Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not the Sweetest Thing

So, a year ago, give or take a week, I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. I believe I made passing reference to this once, but in honor of the anniversary, I thought I'd treat this to a bit more thorough an examination.

I have seen very positive results to my physical fitness as a result. In the past year I have ridden the East Lansing bus about 23 times, walking for most of my other intra-Lansing trips, although anything over 3 miles I tend to walk one way and beg a ride the other. I have lost 55 pounds, which seems quite good, but also highlights how much excess weight I was/am still carrying. I make a point to be more active, adding ping-pong and more dancing to my usual fare of dancing. And I try to eat, if not well, then at least less.

I cannot totally attribute this turn around to my diagnosis. As I mentioned to my parents shortly after my diagnosis, it may have been a wake up call, but I was a lighter sleeper than usual at the time as well. Even before that summer, I was gradually wresting my life back from a malaise that had gripped me for a few years, probably instigated by a break up that rather unsettled my life, then prolonged by my incredibly brilliant idea to move to a place where I had no social support a couple years later, when I think I was actually making decent progress climbing out of the first emotional pit I was in.

Anyway, a couple of months prior to this I had started dancing in Michigan finally, so it was the first time I was dancing weekly since graduating. Even my willingness to make a follow up appointment and get my diagnosis indicates something good about my state of mind, as my first inclination when faced with an excess of stress is to curl up in fetal position (metaphorically sometimes) and hope it goes away.

However, getting diagnosed was not all roses and lollipops as it may sound. I really wish that I had blogged or journaled in those first couple of months following my diagnosis, as my thought process was interesting and I would like a first hand account of it. I remember feeling very guilty! I was also bitter, at my first appointment I was provisionally diagnosed as pre-diabetic, and I actually changed my diet and behavior as a response to that, which was odd for me. It isn't as though the diagnosis came as a surprise, our health education system is good enough that a smart kid like me got the message that being sedentary and overweight was a recipe for all sorts of health problems, I just didn't want to/didn't think I was able to confront my lifestyle issues.

So, to be diagnosed as a diabetic about a week after I came to believe that I was capable of doing something about my health was a bitter pill. I'd like to say ironic, but that usually indicates unexpected, maybe it was ironic in the sense that it felt like a cosmic joke. Fortunately, this bitterness has somewhat abated with the realization that, for the most part, being diabetic has not adversely affected my opportunities. I take pills twice a day and eat more like I should have been eating anyway and my blood sugar nearly regulates itself (crazy homeostasis, I know!). The only extra needles I face are twice a year to have my blood tested, since little pinpricks for self-tests hardly count.

As I mentioned, I felt guilty, and continue to feel that way. Partially because I do believe that if I'd eaten better from the get-go I probably would not have developed diabetes. This guilt is partially, but not entirely, alleviated by my belief that at least now I am dealing with it in a fairly positive manner. But what really makes me feel guilty is Type I diabetics. I feel like I am trivializing what they HAVE to go through, due to a birth condition, by calling my rather manageable and somewhat self-inflicted problem diabetes.

I also was very sad or shocked when I first got the diagnosis. Whatever the reason, I spent quite a bit of time morosely brooding about it and crying when I was safely ensconced someplace private. This has almost completely subsided, as I have no real justification to wallow in self pity and the reality of the diagnosis has seeped in.

Finally, I am afraid. Less afraid than when I was first diagnosed, but still afraid. Apparently diabetes can kill you, but that isn't really immediate enough to really worry me. The two symptoms I really associate with diabetes are vision loss and progressive numbing of the extremities. These threaten two of the three best things I do in my life, reading and dancing. So sure, diabetes could kill me, but before it does that it can already take my life away. Late January some of my toes and the side of my foot seemed to lose some sensitivity, once you are consciously trying to feel if your foot feels normal, odds are however it feels will not feel normal. My doctor thinks a pinched nerve is the most likely cause, and it certainly didn't present in a manner consistent with a diabetic system, but for a couple of weeks I was very frightened, and it kept occurring to me that this was too soon, I was not ready to stop dancing. I don't think that I ever will be.

I still play it somewhat close to the vest with my diagnosis, sure I am posting on my blog about it, but that means what, ten people I know will find out, and most of you probably already knew anyway. Part of this is because it isn't really something that comes up in polite conversation, because I can pretty much eat whatever I want still, just now I do so with a mind toward moderation. But, a very real part of it is the guilt, I just don't really want people to know that I am diabetic, like I try to hide most of my flaws, with rather limited success in many areas. However, I don't want people to think I am hiding it from them because I distrust them or something, so when it does come up I try to be open about it, until I can shift the subject, and I think it is probably healthier to be open about it, as I don't really like secrets, so I am even trying to become comfortable bringing it up in conversation. As far as the Internet goes, comfort is still lacking, but I am able to broach the topic now. Presuming I posted this, eh?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Not a Funny Story At All

But it is kind of interesting. While posting here gives me a chance to get out some intellectual ideas that I don't get much of a chance to put into words nowadays, and even get some discussion at times, I am still loathe to open up my personal life in such a way. I suppose I did so to some extent with my post about mental wellbeing, but that was under the auspices of the more philosophical ideal to encourage openness and acceptance of people who do not feel right. Apparently I am not going to post purely personal things, even if I want to talk about them. Maybe I should see if my old LiveJournal account is still there, angsty ranting seems more apropos there.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Can't Buy Me Smarts

Apparently I am not good about updating on school days. So, here is the belated post about education. Before I start, however, here are some interesting supplemental articles. This New York Times article about what people get out of their undergraduate educations these days is the primary motivation for this particular post. Also interesting is the Washington Post article about the perils of evaluating teachers based on the performance of their students on standardized tests. Finally, here is a wonderful YouTube video on the nature of education by all around thought provoking guy, John Green.

The first article asserts that the quality of an undergraduate education is fairly poor, and has been better in the past, giving some reasons for this conclusion. One of the ways that they explain this phenomenon is the rising prevalence of a commercial mindset in the educational community, where, "students are increasingly thought of, by themselves and their colleges, as 'clients' or 'consumers.'" I think I've talked about that subject at sufficient length in other posts.

They see the importance of student evaluation as another, related, problem. Relying on student assessment of educators, "creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades." This is, of course, related to the problem of grade inflation.

Another problem that I see, also related to the commercialization of education, not mentioned by the article, is the changing cultural interpretation of the importance of education. Perhaps considering education to be a commodity instills a sense of entitlement in the student/customer, but I also think it makes an education more of an instrumental value than an intrinsic one, that is, I think people have become more interested in what an education can do for them, rather than attributing obvious worth simply to the quality of being educated.

While I think that is understandable considering the changed role that education has in our society, no longer an upper class privilege it has become much more of a working class necessity, I think it damaging to the educational system. If the end goal of one's education is a certification that the possessor is capable of laboring in a certain field, rather than the betterment of one's understanding of the world, the student's motivation to excel is crippled, after all, "C's get degrees." Much better for everyone, except perhaps the ruling elite, if the goal of every student, and every person, is to cultivate themselves as a thinking being. Furthermore, I would venture to say that approaching education with this mindset would even improve the acquisition of those skills considered useful for obtaining gainful employment.

Here we tie in to the topic of the second article, evaluating teachers by their student's performance. Considering how apathetic many of their students are about the educational project as a whole, I think this is like evaluating a hair stylist by the hairdos of customers who do not show up for their appointments, an architect on the basis of a building built by crooked, incompetent construction crews. As I have often said before, the only real solution that I can see is a fundamental reprioritization of education in society as a whole (see here for the most pertinent post, I reference Smart Guy and Boy Meets World, it is good stuff.). Neither test scores, nor funding hikes, nor even Superman can save us from ourselves, only we can put in the work to make that happen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Switch Off Your Targeting Computer

This topic has been brewing for much longer than yesterday's post. More specifically, I think it was late January, because that was when I was having a tough time caring enough to keep my blood sugar high enough. One evening, feeling a little loopy, I decided that maybe I should check my blood sugar to make sure it wasn't even lower than usual. Since the reading I got was within the desirable range, I didn't do anything about it, but when I rechecked it later that hour, since getting dizzy standing up is not all that common for me, I found that the reading was about 30 mg/dl lower than it had been the first time I checked, and I probably should eat something starchy.

What I am getting at, in my roundabout anecdotal manner, is the relatively high trust we place in technological readings compared to our own experiences. True, our own experiences are highly subjective and open to interpretation, in a way that quantitative readings usually are not. However, as I have mentioned quite a bit recently, no one, and no gadget, knows us as well as we know ourselves.

One could connect this phenomenon with the Feminist complaint, most prominently voiced in "Our Bodies, Ourselves," that women's health was being enshrined in the knowledge of "experts," ie doctors, rather than the experiences of women. Here too personal qualitative information is being replaced by external, "objective," evaluation. Don't get me wrong, I am very much in favor of doctors, and also blood glucose monitors, MRI's, and the many gadgets that help us ascertain what is going on with our bodies. But we shouldn't neglect to value the information about our bodies that is provided by ourselves, our experiences.

Ok, that is enough critique of technology for now, at least as the main subject of the post. If I post a post tomorrow, it will likely be a return to my consideration of education, which may actually be my favorite topic, hurray!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Technology: How Much is Too Much?

I got the idea for this post while watching this short TED talk. For those of you too busy to watch it, Gary Wolf talks about how much better technology has become at measuring things, specifically things about our own lives. How we sleep, where we go, how we get there, how many calories we burn, what we buy, and even our physical health. We now have the ability to record and store so much more quantifiable data about our own life than ever before, leading Wolf to title his talk, "The Quantified Self."

While the issues related to who should have access to this information and how are quite interesting, I feel that data security is considered at enough length by tech gurus, and less frequently asked is whether we want this information. In a conversation that has evolved over at least the past six years, and through multiple conversation partners willing to talk with me, I have explored the idea that technological advances may not be synonymous with progress. Before I proceed with that, let us first take a cursory look at the difference between quantity and quality.

At the most fundamental, quantitative things are those capable of being encoded numerically, while qualitative things are those experienced by human beings. So, word count in an article, the average number of articles I post in a month, and the number of hits my blog gets are all quantitative descriptors of the blog. The ideas and emotions the posts, hopefully, evoke in you as you read them, that is the, more important, qualitative information of the blog. As I have mentioned before, although I use quantities like page views to try to estimate if I am evoking qualities, such as thoughts about my posts, I must admit that this is a rather ineffective method to obtain this information.

My biggest worry about the TED talk is its emphasis on quantitative data. We base so many of our decisions on quantitative information, but I worry that we often forget that the quantitative information is simply an aid to obtaining underlying qualitative trends. For example, when you are buying a new computer, or any new piece of technology, one usually looks at technical specifications and benchmark tests, all framed in terms of numerical information. But the real information we are attempting to ascertain is how the acquisition will affect your lifestyle. The new "smart-phone" may have greater bandwidth enabling more data transfer than ever, but it probably will not make people significantly more likely to want to talk to you, so you have to decide if the increased quantity will produce a more desirable quality of life.

The other worry this data-phillia inspires in me is that it may be too successful. What if we eventually obtain such detailed and comprehensive information about our habits that we can accurately ascertain the correlations between quantitative data and qualitative experience. In a sense, we will have learned how to program ourselves. While we might use this information to reliably make ourselves as happy as we could possibly be, think of the ability to control people implied in this understanding. Furthermore, I think the human experience would be the poorer for this information. Free will may well be a lie, but if so it is one of the most beautiful and fundamental lies to human existence.

Finally, Wolf ends with the following quote. "The self isn't the only thing, it's not even most things. The self is just our operations center, our consciousness, our moral compass." And here, I must flat out disagree with him, the self is everything. I don't mean this in a solipsistic manner, that I am the only thing that exists, or even in a hedonistic sense, that my personal well-being should be my number one priority, but rather in the sense that every single thing that I ever see or do, all my accomplishments and anything I will ever be known for I experience through the lens of "self." The self is all that we know, and everything else we try to understand comes to us through the self. So, I don't disagree that "know thyself" is a valuable piece of advice, but I worry that "measure thyself" may be approaching the task from the wrong angle, more on this tomorrow.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


"It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drive us. It is purpose that defines, purpose that binds us." In the Land of Mordor, where the shadows lie(brary). Sorry, the Agent Smith/Elrond juxtaposition always amuses me, and once you've made one seriously nerdy reference jump, it feels good to make another.

One thing that has been on my mind frequently since starting grad school is purpose. Perhaps it is some cruel biological imperative, but part of me imagines that a family probably gives life fairly immediate purpose. The need to live amicably together, provide for each other, and raise what children you end up stuck with seems like it provides a context of meaning for one's life, a goal, a purpose. At the metaphorical end of the day you have something concrete upon which to look and decide that you have accomplished something.

Having neither close family, nor temporally grounded hopes of one, the question of purpose has weighed upon me the past few years, as those exposed to my feelings about being in grad school may have heard. I don't believe that this was something that bothered me during my K-12 education, perhaps I viewed the idea of "growing up" as sufficient justification, or I didn't take a long enough view of my life to bother justifying it, or I'm idealizing childhood and misremembering it. I am fairly certain I also avoided similar worries as an undergraduate, perhaps the studies seemed sufficiently fulfilling, I don't know.

However, the past few years I have come to wonder if a life dedicated to mathematics is one with which I can be satisfied. Looking back do I want to consider my greatest accomplishment to be a succession of people who understand mathematics slightly better than before they met me? The answer, generally, is no.

So I write in this blog, hoping to remain intellectually alert and do something that seems worthwhile, by which I mean encourage people to think deeply and share in an interchange of serious ideas. Of course, a blog hardly seems like enough purpose to get one through all the multifarious troubles inherent in daily life, so I keep searching.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Shadow of a Thought

"Life is full of grief, to the exactly the degree we allow ourselves to love other people."
"The consolations of philosophy are many, but never enough." -both from "Shadow of the Giant" p161

I have come to the realization that, not only is it impossible to experience everything worth experiencing, but even if we could, there would still be more to do. The order that you do something matters, so you would need to go back and reread everything, mixing up the order to inspire new thoughts. While both main thoughts here were inspired by the books "Ender's Shadow" and "Shadow of the Giant," you may be able to see that they were affected by the book I read previously, "The Sociopath Next Door," and the thoughts which inspired my last blog post. My second thought should make sense to those who haven't read the books, but I am unsure about the first one, read it if you like, it shouldn't spoil much.

Tiny Sociopaths:
It is interesting to contrast Bean and Achilles. Achilles seems to be the stereotypical sociopath, casually charismatic, utterly void of compassion, and inclined to blame others for forcing him to commit his acts of depravity. On the other hand Bean, while standoffish, distant, and unlikable, clearly cares about other people, despite his inability to rationally understand why.

While Bean initially seems to be somewhat of a sociopath, attempting to substitute his intellect for his impaired emotional reasoning, the character Achilles continually reinforces the differences between Bean and a true sociopath. Although Bean never expresses fear that he and Achilles are similar, their shared affective impairment and intelligence seems to make drawing some comparisons inevitable. This reflects the struggle that Ender experiences with his relationship to his older brother, Peter.

Peter provides yet a third interesting example. Whereas Bean is dispassionate and Achilles is callous as only one without empathy can be, Peter is cruel. Like Achilles, Peter is skilled at manipulating people, but unlike Achilles and Bean, Peter is also able to relate to them, to understand them. Throughout the books it is interesting to see how Orson Scott Card develops each of these profoundly socially dysfunctional characters.

The Alien Other:
A staple of much science fiction, the impetus for the events in the series is a good old fashioned alien attack. Unfortunately for both species, before either side realizes how truly alien the mindset of the other is, they have each committed the kind of diplomatic faux pas that just naturally segues into xenocidal warfare.

This serves to highlight why I would love to encounter aliens someday (no, not xenocide!). Think of all that we could learn from them, not in the realm of science and engineering, but in philosophy! They are the ultimate Others, and if we could reach enough understanding to communicate I have to imagine that we could never look at our own species the same again. Interaction with a true, conscious intelligence separate from humanity seems to present so much potential for putting ourselves in a greater context. For that matter, I would be happy if we could create an artificial intelligence. Not a human simulation, but a self aware computer, as I would imagine it would have a truly unique perspective on things as well.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Let's Get Objectified

While dancing a couple of nights ago an interesting interaction occurred. The follows decided that they wanted a break, while the leads still apparently had energy and were dancing around, this provoked a comment from one of the follows that they wished that had more singles. For those less culturally savvy than even me, this is a reference to the practice of inserting one dollar bills into the clothing of dancers at "exotic dance" establishments. Reasoning that if someone has enough breath to crack witticisms they have enough breath to dance, I asked one of the follows, and noted that, "I'm a guy, we aren't SUPPOSED to be objectified," in my common form of sardonic social commentary.

Unfortunately we didn't launch into an interesting discussion on objectification, but it got me thinking about the subject. Then yesterday it occurred to me that one of our greatest struggles as we try to relate to other people is our need to objectify ourself. What I mean is that, paradoxically, although we have so much more information about our own experiences than anyone else's for this very reason we often cannot understand ourself. We lack the context to understand ourself as a human being precisely because we have such a skewed perspective on ourself, and we struggle to fit ourself into the role of human as we cannot compare ourself to anyone else since we lack comparable data on any one else's experiences. Thusly we struggle to objectify ourself, or to consider our experiences from an objective, rather than subjective, point of view, because that is the only way that we can relate to other people, whom we must all view, to some extent, from an objective perspective.

I think this is related to an idea which I borrow from Hegel. Hegel posits that the individual left all alone is not a Self, that we must come into relation with some Other in order to differentiate ourself as a Self. Once we encounter the Other, another person, we may begin to realize that we are not just a bunch of immediate sensations and experiences, but we are also something that this alien Other might interact with much in the same manner that we interact with this alien Other. No longer can we simply encounter life as a series of stimuli, now we must encounter life with the notion that we are a unified entity, a Self, an objectification of the subjective.

So then, if objectification is one our social goals, what is wrong with follows wanting to stick singles into my suspenders, shouldn't I want to be objectified as a slab of hott man-flesh? Well, the answer may be yes, but there is still something wrong with it. When someone wedges Washingtons into a waistband, they are not objectifying them self, quite the opposite actually. In viewing the dancer as a source of entertainment, stimulation, they are celebrating their own subjectivity at the expense of the dancer's objectivity. If the purpose of objectification is to enable us to relate through our shared humanity with the Other, this self-gratification instead alienates us from a relation with the Other, because we attempt to deny the full subjectivity of the Other's experience of self and instead replace it with our own fantasy of the objectivity of their self.

This is not to say that I whole-heartedly disapprove of people sticking singles in my suspenders, I gain perspective, money, and it was mentioned in jest. However, I do believe the social practice that is being mocked is one deserving of criticism.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Apparently in the wake of bin Laden's slaying we have re-opened public debate on the policy of "enhanced interrogation," which those of us not living in an Orwellian dystopia are likely to refer to as "torture." I actually had not considered this possible ramification of bin Laden's death, only really noticing it when I read a New York Times article on the subject. Within the article a retired C.I.A. agent is quoted as saying, in regard to torture, "most felt it was un-American and did not work."

I have a problem with such statements, as they blithely link an issue of value with one of efficacy. It seems as though it should be enough to say, torture is un-American, or more accurately in my opinion, an offence against our humanity. If one feels it necessary to add, "oh, and it also doesn't work," it seems to leave the door open for debates on what level of efficacy would justify torture.

To condemn torture purely on the grounds of efficacy seems tantamount to saying that 9/11 was immoral because it failed to secure peace in the Middle East, rather than because the act itself was a monstrous failure of humans to be human. On the other hand, this argument of efficacy provides an unsettling explanation on how 9/11 can be differentiated from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I guess the first casualty of war is usually humanity, rather than humans (more on that if I ever finish my second Hunger Games post).

Granted, the bomber and the 100% accurate torture does make an interesting thought experiment. However, out here in the real world I think I can safely conclude I am 100% against torture. Intellectually at least, there are times when my emotions say different, but my humanity is damaged just like everyone else's.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

‎"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." -MLK (but not the famous one, it seems doubtful that the civil rights leader said this, but I attribute it to him as most people are doing, after all, it could be someone else with the same name)

"The world should celebrate when an evil man sees the error in his ways, not when he's killed while proud of what he's done." - Tyler Oakley (I don't know who he is yet, but I like this quote)

I wanted to put up a post with my reaction to the news that bin Laden is dead yesterday, but I was shoulder deep in a paper, in which I quoted bin Laden coincidently enough, so I do so now. Following initial enthusiasm over the death of bin Laden, and who can blame us for feeling excitement upon completion of a goal after almost 10 years in the pursuit, most of the responses shifted in tenor to something along the lines of the two quotes above. While the world might be less bad with bin Laden no longer out there, I fail to see how the death of anyone can make the world a better place, as death just removes things from the world, creating nothing.

However, in the space opened up by this removal, I hope that we can create some things. I hope that we can create better, more equitable and supportive, relationships with nations in the Middle East, especially those fledgling nations which recently voiced their freedom from decades of dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt, and, hopefully, Libya. I hope that we can create a more free society, rolling back some of police powers we have granted the state in wake of the terrorist scare, and restoring sanity to the airport screening process. I hope our troops come home finally! And I hope that we can create a better future wherein people of all religions or none can coexist in greater peace and with deeper understanding.

There has been some talk that justice has been served, but I cannot see justice in this action. not that I am saying that it is unjust, simply that in the unveiled face of human tragedy that we saw on September 11th I cannot see any way to restore justice to such a thing. What cold comfort is justice to the gaping hole in the New York skyline and American hearts? If some who have lost loved ones in the attack or the resulting wars find some solace in bin Laden's death, I would certainly not begrudge them of it, but I feel no more whole than before bin Laden died.

Are we safer? I don't know. Is al-Qaeda's second in command more capable than bin Laden? Will the threat of American retribution deter more would-be terrorists than further American meddling in Muslim nations creates? Does it matter? Life is fragile no matter how you cut it, and no matter what precautions we take, we cannot prevent every threat to our lives.

Am I glad bin Laden is dead? I guess a little. Not so much because it is an ending, but because it could be the beginning of something better. Because it is hard to hate someone who is dead. And because I have hope.