Friday, April 29, 2011

Dancing Around Gender Roles

Those of you who happen to know me in the 3 dimensional space we call the real world probably are aware that I pretty much love social dancing. For those of you don't know this, or even what social dancing is, a social dance is a dance where a lead dances with a follow. It is the leads duty to, safely, determine what moves shall be done and indicate that to the follow through body motion. Then both people make the move happen, then much fun is had. While it is by no means a rule, for the most part males lead and females follow, so it would seem that some analysis of gender roles could be obtained by considering social dancing.

A while back I found myself taking regular car trips with a bunch of follows to various dances, and one topic of conversation turned to dance safety (not the safety dance) and dance etiquette (again, those who know me might not be surprised to find out I couldn't get "etiquette" close enough for spell checker to fix, I had to use a thesaurus and look up "manners"). One serious complaint was surprise aerials, an aerial is a move where one partner, usually the follow, spends a noticeable amount of time without any feet on the floor, and a surprise aerial is an aerial led by a lead whom the follow didn't know led aerials. Personally, I can only imagine that the experience of being suddenly thrown into the air is moderately disconcerting, to say the least.

In addition to the unpleasant surprise factor, there is also an issue of respect and safety to consider. Safety because the lead is doing what amounts to throwing of the follow into the air when they are unprepared, and dance floors tend to be quite hard. Respect because the fact that a lead feels competent to make this decision without consulting the follow seems to show some amount of disrespect.

Of course, because I am a philosopher in addition to a dancer, I see this as a metaphor for gender relations off of the dance floor. It is quite common in our culture for males to take the lead, so to speak, in inter-gender relations. While there are some things both parties can do to protect themselves, once males are leading a disproportionate amount of injury occurs to females. So, as a Feminist, I have to question the morality of the worldview implicitly contained in social dancing.

Because I love dancing so much, it is of some importance that I find some way to rehabilitate it from this portrayal of a barbaric institution normalizing male dominance. The most obvious tool with which to do so is to claim that, unlike the imperfect world off the dance floor, dancers are actually able to choose which role they choose to embody independently of their gender. Thus women are not forced into the submissive, and somewhat more dangerous, role of follow.

Of course, this assertion is not entirely unproblematic. At first glance one can easily see that dance role and gender are not independent, as one's gender strongly influences, if not determines, the dance role one adopts. Furthermore, the question of how free one actually is to choose exists.

When women outnumber men it is not uncommon for those who are both experienced dancers and quite brave to try to learn the lead moves, in order to get closer to a balanced number of leads and follows. However, it is quite uncommon for women to lead in situations where men and women are in balanced numbers or when more men are present. This suggests the rather disturbing notion that, if there are excess women there is a choice, but primarily women are there to dance with men as follows. On the other hand, when teaching a lesson which was sparsely attended by males, I pretty much told them they had better be leads due to the gender imbalance, so perhaps there is symmetry in the assumption that each gender should conform to their traditional role in times of scarcity, leaving only the problematic issue of inequality inherent in the roles.

Before moving off this topic, I would like to note an interesting asymmetry that I believe exists. As I noted, in lessons when women greatly outnumber men it is not uncommon for women to lead. Additionally, it is also not unheard of for women to choose the lead role and ask another women to dance. However, it seems much less common for a man to explore the follow role. I have followed a few times, both because I wanted to balance the lead/follow ratio of a lesson and also because I believe that familiarity with the follow role translates into increased ability in the lead role. While following when dancing with a friend is quite comfortable, aside from the difficulty I have with the actual following, swapping to follow in a lesson often feels uncomfortable as other men seem reluctant to dance with another man, and occasionally I have received an outright refusal, albeit a polite one. It seems like this reflects a reluctance on the part of men to closely collaborate with each other which is much less common in women.

Anyway, if the defense that each dancer chooses their role is in fact only an illusion of choice for the most part, one must once again attempt to reconcile one's self with the inequity in dance roles. To be sure, there are decided advantages to studying the follow role. Because leads need to initiate the moves, it seems much easier for follows to "learn" new moves, as, ideally, they can simply follow the lead's direction through most moves assuming a degree of experience for both the lead and the follow. On the other hand, since the lead bears responsibility for guiding the follow through the move, an increased amount of technical knowledge of a move is required for the lead to be able to dance it. Furthermore this extends to learning entirely new dance styles. A highly skilled follow can succeed in dancing an unfamiliar style of dance with a quick introduction to the basic idea and a moderately competent lead, this is much less true for a lead.

While there seem to be both advantages and disadvantages to the expectation that follows cede responsibility for move choice to the lead, the disparity between lead and follow roles remains troubling. Perhaps the last recourse is to assert that at least it is the follow's decision to dance with me, although once again it is usually the lead that initiates the interaction by asking a follow to dance. Of course, even the assumption that this decision on the part of the follow is being freely made could be assaulted by dance etiquette that encourages acceptance of dance requests in order to keep leads comfortable making said requests.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Resource Center for People with Disabilities

Time to get back to my roots and do another post about education, albeit a less sweeping one than my normal philosophical ramblings. The motivation for today's discussion is something I have to deal with as an instructor, namely, mandates from the Resource Center for People with Disabilities, or RCPD. The most common way that RCPD affects the classroom is by mandating that students receive augmented time on quizzes and exams, usually 25% or 50%.

As I was proctoring my last chapter exam for the semester, I was musing on this policy, about which I have mixed feelings. Of course, as someone who feels that education is of great value, I think it laudable that we make efforts to enable as many people as possible to partake in it. However, I think there are issues of classroom procedure, fairness, and philosophy, in order of increasing importance in my opinion.

Most trivially, it feels slightly disruptive to allow some students more time than others, even as a leveling tactic to take into account external factors. I feel my ability to insist students hand in their work if I am obviously not applying that standard to all my students. Of course, it doesn't help that I am, in general, as assertive as a wet paper bag, and that I think in an ideal world students would have all the time they desired to show their mathematical ability. However, as someone who proctors his own exams and quizzes, I do understand the practical reasons for time constraints, as I often have other things that I need to do.

In regard to fairness, there is a slightly trickier issue. First, let us consider what a grade in, just for example, a math class means. We ought not take it as an indication of a person's fitness as a human being, or even as a measure of their overall intelligence. As I understand it, ideally, the grade in a math class is meant to denote a student's level of mastery in a subject. Note that I do not say, "mastery in a subject relative to their own abilities."

Believe me, at times it breaks my heart that I do not give grades based on effort! But I believe that maintaining the integrity of our evaluation system requires that students receive grades that reflect their mathematical mastery, not necessarily the work they put into the class. While the two our quite related, in cases where a student enters a class without a mastery of the prerequisites, for example calculus students intimidated by fractions or baffled by trigonometric functions, one's effort can only do so much to remedy their foundational disadvantage. However, in the case of someone with an RCPD Individualized Education Program (IEP, I don't think this is the term used, but it is the one I remember), if I give them the same grade as someone without, I am saying that the two have an equivalent mastery of mathematics, if one is given such amount of extra time. Note, that my biggest concern is that the accommodation is not, in fact, geared toward helping their education, just their grade. While students can turn exams and quizzes into learning opportunities, it has been my impression that, for the most part, they do not do so, perhaps through lack of practice at this skill. Thus an accommodation that only affects quiz and exam times is more of an Individualized Evaluation Program than an Individualized Education Program.

Of course, for some people the problem may not be that they need twice as long to do the math as their classmates, but that they need twice as long to do it in a test setting. And here we run into the philosophical problem. If a student's problem is with the evaluation method in question, rather than actual comprehension, and Individualized Evaluation Program is an appropriate recourse. However, if someone has test anxiety, does giving them extra time to spend on the dreaded test really level the playing field. We are so enamored with the concept of standardization and uniform testing that we often try to shoehorn students to fit the model we have created for them. It isn't as though a written examination is the only method I have to gauge the level of mathematical mastery my students possess, although it is a very efficient one for handling students en masse. Hopefully, by now you get the impression that I suspect our test-driven evaluation is another symptom of the industrialization of education.

At the end of class, I am left with the suspicion that I have been fair to no one. Students without yet diagnosed individual needs are being measured against those who have obtained an advantage, and students with special needs are being evaluated in a manner which may still not adequately capture their true mathematical proficiency. This is why I prefer tutoring, it is so much better to get to work with people one-on-one and just chat about mathematics.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Slut Walk

Random thought: A young person is someone with the luxury of believing they know enough to form what is essentially an indisputably correct opinion. An old person is someone with the luxury of believing they know enough to form what is essentially an indisputably correct opinion and the young people have no idea how arrogant they are to believe the same.

Enough with the heavy topics and the mopey introspection, let's talk about Sluts! After a Toronto police officer advised students to, "avoid dressing like sluts," in order to avoid being sexually assaulted, the social protest phenomena known as Slut Walk was born. Simply put, Slut Walks are organized in order to provide people who believe that what a woman is wearing has no bearing on her being sexually assaulted a public platform to share their opinion. Here's an article on the subject, if you are interested in further reading, it is simply the article I read most recently, not my choice of an exhaustive resource.

The Slut Walk immediately brings up two important and interesting topics, victim blaming, gendered double standards for sexuality, and activism. I'll address them in that order.

While some might argue that what you are wearing has no causal relationship to your likelihood of being raped, and I know that there is good anecdotal evidence for this claim, it seems even easier to argue that there is no reason wardrobe ought have any bearing on sexual assault. As long as one's garb is within the legal limits on decency, I see no reason for it to be mentioned in a court of law. What someone is wearing CERTAINLY does not justify sexually assaulting them. Furthermore, if we consider institutionalizing the message that dressing in a certain manner is likely to incur sexual assault, it seems as though we are perpetuating the domination of women through sexual violence, namely dictating to them the clothing that are safe to wear.

As someone possessed of a rather conservative personal, as opposed to political, morality, I cannot say that I unreservedly celebrate the label slut. However, I certainly do believe it should have the same normative value as the word "stud." If we glorify male sexuality and simultaneously vilify female sexuality, we set an unjust double standard. To be sure, I would prefer that both "stud" and "slut" referred to behavior not socially celebrated, but I definitely think they ought have the same normative content, and I don't particularly like vilifying anyone. Those loyal, long time readers (to whom I am very grateful) may recognize this thought structure from my post last October (ok, November) on Halloween costumes. Surprise, we have not achieved gender equity in the past six months!

Like I noted, I am not entirely copacetic with the message of a Slut Walk. Consequentially I might not choose to show up for such an event should one end up organized near my area. Let's be honest though, show up alone to voluntarily immerse myself in a crowd, doesn't sound like something I'd do even to get more Firefly episodes. However, the Slut Walks have an important core message with which I deeply believe, and furthermore provide people with an option for activism. It is good for there to be multiple venues for activism, from proud Sluts and Slut allies walking the streets, to nerdy bloggers hiding in their basements. Speaking of activism opportunities, Jamie Keiles over at Teenagerie is co-coordinating Chicago's Slut Walk (is it just me, or does "slattern look like it is spelled with a pi?), and her blog is a great resource for discussion on things of gender/activist interest.

Finally, I have a new follower, and since that made me very happy I thought I should mention it, so hello! Their profile picture is Dr Who, so it is even more fantastic!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gone to Look For America

I have been a bit remiss in posting here lately, as academic life has been exerting intense pressure upon personal life. Which is not to say that I have been entirely diligent in my studies, but rather that the structure of my personal life becomes warped under the force of academic stress. Of course, if, like my sister, you feel you are, in some sense, "behind" in reading my posts this may come as a relief. However, I am going to take a little time off from my reading to go looking for America.

In case you haven't guessed, the inspiration for this post is the Simon and Garfunkle song America, the cover of which by Josh Groban came up on my Pandora station. I think both of them are worth a listen. In fact, I am considering doing a post consisting of nothing but wonderful songs that I have been listening to recently, so as to avoid continuing to clutter my Facebook posts with such things. Of course, I don't have the musical mastery necessary to focus on examining songs as is wonderfully done over at Sounds Like Japan, but I make do with what I know.

Anyway, on to America. In my interpretation, the song details the journey of a couple of poor, young lovers who set out to look for America, but end up disenchanted in the end. I suppose the first question that occurs is, what is the America for which they are looking?

"Michigan seems like a dream to me now." I can glance out my window and look at part of the geographical "America," and currently am doing so. But, if they left Pittsburgh to look for America, it seems clear that their search is for more than the physical entity of America. Furthermore, their search in Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, rather than Washington DC seems to indicate that America is something different than the formal nation-state, which I will call the United States to denote the difference. Their modes of transportation, struggle for cigarettes, and penchant for keeping their real estate in a bag point to a certain level of economic insecurity, but their exploits evidence no effort to hoard wealth, so it seems that "economic success" is not the America for which they are looking in the strictest sense.

What is left is the impression that they are looking for the spirit, or essence, of America, in some sense. In that case their decision to look in Michigan, at that time emblematic of American ingenuity and industrial supremacy, and New York, arguably the cultural center of America, seems more reasonable.

A search for what America means must necessarily, to Americans, be simultaneously a search for personal meaning. Consequentially, their inability to find America leads to a corresponding loss of self, "Kathy I'm lost... I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why." Without overarching context for his life, the narrator is left with the vague feeling that something ought be different, but does not even have the reference frame from which to determine what form that difference should take.

As the narrator is alienated from himself, he is also alienated from society at large, "counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, and they've all come to look for America," and from his companion Kathy. Contrast the lyrics at the beginning, "Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh," with the later line, "Kathy I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping." The inter-relational activity of communication has become replaced by a facsimile where the author is no longer heard by Kathy.

Of course, as the narrator observes, the search for America is one in which we must all participate if we wish to find ourselves. The scope of the search, and the intractability of the problem, need not be instruments of alienation, as there is a certain amount of comfort, along with the despair, in the notion that none of us truly finds America, and we must continually drive the turnpikes of our search. Finally, we can narrow our search, even if we never actually find America. We know we search for the America that ought be, something non-geographical, non-political, which provides our lives as American's with proper context.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Crazy? Nah! Just a Little Unwell

Clover, over at Fluttering Butterflies, recently posted a wondrously brave examination of her experiences with mental illness. I really appreciated it, and found some parts of it resonated with me, so I wanted to do a similar thing. Most often Fluttering Butterflies reviews YA fiction books, so if that is of interest to you instead, you should still check it out! If you don't want to read a post where I try to list what I think are the more serious problems with my mind, please feel free not to read this post. Also, please note that I am doing this mostly to reject the social pressure to appear to "have it all together," which stigmatizes the subject of mental health issues, which causes people who are already struggling to feel even more isolated than they are in reality. It is not a cry for help, nor is it the result of diagnosis by a professional. I think the idea of self-diagnosis is even more problematic with mental health problems than with physical ailments, not only is subjectivity an issue, but if there is something wrong with your mind, do you really want to sue that same mind to perform the diagnosis? So, these are my observations about my experiences. Finally, and this is slightly unusual, I want to urge you not to comment on this post. If you have an academic or personal contribution to the discussion, please feel free to make it, but I do not feel comfortable discussing personal issues, so comments about me will just make me feel uncomfortable, and I hope you do not want to do that.

Anyway, I suppose the earliest problem that might be considered a mental health issue that I had was with my body image and with food. I have felt fat since elementary school, and by high school I had grown so absolutely fed up with my fatness that I wanted to stop caring that I was overweight. Mental issues aside, this certainly wasn't a physically healthy mindset. Coupled to my persistent body image issues is a not helpful desire to simply binge on food sometimes. During a car trip in high school, I remember saying something to the effect that I knew my eating habits were unhealthy, but that I wanted to enjoy some part of my life, hardly a positive attitude.

In fact, I kind of view getting diagnosed with mild diabetes last summer as a mixed blessing, as it provided me with the impetus to make some mild, but effective alterations to my life, I don't know if you can grasp how much the revelation that scale numbers can get smaller impacted me, something I knew rationally but didn't actually believe was true for me. By the way, I have mild diabetes, if I hadn't told you it is because I don't particularly like talking about it either, sorry(?). Unfortunately, my diabetes is another source of guilt, because I do believe that my incredible neglect directly led to this condition, furthermore, seeing what my friends who are Type I have to deal with, and were born with, I feel incredibly guilty calling what I have by the same name, since mine is controlled by reasonable diet (something that I ought to have been doing anyway) and oral medication. Anyway, losing weight has actually made me realize that I will probably always consider myself fat, it is simply a part of who I am by now, but it is nice to realize that I am currently less fat than I have been previously, not something I have ever really been able to say.

I guess the second thing I'd address, going in chronological order, is my social insecurity. Those of you who have known me for a while may find this surprising, because by nature I am quite gregarious, but around strangers I usually range from shy, if there are also people I know around and I feel secure, to terrified. Even with people I know well, I often have problems figuring out how I am expected to interact with other people, but after having known someone for a long time I feel fairly sure that they will forgive my social ineptitude so I can relax anyway. It also is worse the more people I am interacting with, as I was just thinking last week, social interactions increase in complexity exponentially as the number of participants increases, although factorially might actually be a more accurate estimation depending on how you consider it.

I remember that after switching schools in elementary school, I would spend recess balancing on the wooden barrier holding in the play area bark-chips, counting how many times I could completely circle around the play area. As you can see, I'm a real life of the party. Fortunately someone eventually introduced himself to me, and I made a friend. I still tend to have a low number of serious interpersonal relationships, and I am extremely grateful for the extroverted people who have made them possible. I love extroverts, not only do I get to meet them, they also facilitate my meeting more people! I tend to score fairly high on the autism quotient spectrum test, but as I have a fairly healthy sense of humor, I tend to believe that autism is not exactly my problem. Mathematically inclined people do tend to score higher on the test, and when you factor in my social anxiety my score seems quite reasonable. However, I do sometimes wish that I had some form of high functioning autism, although I am certainly not saying I wish my personality changed, because it seems like it would be nice to have a simple explanation for my persistent troubles, rather than the nagging worry that everyone has such trials, and I just seem to have failed to cope with them like everyone else has.

Probably related to my social problems is the fact that I just don't open up to people. Even with people with whom I feel comfortable, I tend to avoid discussing my personal life. See above note about diabetes. Although I did try to tell a couple of my close friends, it didn't really make me feel better about it, so I ended up telling people about it as it came up, so as not to appear to be keeping it a secret at least. Similarly, some fairly traumatic, at least relative to what usually happens to me, stuff has happened to me this semester (by the way, no I don't particularly want to discuss it) and I made a point to tell some of the people I trust, but it didn't seem to help too much, maybe a little though. Not enough to warrant the discomfort I go through bringing it up probably. I also tend to, perhaps, over analyze what people mean by what they say. For example, I realize that most people when they say, "How are you doing," are using it as a customary greeting, rather than as the question it literally is. However, when I receive a compliment, I have a tendency to believe that it is a response to a socially recognized obligation to compliment, rather than a genuine expression. Intellectually I realize it is likely that I am wrong, but that is my thought process. That is also why I don't particularly want comments about this, if you try to offer me support I will assume that you are doing so out of a perceived social necessity to provide it, whether or not that is actually the case, and it will end up making me feel worse as I try to decipher if that is the case or not. This extends to a lot of other things, trying to figure out what is socially necessitated and what is genuine is a fairly common worry that I have. My sister noted that in my post on body image, I logically justified my complement, this is because I tend to trust logic, so when I want to make sure my sincerity is realized I tend to explain my complement logically.

The last issue that I want to discuss is depression. This one I think I am working my way out of, thankfully. Although I am not usually the happiest of people, left to my own devices, some of the years proceeding this one seemed worse than usual. When people describe the feeling of not seeing any particular value in their coming day, I can empathize with how that feels. I kind of think that I was very much just going about routine of my life, with varying levels of success, in sort of a stupor. Needless to say, starting to try living my own life again and somehow finding myself in the middle of a PhD program in Michigan of all places has been somewhat of a mind shock. Not that I've ever been good at living my life, even when I am putting forth the effort.

So, hopefully by now you agree with me that I am pretty screwed up. I want you to do that not because I desire pity, which would be fairly hurtful, but because someone this screwed up can get into a PhD program, be genuinely and exuberantly happy a couple times each week, and manage rudimentary human interaction to varying degrees of success. So, if you feel screwed up too, hopefully you will agree that it is possible that the ok life is a possible outcome. Of course, my failure to see a counselor is exactly that, a failure, and I would encourage you to consider seeing one if you think that seeing one could be beneficial, even if you don't think that you are mentally ill, because we all have problems. I have repeatedly considered seeing a psychiatrist myself, but remember that talking about personal issues and talking to stranger each rank predominantly on my list of problems. There you have it, I believe we are all screwed up and I hope this helps someone feel less alone with their feelings of being screwed up. Of course, I also would like to believe I am more screwed up than most, if only because it gives me a reason that isn't a personal failure to explain why I fit in less than most, but I could be wrong ;)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Sabbath and the Cultural Construction of Labor

Before I consider the historical and modern context of the Sabbath, I think I ought explain what I understand the Sabbath to mean. It seems like the concept of Sabbath is supposed to express respect for God. By setting aside a day for God we are reaffirming our commitment to God, because, as a general rule of thumb, people spend their time on things that they consider to be important.

The traditional observation of the Sabbath involves, "taking the day off." However, the cultural meaning of that phrase has changed over time. In the context of the social conditions when the idea of Sabbath originated, Sabbath was a sacrifice. The work that people did was tended to be closely linked with their ability to survive, or reproduce themselves as Marx might say. Thus the notion of taking a day off from such work entailed extra work and preparation on the other days in order that a day off from surviving would not kill them.

However, in our modern society work has become socialized into labor, that is, the social image of workers has become people who expect to earn a living wage (enough money to live on, or to support a family on classically) in exchange for selling their work. In this system the connection between taking a day off and sacrifice is nearly erased. Because the social expectation is that employers will pay employees "enough to live on" in exchange for the "employee's work," it is to the employee's benefit for the socially defined amount of work that is considered "full time" to be minimized. By providing rational for taking a day of from labor, the Sabbath is prima facie a benefit to the laborer.

Of course, the laborer could still reproduce the sacrifice originally intended by the concept of Sabbath by devoting the day to God, rather than her or his own personal pursuits, however I believe that this alteration still fails to capture the spirit of Sabbath for two reasons. The first, rather punctilious objection is that, in some sense, the standard religious line is that one's life ought be devoted to God. However, the meaning behind my words can be discerned in the example of sitting listening to a sermon on a sunny spring day, rather than going out to the church lawn and playing a game of frisbee. While there is nothing inherently wrong with playing frisbee, by sitting through the sermon one achieves a sense of self-denial in the name of God.

This brings me to my second objection. I do not believe that God would have us deny ourselves for a large portion of our lives purely to devote ourselves to God. Of course, when our desires are for harmful things, I do believe God wants us to practice long term self-denial. But in the case of harmless personal passions, which we can represent by the game of frisbee, I believe that God would have us develop our own passions and pursuits. After all, did Jesus not say that he came that we might have life, and have it in the fullest? According to John 10:10, he did indeed.

In addition to the meaning of work, another difference between the context of Sabbath historically and in modern society is the amount of work that workers are expected to do. Historians believe that the medieval peasant actually worked fewer hours throughout the year than the modern full time laborer. Thus, refusing to pursue personal development on the Sabbath presents a much greater reduction in the modern worker's ability to express him or herself than it does for a historical equivalent worker.

In conclusion, I encourage a mindfulness toward God in all one's activities. However, short of achieving the ideal Utopian communist revolution, it seems spending an entire day in the devotion for God at the expense of self growth represents a stunting of one's self that is not in keeping with Jesus' desire for us. Note that people who feel that devoting their life to explicitly godly labor is their personal calling can simultaneously devote their day to God and grow their own self, so please do not read this as a condemnation of monastic service. What the Sabbath does seem posed to do is provide a regular reminder that we ought to be living our lives mindful of God's presence in it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To Hell With Hell: Or "Moral Bullying: Why Not"

"I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God." -Attributed to Rabia Basri

I was reading through a quite interesting article on how a strong undercurrent of anti-contraception politics runs behind a lot of the "anti-abortion" politics we see. For example, consider the recent fight over Planned Parenthood funding, although no federal funding goes to abortion, for some reason the anti-abortion lobby was quite keen to get rid of this funding. Although the article is well worth it, I've given enough extra work recently, if you don't want to read it here is the part that caught my attention.

"'Contraception helps reduce one’s sexual partner to just a sexual object since it renders sexual intercourse to be without any real commitments,' says Janet Smith, the author of 'Contraception: Why Not.'"

Now, as a hopeless and idiotic romantic, I am certainly against reducing "one's sexual partner to just a sexual object." I also must admit that just the other day I was thinking that acknowledging the consequences of one's actions is perhaps the foundation of a moral life. However, this quote seems to be encouraging us to manufacture consequences in order to reinforce a moral code, which I think is completely immoral!

This, of course, inspired me to remember the wonderful quote with which I began this article, if loving God is good, we ought not do it for fear of punishment or desire for reward. I think this extends to all our moral decisions. If we make what might be considered a moral decision out of concern for the repercussions it will have on our self, I don't think we have actually made a moral decision.

Let me once again emphasize that making a decision based on the consequences to others can still be moral, and, indeed, may be the highest form of morality, but insofar as our actions are simply to avoid bad or promote good outcomes for ourselves, they are not particularly moral. Consider, if God had simply wanted to minimize the bad things people do, it seems reasonable to theorize that a world in which deviation from God's will brought swift and messy retribution. However, it seems clear that the element of choice is somehow important, and for that to be the case, there must be multiple viable options from which to choose.

In conclusion, I think a world where sex was treated more reverently and treated as more important would be good, and those of you who know me KNOW how irreverent I am generally. However, celebrating unwanted pregnancies as undesirable outcomes of undesirable actions, or thinking that HIV/AIDS is a just-desserts for homosexual or promiscuous sex, is simply cruel, thuggish, moral bullying. This is another reason I am pro-choice, in the abortion context. I believe that not aborting a fetus is the less morally problematic choice, but in order for morality to come into play it first must be a choice!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Probably Not

Bear with me, because we are going to start out with a little bit of easy mathematics. I promise that there is a more interesting point. Anyway, one way to think of the probability of something is how often you expect it to happen. So, if something happens 50% of the time, like a fair die rolling an even number, out of one hundred rolls you would expect about 50 of them to be even. Similarly, if you have a .5% chance of winning a raffle, you expect that you would win about once if the raffle happened 200 times, or about 5 times if it were to happen 1000 times.

Something with a 100% probability is, for practical purposes, a sure thing, and something with 0% probability is, for practical purposes, impossible. Because mathematicians are lazy, something I spent quite some time emphasizing to my class, we often call things that happen with 0% probability, 0 probability events. Since we assume that something does happen, the probabilities of all the possible different outcomes needs to add together to 100%.

As mentioned, 0 probability events are impossible for practical purposes, but with a bit of consideration one can come up with times when they would happen. Suppose you have a computer that picks a positive whole number at random out of all the positive whole numbers, with each number being equally likely. There are so many positive whole numbers that the chance of any individual number being picked is 0%, yet as soon as the computer picked one, a 0 probability event would have happened. Of course, this is impossible to implement in reality, because no computer has enough memory or processing power to choose a whole number from amongst ALL of them, but it is an example of a 0 probability event occurring, theoretically.

A similar 0 probability event is for a number, not necessarily a whole number, between 0 and 1 to be picked assuming each number is equally likely. Again, because there are so many numbers between 0 and 1, each individual number has 0 probability, but also again, this also means no computer could actually pick amongst them. So, the question becomes, can 0 probability events occur non-theoretically?

Asking this question prompts some interesting observations about our world. Suppose you think of a dart board as a continuous surface, then throwing a dart at it and seeing where it sticks is a 0 probability event, as there are just so many slightly different places it could have stuck. However, if you think of the dart board as being discrete (made up of discernible blocks), even if you have to go to the atomic level, then each separate place the dart could land has some non-zero probability. Admittedly small, but more likely than impossible. So, refusing to believe that impossible events happen forces one to consider a discrete universe, which is hardly a handicap because at its basic level the universe does seem, at this point, to be discrete.

Also interestingly, consider the concept of free will. If everything in the universe is deterministic, that is what happens next is forced to happen because of what has happened previously, then what happens is the only thing that could happen and has 100% probability. Of course, this model of the universe is not conducive to a belief in free will. If multiple things are possible, but only a finitely many number at any given juncture, then free will is theoretically possible, allowing us to choose between the provided options, and each possible option will have positive probability. However, if anything is possible, as they sometimes say, then it becomes mathematically viable for possible events to have zero probability. It is not necessary, because you can add up an infinite number of positive numbers and still only get 100%, but under these conditions it becomes possible.

So, if one wants a 0 probability event to occur, one must believe that anything is possible. I find that a bit interesting. Also interesting, this thought process occurred because, on my way home from school, I came up with a joking characterization of Occam's Razor for the Middle Ages, "the explanation that requires the fewest witches must be true." Then, to be a bit more serious, I reformulated as, "the explanation that requires the fewest 0 probability events must be true." That got me to wondering if 0 probability events actually could occur, and the rest you know.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women are Worth It

I already have a post about Women in the Workplace, so I needed another title for this post. This is my second post inspired by TED talks, however, this time it is very much a direct response to the video in question. As such, I ask that you watch Sheryl Sandberg talk on "Why we have too few women leaders," at least if you want to understand this post. It is a nearly 15 minutes long talk, and I am sorry to ask for this much of a time commitment, but I think it is well worth watching. If it makes you feel better, I have watched it three times now, once two weeks ago which gave me the idea for this post, once this afternoon to remind what it was I wanted to address, then again right afterward as it became clear that I needed to make notes on specific points throughout the video. So, go watch it please, the next paragraph will still be here when you get back.

First off, while I disagree with this talk in some fundamental ways, I want to emphasize that, given Ms Sandberg's premises, I think this is a wonderful talk. She explicitly notes that the goal is limited to helping women stay in the workplace (2:47) through personal strategies rather than structural changes (3:04). Because her talk is aimed at helping women in our current power system, of course it will not address problems with that system, that is not her purpose. She wishes to help women within the current power system, a classic liberal goal, but I think the entire power system should be examined, and ultimately altered, a more progressive stance.

One problem with helping women succeed within our current system, is that women are penalized for succeeding within our system. Have you ever heard the saying, "can't win for losing." It refers to a Pyhrric victory, a success that ends up costing the winner a horrible price. As Ms. Sandberg notes, people tend not to like successful women (7:15). However, it is worse than that, as the story of Heidi Roizen demonstrates (7:46). It isn't that women have to act differently than men do in order to succeed because the system is somehow biased against women, apparently the means a women uses to succeed which make people dislike her are traits that people find admirable when performed by a man.

This is a problem that cannot be solved by the individual women seeking professional betterment, to whom Ms. Sandberg addresses her talk, because it is a problem that exists on a cultural level. We expect women to be nurturing and men to be successful, so a man who does what is necessary to attain high power will be viewed as normative, while a woman who implements the same strategies is much more likely to be criticized as being "out for herself," because of the context that women are not SUPPOSED to be out for themselves.

Because she is only trying to help women rise to the top in our current power system, Ms. Sandberg can only advise women to be out for themselves and ignore the backlash it creates. However, since I am criticizing the entire system I would like to both point out the fundamental injustice of expecting women to adhere to "traditional" but ineffective strategies, and to point out the utter dysfunction of a system in which self-aggrandization turns out to be a more successful strategy than communal nurturing.

Lest I be accused of being a gender essentialist, and in order to fully disclose my own stake in this, let me directly say that I do not by any means believe that "communal personalities" are restricted to women, and I tend to empathize with them. For example, the story about hand raising (9:07) hit home because the same thing has happened to me. If someone says that they are done taking questions, and you decide to keep your hand raised anyway, doesn't it seem like you are, in some sense, saying that your desire for recognition should take precedence over the speaker's stated desire to end questioning? Furthermore, I have almost always found that I can go and ask the question after the talk if it continues to irk me. So, while valuing communal personalities may have the happy result of increasing the number of women high up in our system of power, I think the valuing of communal personalities in itself would have beneficial effects on our system of power.

This is, probably, the biggest problem I have with Ms. Sandberg's talk. She is encouraging women to succeed by adopting a "masculine personality" strategy rather than questioning a system that is rigged to promote the "masculine personality." Since I have rather little use for the traditional "masculine personality," this seems like a particularly dysfunctional "solution." Made all the more so by the fact that the system is further rigged to favor "masculine personalities" in male bodies. Ms. Sandberg may, "think a world... where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world," (14:17) but if they get there by acting like traditional alpha males, I fail to see how the world would be likely to change.

However, Ms. Sandberg does make some points that I consider very important. As I have noted, one of the reasons that feminism is most important to me is that it tends to reject gender essentialism. One of the ways that expresses itself is in the politics of housework, something Ms. Sandberg addresses. However, in order to share domestic labor more equally between sexes, not only do women need husbands willing to do their share, which already hints that structural reform is necessary, but also, "we have to make it as important a job... to work inside the home for people of both genders." (11:13) Here Ms. Sandberg is finally forced to abandon her call for women to reform themselves and blatantly call for true structural reform.

My final note on this topic is that, the idea that, "men are reaching for opportunities more than women," fundamentally undermines the notion that our society is a meritocracy, which weakens many of the justifications for our current power system. The last thing I wanted to address was the tendency for women to underestimate their competency. In the anecdote she provided (4:43), I wonder if the Dunning-Kruger effect might be explanatory. Furthermore, should it really be bad for people to acknowledge the help they had acquiring their skills and expertise (6:38)? While more women in places of power may eventually lead to a restructuring of our power system, I do not think it is inevitable if women are forced to "buy into" the power system in order to succeed. Consequentially, I think it is necessary that we remain vigilantly critical of the flaws in our overall system of power, and move to address them as we are able.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Picture of a Banana

You may have noticed that I did not get this post up yesterday like I desired. Oh well, if I had an extra dollar, I would give it to you. Anyway, I set myself up with the metaphor post because today I want to talk about models.

One of the important thing to keep in mind with any model is that the model is not the thing that is supposed to be modeled. Or, to put it another way, if you draw a portrait of a bowl of fruit, the image contains no fruit, it only contains the picture of fruit. On a more serious note, if you have equations worked out that seem to represent the way physical objects interact with each other, a la physics, the equations are not physical interactions, nor are physical interactions equations.

I remember seeing a Far Side comic with a monkey drawing a banana, a full wastebasket beside the drawing board filled with drawings rejected because they did not taste right. Sadly I couldn't find this comic in order to share it with you. When I did an image search for "monkey eating banana picture" I found a lot of images of monkeys with bananas, but none of images of monkeys with pictures of bananas. Remember, the picture of a banana is not a banana.

So, the question has been kicking around in my mind for a while, can something simulate itself? One reason this thought comes up is in philosophy of consciousness, as it becomes interesting to ask if a brain can be used to simulate a brain. John Searle believes that brains cannot be multiply realized, that is, there is something unique to the human brain that cannot be replicated by an artificial attempt to create a "brain," ie, artificial intelligence. But what if you didn't write a program to replicate the perceived functions of a brain, such as conversation, but rather a program to replicate the brain on a neuron by neuron level. Shouldn't something like that function exactly like a brain, by assumption? Now suppose you were to build your computer out of a human brain, does it still function exactly like a brain (simile), or is its functioning the functioning of a brain? Can it be both, can the model be the action.

When talking about this with a friend a couple of weeks back, the following example occurred to me. As noted above, a picture of a banana is not a banana. However, what if you were to paint a picture of a banana on a banana (ok, in the conversation we actually iced a doughnut so that it looked like a doughnut, but some principal applies). In this case the banana is also an image of a banana.

Certainly you can imagine a banana with a picture of a banana drawn on its side. In this case the (actual) banana and the (image) banana are easy to separate, because the image is contained in the actual. But suppose that instead of painting the (image) banana on the side of the (actual) banana, we instead painted the entire (actual) banana in such a way so it looked exactly like it did before we painted it. Now the entire (actual) banana is also the (image) banana, at least on the exterior. True, were you to open it up, you could quickly discard the entire (image) banana along with the (actual) banana peel, leaving yourself with only the pieces of the (actual) banana, no longer entwined with the (image) banana, but hopefully you see how (image) and (actual) are getting closer to each other.

The fact that it was something interior to the banana gives us a hint as to what we should next consider. Suppose Monet goes out and paints some lilies, creating an image of lilies. Now suppose a perfect forger paints an image of Monet's painting of lilies. While Monet's painting may be an attempt to model something about the actual lilies, the forger's painting is certainly an attempt to model Monet's image of lilies, as the forger will faithfully and intentionally duplicate even the errors Monet makes when depicting the lilies. If the forger's painting is identical to Monet's, is there a difference between the (actual) Monet and the (image) Monet?

So far we have had actual phenomena and subsequently made a separate model for them. The last thing I want you to consider is slightly different. Suppose you are a maker of candy and you need to make a window display to show prospective customers how delicious your candy is. What if you were to take some of your actual candy and treat it in such a way so that it would keep indefinitely, but was no longer edible. Because it no longer can fulfill the function of candy, namely tasting deliciously sweet, the display candy transitions from (actual) candy to (image) candy. But this time, instead of making the model as a separate thing reflecting the actual, we instead turn the actual into the model. Can we do this in such a way so that the (image) candy is also still (actual) candy?

I don't have any answers for these questions, but I hope you have as much fun thinking about them as I do. Just remember, the model you are thinking about is not the actual model, is not the thing that is being modeled. This post is about my ideas, it is not my ideas.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Metaphorically Speaking

I think that metaphors, and their cousins similes, are incredibly useful tools, both for the educator and the artist, so I thought I'd spend a post explaining why I admire them so much. If all goes well, this will set the stage, metaphorically, for my next post tomorrow.

As I see it, the purpose of every metaphor is to get someone, perhaps just yourself, to look at something differently by comparing it to a similar object/process. The reason for doing this falls into two broad categories. It may have a didactic purpose, as when someone uses a metaphor to explain a foreign concept by appealing to a familiar one. For example, I often attempt to explain why proofs are important in mathematics by noting that the ability to perform a calculation is like being able to drive a car, but a mathematician is like a mechanic in that she or he should understand what is going on underneath the hood. The other reason is exploratory, the metaphor brings to light a new way of understanding the process in question, this is the reason that interests me most.

Metaphors are used in this sense by the artists. The poet who calls a sunrise a bird taking flight, or life a path through the woods, does not do so in order to explain the phenomenon at hand. Rather, he or she intends that we discover something new about the phenomenon by viewing it in a new light. This same notion can be used in an academic setting. Upon establishing a baseline metaphor between object of interest A and object of explanation B based on a given list of similarities, one can ask what properties of B that are not on the list have, in some sense, a corresponding property in A, in doing so, one often has new ideas about the nature of A. This is why I habitually try to extend most every metaphor to the point that it breaks down, just to see if anything interesting happens.

The last thing that I want to mention is that models, be they physical or theoretical, or both, are an important example of a metaphor. Whether you are trying to simulate something in a smaller, controlled environment or with mathematical principles, you are replacing the actual thing with a representation of it, which is a form of metaphor.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Hunger Games: Or Why Bloodsport is Bad

When asked to do a blog post motivated in some way by Suzanne Collins' book, The Hunger Games, a post decrying the immorality of bloodsport, or watching other people risk their lives for your entertainment, was my immediate thought. I can write it without serious spoilers to the plot of the book, as the eponymous Hunger Games are explained fairly early in to be a competition of 24 children from the twelve subjugated Districts in which at then end, in classic Highlander tradition, there can be only one. However, I was concerned that there might be no need for such a post, as most modern societies find the concept of human duels to the death to be, at least overtly, in poor taste. Upon further reflection I feel that there is a bit to say on the subject, and so I shall say it here.

After my initial moral repugnance to the notion of forcing children to battle to the death for entertainment, my first thought was to ask why I had such an aversion to this practice. The narration makes it clear that even outside of the Arena, site of the Hunger Games, life in the Districts of Panem is fraught with uncertainties. To be sure, a survival rate of less than 5% is a bit bleaker than in society at large, but if the Hunger Games were in a very real sense metaphorical for the struggle to survive in the Districts, was my horror at them explained merely because they were more lethal than society at large?

The answer I came to in the end was no. There was a key difference between the indifferent cruelty that perpetuated a system where starvation was a very real and pervasive threat, and the deliberate sadism displayed in forcing people to kill each other for sport. The difference is neatly summed up by my favorite Kantian maxim, that we ought always respect the agency of other people. We all go into the world each day and take our chances with our newest chance at reality, and every day some of us do not survive to see nightfall again. Certainly perpetuating a system in which a large number of people find their mortal end so young in life ought to be immoral by some other standard, but at least it preserves their right to make their own way through their world. On the other hand, to purposefully place them into a situation of mortal combat is as extreme an example of using other humans purely as an instrument to an end as I can think of.

"So what?" you may be asking, after all, most people agree that making playthings out of people is in poor taste. However, upon further consideration it occurred to me that our society still contains dangerous impulses in that direction. I am not merely referring to our penchant for using other species as playthings, in the cases of rodeos, races, and Mike Vic-esque acts of villainy, but rather the explicit use of people for entertainment. Subtle things like dangerous sports, I have been intending to write a post regarding football injuries since mid-January, and reality television. These endeavors are characterized in that they serve no apparent purpose other than entertainment and seek to convey a sense of danger to the participants.

Of course, you might argue that they are structured so as to minimize, or at least mitigate, the chances of a fatality. One cannot dispute the reality of on-field deaths in professional sports, which ignores the host of lesser ills and injuries that occur with disturbing regularity. I also can remember ads on Hulu for an episode of Deadliest Catch in which one of the, quite real, fisherpeople dies. According to Wikipedia, the episode in question is the most watched in the series.

There is a difference between shows like Deadliest Catch, which tape people doing things that, presumably, they would be doing otherwise, and shows like Fear Factor which contrive to put people in situations of perceived danger. However, I bring it up to highlight our fascination with the entertainment of death. I am by no means immune to this allure. Earlier this year I heard about the movie Grizzly Man, which details the last camping trip of a bear enthusiast and his girlfriend, a trip which terminates in both their deaths in a bear attack. While I admit it is macabre, I find the notion of watching the last actions of people who I know are about to die intriguing on some level. "We who are about to die salute you," as it were.

In light of our continued fascination with our mortality, and the endless opportunities for entertainment therein, it seems like stories like The Hunger Games, which reinforce our aversion to such entertainment, continue to have a purpose. Of course, even if you feel no particular desire to watch people fight to the death for your pleasure, I still recommend the book as an all around good read! I think that I shall write a further, more spoiler-iffic post regarding the series as a whole at a later date.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moral Entropy

"Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."
-Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night, Dylan Thomas

We sacrificed our gods, our community, even our families on the altar of rationality, and what have we earned through our devotion? A universe where we know so many reasons, yet have lost our meanings.

Over 200 years ago the philosopher David Hume noted that what is and what ought be have no obvious logical connection. In doing so he launched the pyre ship for Western Civilization. Although moral philosophers have attempted to mine ever deeper into the crevasses of human experience, veins of ethics are running dry all about us. This is the legitimization problem into which modern governments, and all mass-scale projects born of the age of reason, find themselves inexorably drawn.

The modern state pervades our life to an unprecedented level. We are surveilled, enculturated, and controlled through a multitude of wide-reaching governmental programs. Programs, such as public education, in which I hold heartfelt and deep respect, but programs without rational grounding. Rationality has cast down the universal morals, toppling them as axiomatic dogmas without grounding in the type of scientific evidence generally held to be necessary to claim a model holds impartial truth. In their place, we have enshrined common goals of public goals, seeking to anchor our failing ethic to telos, or goals/purposes.

The problem with this is twofold. Pragmatically, it is certainly open to argument how effective these programs are at their stated goals. With widespread dissent as to what the public good is, and how schools, welfare, market regulation, and government itself ought promote it, placing an ethic upon a notion of public goals seems to doom it to be a meager ethic. Small in scope, hard fought between different factions, an ethic of the nasty, brutish, and short sighted.

More fundamentally, one runs against the impenetrable bedrock of axiomatic assumption. Aside from our say so, what makes public good, good? To rephrase the question, if I want to be a misanthrope, why ought I not be? If I want to take my plastic grocery bags out an use them to asphyxiate horned owls, why ought I not, is it not, "[our] planet to kill"? (The quote comes from the comment thread on a blog post of my sister's)

This is another reason I have a deep distrust for large scale entities, be they governmental, economic, political, or activist. I do not believe we have sufficient normative energy, morality, left to fuel these endeavors harmoniously, perhaps we never did. If power corrupts, why do we continue to raise power structures that loom ever higher is our world like modern towers of Babel constructed from wealth, technology, and organization of people on unprecedented scales. At the same time our system of accountability crumbles to unlamented dust. If the divine right to rule spawned abuses, at least it provided a framework in which the ruler was to be held accountable. We are constructing a world where the rulers have no right to rule, only the naked fact that indeed they are ABLE to rule. A world where corporations are REQUIRED by law to circumvent laws if the expected cost of paying off the fine is less than that of coming into accordance with existing regulations. In short, a world where the systems of power are hardly held in check by a dysfunctional and dying morality.

I do not advocate a regression to the systems of morality which previously existed. Having heard the siren call of reason we can hardly stop up our ears and attempt to mandate a shared public morality through government religion, at least not if we wish to be taken seriously. The Pandora's box which we have opened contains too many blessings, medicine, technology, a glimpse at the terrifying beauty shining from a universe laid bare before the merciless manipulations of modern science, I do not believe that we could shut it, even if the majority could be convinced that it is necessary.

Rather, I urge us to turn toward the concrete, to the all encompassing web of human interrelations in which we find yourselves enmeshed. As I always have, I suggest that all notions of worldly value left for us to cling to in solidarity is the value of our fellow human flotsam in the maelstrom of modernity. Unfortunately, this moral too falls afoul of the axiomatic criterion. I can tell you why I believe shared humanity is important, why I feel it is the only thing of worth in the world, but I cannot logically derive why it should be important to you. Thus, in the end, all we are left is the moral darkness closing in around, an entropic demise of the ethical world long before the speculated mirror event in the physical realm. But if all is to be overcome by tides of chaos, is it not best that we go into the end, or whatever new beginning this may be, secure in the company of each other?

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

I Believe in People

As promised, this post is inspired by a TED talk. Specifically, this talk about spoken word poetry. While my post is not intricately related to the talk as a whole, as a spoken word poet, the speaker is fairly enjoyable to listen to.

At one point the speaker asks the audience to list three things they know to be true. This is an exercise she uses with aspiring spoken word poets in order to help them find a story of their own to tell. However, as a side effect of my years of modern education and rationalism, I couldn't think of anything I would go so far as to say that I knew to be true. There are many things in which I believe, some more strongly than others, but there is no single fact that I can think of that is not contingent upon a whole surrounding frame of perspectives and beliefs.

This is not to disparage the project of education and contemplation of reality, which would hardly be in keeping with the message of my blog. I believe there is great value in uncertainty. Although I have beliefs, I think I gain from remaining receptive to finding some truth in new views that people share with me. It also enables me to argue with anyone about anything, a skill that has affected me throughout most of my life, for good or for ill.

Later that evening, as I read through a site condemning historical misdeeds committed by some Christian missionaries in order to make the point that Christian evangelism has not always been sunshine and roses, it occurred to me that a few days earlier I had been defending the author of a book analyzing the most effective way to evangelize to Muslims. Then it occurred to me why I argue against everyone, because when you decide that something must be true, then something must be false, and people who believe wrong things no longer have a new perspective to encounter, but an incorrect perspective to correct. Now, I may not know much of anything, but I certainly believe in people. Not simply that they exist, but that every person has a valuable perspective that is simultaneously amazingly similar to mine in structure and breathtakingly different than mine in particular.

So, if I ever get into a silly argument with you over some point or another, please do not think that it is because I believe that you are wrong, that could not be further from the case. Nor is it because I believe the side I am arguing is right, and I am not trying to change your mind either. I am not playing Devil's Advocate, I am playing People's Advocate, for I believe that there are people out there who truly do hold whatever view I am defending. I am not trying to change your mind, but to open it to the value that these people can bring to your mind. And finally, I would do the same for your position if it seemed necessary.