for the quite intentional grammatical error in the title. Since Raum is a masculine word, it should, of course, be "Der Klassenraum," but this loses some of the desired analogy with "Das Kapital." I could have switched to "Das Klassenzimmer," but that is no longer an obvious English cognate, so I took some artistic liberty with the language.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Something Incoherent and Strange

If you are coming over from Facebook, you probably already know this post is about Charlie Sheen. However, the title is about this post, considering how exhausted I am as I write this. I have been a bit lax about posting this week, and the reason is I have another "tie everything together" type education post I want to make, but I am having trouble wrapping my head around it. So instead I shall write a post about which I do not need to think too much.

I know I shall not need to think about it too much because my entire life I have gotten by terribly well without thinking about Charlie Sheen too much. Well, that may not be true, but my personal problems are in no way related to my lack of Sheen contemplation. In fact, it was not until yesterday that I learned who Charlie Sheen is. Of course I had seen him on ads for Two and a Half Men, but that in no way means I could put a name to his face.

Once he popped up on my radar, I learned a bit about Sheen. Although I have not attempted to find clips of his rants, as they seem at best irrelevant, and at worst a rather cruel thing to joke about, I have picked up a few tidbits about perception of his life. According to the people "in the know," Sheen has drug problems, alcohol problems, mental problems, and domestic abuse problems. Of course, many people have these problems, it is just that, unlike them, Sheen does not live under an overpass and his rants get an audience of millions. Which brings me to my main message, get over it people! Unless you have a solid plan to assist Sheen, with the expertise to back it up and the desire to help it does not seem to be any of your business.

The other thing I wanted to address was this wonderful NPR article, which asks if there is a point at which we stop exploiting Sheen and start trying to help him. The answer is, as soon as his antics become unprofitable. This it the way capitalism works, Sheen is a commodity to be used up. I hope he manages to get some control of his life, but if not we shall use him up until there is nothing left, or the public becomes, justifiably, bored with his antics.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The US and the Middle East

For those of you living under a rock, revolutionary fervor is sweeping through the Middle East. Those of you living under Iraq probably already know this. First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and now, perhaps, in Libya, dictatorial regimes are being thrown out of power. I have been silent on this subject thus far because, a) I know little about the region, b) I have quite a few other ideas for things to talk about, and c) I have been seriously busy.

However, on the subject of US policy regarding the revolutions, I have some thoughts to share. My strongest opinion is that we have no business interfering in these revolutions! If we want to swat down planes bombing their own citizens on humanitarian grounds, I have no issue in that, but I do not believe we should play an active role in determining the agendas or policies of the post-revolutionary governments.

Due to our demonstrated interest in the region's oil and our longstanding policy of meddling in the politics of the Middle East, often to the disadvantage of large portions of its citizenry, we have neither the moral authority nor the local trust needed to be good mediators in this conflict. Were we to intervene on the behalf of the revolutionaries, it would probably be in return for "considerations" from the eventual government, and even if it were not, it would likely still appear as though that were our motivation, casting a pall of suspicion onto the new government. So, other than expressing our support for the people and protecting them from the worst atrocities, I feel that we have no direct role in this conflict or the reconstruction that will follow afterward. Too bad, after so many tries, we are probably getting fairly good at installing puppet popular regimes.

Even if we had the moral authority to intervene, it would probably be best that we did not. Freedom, and even more so democracy, require lasting commitment and effort on the part of the people. If the people of the region obtain them on their own, hopefully they shall appreciate the value all the more, and be willing to cultivate them as is necessary.

This is not to say that we cannot support the revolutionaries. Our very mission as a nation requires that we admire their desire to overthrow dictators and, if we wish to remain decent human beings, we must by our nature condemn the human rights abuses occurring in Libya, which, thankfully, were mostly absent in Egypt and Tunisia. If our foreign policy focuses more on extorting human rights and open governments out of repressive regimes, rather than oil rights and open markets, then I believe the US will be a nation which finally represents something worthwhile.