Saturday, December 31, 2011

Too Busy to Write More Than Two Paragraphs

I couldn't decide whether to do a post about the visit so far now, or do one tomorrow when more of the visit has happened. However, I think I am tired and want to be awake to hang out with friends tomorrow, so I'm not going to do much today. So, rather than spend time writing worthwhile things instead of sleeping today, I'm going to mention some things I want to write about soon.

 I'll do a little year wrap up tomorrow or the first of January. I'll also mention a bit about MoBloYoFoMo when it is over, so these two things might be one post. Most importantly in that post, we'll try to hammer out where to go from here. And I want to mention a bit about Epic New Year Party Episode III. Of course, there were the rest of the Identity posts that I wanted to get to... eventually.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Cycle of Life

While in Arizona, my sister graciously let me borrow her book, enabling me to avoid finishing my own before the plane ride to Oregon. She is reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Unfortunately it is less a book about history, something which I find quite interesting, and more a book about teaching history, something which I find less interesting, but it still had nuggets of interest which kept me reading through the first half of the book. And, as is my wont, I got to thinking.

One of the author's, James Loewen, theses is that history is edited to portray advances through time as an inexorable development. Supporting this point he mentions the suppression of oceanic crossings prior to Columbus, which would indicate that reaching the "New" World was, in fact, old news. He also argues that portrayals of Native Americans as primitive peoples stems from urge to portray history as directed toward continual advancement, otherwise known as a teleological interpretation of history.

If the native peoples were uncivilized, then their eradication and assimilation into European culture can be explained as progress towards increasingly civilized society. However, if there were already societies as complex and, in some ways, more advanced than European societies then one runs into dual problems of justification. Without appealing to a notion of "advancement," how can one justify the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans, and how valid is the notion of "advancement"?

It is interesting to note that one can examine these questions separately. Consider the "noble savage" narrative, whose attraction we can observe in the popularity of the movie Avatar, the one about the blue Indians, not the one about the final airbender. Although such interpretations condemn European aggression, they still portray Europeans as more technologically advanced. This seems to send the message that European victory was barbaric and unjustified, but technically predetermined, still in keeping with a teleological interpretation of history.

So then, one might ask how accurate a linear perception of human achievement truly is. Arguing against this notion are things like the pre-Columbian landings which did not lead to colonization, indicating that some factor other than technical know-how spurred European aggression in the late 1400's. One might also remark on the tragic losses of knowledge and local "dark ages" which seem to counter-indicate a linear growth of human civilization. One might remark how common life remained for the most part unchanging over vast stretches of human history.

The modern person has strong motivation to interpret history as linear advancement, not only are we the, current, culmination of said advance, we are always being told of steadily advancing technology. However, one might give some consideration to how true this steady advance is. Certainly advertising agencies have motivation to convince us that technology is improving, whether or not it is even changing. Take, for example, the e-Reader; whenever airlines announce that all portable devices, readers, et al. need to be shut off, I simply smile into my book and continue reading. While an e-Reader is certainly a "high-tech" (notice the way that term alone implies the continual improvement of technology) form of book, one can certainly ask if it is superior. It's very electronic nature places limitations on its usage, on planes, in places without electricity, that do not constrain books. Furthermore, producing e-Readers is more resource and technique intensive than producing printed books. The first first point leads one to question whether the e-Reader is actually technology worse suited to modern realities than the printed book. The second raises issues of privilege, what societies can produce e-Readers and which people can employ them.

Another interesting place to consider "progress" is computer/video games. Although graphics have gotten "better" without question, where "better" simply means that they have become more accurate portrayals of what we actually perceive and one lesson we may learn from art is that more accurate portrayals aren't necessarily better, one can question whether games themselves are improving. Insofar as games are intended to provide an alternate reality plagued with problems possessing obvious solutions into which we may escape to avoid dealing with the problems without obvious solutions plaguing our current reality, I suppose better graphics do lead to a better game. However, if one takes the somewhat less cynical view that games are intended to provide fun, I would like to see evidence as to improvement in current games. Of course, since new games need to be bought, and "better" graphics require "better" hardware to be purchased, there is a large incentive for new games to be touted as ever improving, so we may find older games disappointing now, the right question to ask is whether we were having any less fun when they were "cutting edge" (again implying continual advancement) than we are now with current new releases. And, of course, the continual consumption of new games and hardware presents the same resource and technique requirement questions as the e-Reader.

I am not pretending to present answers in this post. I just wish to highlight the, I believe, interesting question of whether our modern lifestyle does constitute an actual improvement over historical lifestyles and, if so, for what reasons? Furthermore, if one discards the notion of historical advancement then practices and beliefs from historical societies become sources for suggestions of ways we could improve our current society back to lost standards, a curious notion for a progressive like me to be espousing, I know.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Madera Canyon

On Monday, my sister, my brother-in-law, and did some hiking in Madera Canyon, Arizona. We took a 2.5 mile trail up 1700 feet to the Josephine Saddle, then a 3.7 mile trail back down. The going would have been significantly faster if it were not for all the ice on the trail at higher elevations, which made middle part of the trip interesting/exciting/terrifying, depending on how you choose to look at it.

I took quite a bit of video along the way, but editing that takes a lot of time and a much better computer than I've got with me at the moment, so I think I'm just going to steal pictures from my sister and post those. One thing I greatly appreciated throughout the hike was how pleasant the other hikers we passed were. The first person we stopped to talk with on our way up turned out to be a graduate of Oregon State University (small world) class of '65. He let us know that the last third of the trail was icy and that the way we had chosen to go down would be less so. How little we knew what problems this would cause!

Looking up toward Mt Wrightston, far right behind the tree, from the beginning of the trail. If I had to guess, I'd say Josephine Saddle is lower, behind the tree.

The ridge line left (northeast) of the peak in the previous image.

By this point we were in the snow/ice, it is slippery. Flat ice is much better than tilted ice! You can see Mt. Wrightston  in the upper right. The saddle is probably still too far to the right to see.

I'm mainly including this one just to illustrate how beautiful it was up there. Everything is suffused with a soft, blue glow. You can also see one of the trees we needed to climb over in the icy stretch.

Here I am from the saddle, as far as we went. Look how much closer the top of Mt. Wrightston is, so close...

As we went down Super Trail the scenery was much more desert-like. See the cactus... thingy... Ignore the snow!

This is not the peak toward which we were hiking, it  is west and a little north of Mt Wrightston. However, the trail we walked up is somewhere around/below the bottom of this photo, so you get the idea that the one we walked down was across the canyon from it.

To emphasize that this was, indeed, a desert, here are some of the little lizard thingies we saw sunning themselves on a rock. There were a lot more of them, and we passed another colony later on the way down. The difference in conditions between places having Eastern exposure, facing the sun, and places that did not was startling!

As we walked down, on the east face of the canyon, we saw some spectacular vistas which were obscured as we hiked up the west face. I believe that is Green Valley, where we were staying, you can see in the distance.

One last look up at the west face. I know this wasn't too near the end, as eventually we descended far enough that the sun was totally obscured and in returned to being somewhat chilly, but this is the last photo I could steal from my sister.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Remembrance

Whenever I fly I think about death. I realize it is an irrational fear, that is why I still get on airplanes. However, I think it is beneficial to consider one's mortality before one is immediately confronted with it. Perhaps it was a bad idea to watch What Dreams May Come after flying into Portland this morning though.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how I want to be remembered. Well, not how I want to be remembered specifically. I'll live my life as best I can, and that's when I have some say in how people view me, but after I'm gone not much I can do to change that. But I think I mean the manner in which people remember me.

I have been reading a lot of memorials in The State News (Michigan State's student newspaper), a disturbing number of them really, and each one gushes enthusiastically about how absolutely wonderful the departed was. Now I don't know anyone mentioned in the articles (thankfully [because then I'd be sad they were dead, not because I don't want to know them]), so maybe they are as perfect as they are made to seem, but I tend not to buy it. Maybe just because I'm competitive, I know I'm awesome, but I'm not THAT great.

Be that as it may, I have commented on Facebook before that I want to be so famous that some people say mean things about me after I'm dead. Have you ever noticed that it seems to work like that? Anyway, on a more serious note, I don't really need to be famous, but it does seem to be preferable to be remembered "warts and all." Being cleaned up and edited for content just seems to make you more gone. But I'm dead at this point in the hypothetical, so what business do I have dictating to the living?

Well, that is a rather morbid post! I really do blame flying mostly. I think the fact that I'm not really visiting Corvallis this break is also weighing on my mind, a symbol of the perception of inexorably marching into the future.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Such a Tragedy

So, I was supposed to go to "bed" (aka couch) at a reasonable hour Sunday night, to prepare myself to wake up fairly early to go see the Titan missile museum. However, in the course of my mind's wandering I started thinking about how much I'm looking forward to seeing Macbeth next semester, which got me thinking about Shakespearean tragedies. I realized that, after I see Macbeth, Hamlet will be the last "major" Shakespearean tragedy I have yet to read or see for the first time, something I should remedy methinks. Thinking about the ones I have read or seen brought my thoughts to Romeo and Juliet, probably the most quintessential Shakespearean tragedy in our society, and I began to wonder whether I truly believe that it is a tragedy.

My favorite characterization of the tragedy genre is that the virtue of the main character is the very thing that leads to their downfall. Consider the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex, one of my favorites. (Spoiler alert! But shouldn't you already know this story?) Oedipus' parents are rulers of a Greek city-state (Corinth, Argon? Doesn't matter.), and they receive a prophecy from Delphi that their newborn son (Oedipus) will kill his father and marry his mother. Being good parents they promptly give the babe to a servant to leave on a mountainside to die of exposure, but the servant gives him to a shepherd to raise. A grown Oedipus learns of the prophecy and, not knowing he was "adopted," he flees from the loving parents who raised him in order to protect him. In his journeys he meets a boorish man at a bridge who provokes a fight, of course the virtuous Oedipus slays the king of $city-state and his guards.

Then Oedipus comes to $city-state, which is besieged by a sphinx. Oedipus vanquishes said sphinx, then the recently widowed queen of $city-state marries him as a reward (what was her husband doing bullying travelers while his polis was besieged anyway?). Fast forward, Oedipus, the paragon of manliness, has sired wonderful children and ruled $city-state benevolently, when $city-state is cursed with a drought. Oedipus, the good ruler, tries to discern the cause of the drought, despite warnings from wise men that it might be better that he not know. Upon finding out that the dreaded prophecy has indeed come true and they have sired a cadre of child-siblings the queen, Jocasta by name, commits suicide and Oedipus gouges out his eyes to expunge the dishonor.

So, the whole unfortunate kerfuffle comes about from people trying to do the thing that is best. And one little incident of infanticide, but the Greeks were down with that. If Oedipus hadn't acted in such an upright manner, he probably could have lived a satisfying life ruling a drought stricken city-state, that is the tragedy.

Consider, on the other hand, the story of Romeo and Juliet. (Spoiler alert! But really, how do you not know the this story?) Each, upon learning of the death of the other, commits suicide. Of course, the first death was faked, something of which Romeo was supposed to be informed. So, through a simple failure of communication the young lovers kill themselves. Let's examine the actions of Romeo and Juliet. While their romance is rather precipitous, I am enough of a romantic that I feel inclined to look upon that benevolently. Faking one's death to be with one's lover is, again, romantic, albeit extreme considering one will be leaving behind one's family forever, but they hate Romeo anyway, so forget them.

Where their actions become questionable is the idea to commit suicide. Had Romeo refrained from killing himself they could have been together. Even Juliet's suicide doesn't improve anything, no polis escapes a drought. So, in final analysis, while Oedipus Rex is a true tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is simply a sad, selfish waste. For a Shakespearean tragedy worthy of the name, I suggest Julius Caesar.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


So, my sister wanted me to write a blog post filled with her quotes, even though, in her own words, "I'm not that funny." So, I think I'll do something like that today. My brother-in-law suggests that I post a mixture of quotes from Karen and Nietzsche quotes and have you, the home audience, try to guess which is which. But I think I'll just steal a bunch of strange things my sister has said that I posted to Facebook.

Here is a conversation between myself and my sister.
Hermana: I was hoping that someone at least would notice I looked like I'm from Eugene.
Me: Dirty hippie?
Hermana: I was hoping for the regular type of hippie.
Me: That IS the regular type of hippie.

To put this conversation into context, we had just returned from a candlelight service at a local church. I, being the soul of style, went with a modest black ensemble announcing, "Look at me still talking when there's Science to do." Karen, however, felt the need to dress up in sandals and multicolored socks to proclaim her crazy hippie roots. In both our defenses, at least we were clean.

Later that evening I began to whistle one Christmas carol or another. The vibrato I put on some of the notes reminded Karen of Gandalf's whistle to summon Shadowfax in The Lord of the Rings movies. So, she exclaimed, "Here comes Shadowfax, the Christmas pony!" Whereupon we immediately attempted to come up with lyrics to the obvious Christmas song variation.

Unfortunately, my sister isn't immune to fame. Knowing I had posted how amusing she was, and various friends had noticed this and "liked" it, whatever that means, she grew hungry for still more attention and acclaim. This led her to badger me to see if more people had "liked" the status over night, culminating with the rather unfortunate exclamation, "Has anyone liked this today? What! Only four people liked it, don't all your friends like me?!" I promise, she is not as insecure as she sounds, she just acknowledges how awesome my friends tend to be.

My sister is, of course, pretty awesome herself. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into my family, and maybe understand a bit better where someone as silly as me could have come from. If this wasn't enjoyable, sorry; when trying to post every day, they cannot all be winners. After all, as my sister says, "It's NaNoBloYoFo...PoPo""

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holy Uncertainty


I have decided that, unless something specific and immediate comes up, I shall not discuss religion tomorrow. I could give some sort of rationalization for this decision, but ultimately it just doesn't feel right. So, you get my religious musings today instead. Of course, if you sleep at a normal time you probably are asleep even as I write this, so, at the earliest, you will read this on Christmas and thus negate all my planning to avoid mixing my religion with your, possibly, holy day, and if not, probably a day you would prefer to ignore religion. Sorry.

Anyway, our family went to a candlelight service this evening, as is our wont. During a prayer the pastor prayed for something to the effect that all Christians proclaim boldly that Jesus is God and Savior, which got me to thinking. While I am ok with boldly proclaiming that one believes this, I feel that proclaiming it as fact is problematic.

On an ethical level, I think a statement of fact rather than belief leaves less room for mutual respect. If I believe something, then someone may disagree with me and, although I think that they are wrong, I will admit that their position seems like a valid one to take. On the other hand, treating something as an evident fact indicates that those who disagree hold invalid positions, and, as such, one is already assuming they are stupid or ignorant.

On a more metaphysical note, I think that we now know enough to know how much we don't know. Or, to put it another way, if all of someone's information was garnered through dogmatic recitation of traditional explanations or personal superstitions, then asserting a belief as a fact would be no big deal. However, as we have developed more complicated ways of looking at truth, and gained more reliable information, I would like to think that we have also gained an appreciation for what we cannot quantify and pin down. We have assumed a more mature attitude of rational, tempered belief, rather than the spoiled assertion that belief must be truth that a willful child might make.

I do not intend these remarks solely for Christians, although theirs is the religion with which I am most familiar, nor even solely for the "religious." This applies equally well to the militant atheists who, with dogmatic certainty, proclaim that deities do not exist. They too tend to denigrate the mental faculties of those with whom they disagree, attempting to substitute ad hominem insults for coherent arguments. I suppose my ultimate message is that we all ought to respect, not agree with, people who believe other things until they give us reason not to, and that simple disagreement is not sufficient cause. I guess that isn't such a bad message for Christmas after all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts From Places, Places in the Middle of the Air

This thought occurred to me as I was zooming a few miles over some part of the blur that is middle America. You may not remember this, but a way long time ago people could check baggage for free when they flew. Now, you couldn't check your entire wardrobe, well, I could but you get my point, but you could check a bag or two without them charging you. This once, coincidentally, quite helpful as I tried to move to Michigan and live out of a suitcase.

However, times changed and, in due course, all the major airlines were charging some sort of fee for the first bag a passenger checked. So, Americans being the cheap blighters that we are, we stopped checking so many bags. But we still wanted to bring our stuff with us, if there is something Americans dislike more than fees it is leaving our stuff behind, so we started putting more stuff in our carry-on luggage, because that was free after all!

Airlines, being the generous souls that they are, even allowed passengers TWO carry-ons, a little bag for under the seat, and a larger item in the overhead bin. And when I say a larger item, I do mean bigger than a bread box. In fact, they allowed such monstrously large bags that they realized that if everyone brought such a big carry on, they couldn't fit all of them in the overhead compartment; thus was born the gate check.

If you gate check a bag, you take a carry on, then allow the airline to check it through to your destination at the loading gate. So, for those of you paying attention, now we are not bringing checked luggage, instead bringing bigger carry-ons, checking those carry-ons (so they are indeed not carried on), and storing them in the space vacated by the checked luggage whose removal heralded the rise of the carry-on. This thought may be funnier in midair when one is suffering travel fatigue, but I still think it is fairly funny.

I also think it is a success of capitalism. Although they reign as monsters among carry-ons, the largest carry-ons are dwarfed by checked luggage. So, we are being convinced to bring less stuff with us on airplanes, which, in turn, makes the airplane more fuel efficient, a true triumph of economic environmentalism!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It Depends How You Look at It

Today's post is going up unreasonably early due to a busy day travelling. Earlier this week I mentioned that I was planning on writing a blog post about another Questionable Content strip. Here is the strip, and this is the post. I have actually been thinking about writing this post since much earlier than this week; at some point during last semester I had a really good week and I felt kind of happy, but I couldn't think of anything definitive that had been different.

Experiences like these highlight how much our mood affects how we experience what happens to us. It is true, I read it in a Cracked article somewhere; is a sentence I never wish to utter seriously. I cannot find the article now, so I shall not link to it, but that might actually be a public service if you have as much trouble leaving Cracked once you start reading articles as I do.

Anyway, at the time I was a bit upset by this phenomenon. It is one thing to think you are unhappy because of something, if that is the case then you can work to change it, or wait to get over it, or whatever the appropriate remedy may be. However, if you are happy for no particular reason at all, then it sort of indicates that you are probably also unhappy for no particular reason at all, and what is one to do about that?

To make matters worse, it is not simply the case that how we feel and what happens to us may be unrelated, sometimes what happens to us is caused by how we feel. More accurately, the way we experience and remember our day will be affected by our mood, so "good things" will happen to and be remembered by happy people. As the comic points out, this does call into question our ability to experience an objective reality.

As much as I might wish to be the suave dude in the plaid, I am much more a curious and freaked out Hannelore. But I'm actually doing pretty ok with the idea that that my experiences are dependent on my mood these days. If nothing else, it is a good reminder not to take other people's perspectives for granted, and it helps me to understand that there is probably a reason behind their interpretation of events, no matter how much it may differ from my own.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Intellectual Property: A Scabrous Blight on the Human Spirit

or, The Singularity Happened and We Decided it was Not Profitable.

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

Foreword: I know I have already started another post with the above quote, in fact, it is probably my favorite post that I have written, and I link to it later, but the quote is applicable to this post as well. Which is kind of odd, because I didn't expect this post to take the turn it did, but turn it did, and I enjoyed the ride.

Post: Consider philosophy, or math if you must, or even just your favorite human endeavor. The usual way these subjects advance is that someone has a new idea, they explain it to a few people, called their students, and the especially bright ones go forth and leverage their mentor's new idea into an even newer idea. Now imagine what would happen if the mentor said, "student, each time my idea is used, the user must compose me a sonnet," as sonnets are the only form of currency appropriate for philosophers.

Now we do not get the students contribution, as writing their mentor a sonnet each time they use, or explain, or even think about their idea is a serious annoyance. We do not have the Industrial Revolution, because it requires so much calculus that the royalties to Newton, or Leibniz depending on who wins in court, make it prohibitively expensive to experiment with their calculations. Much of our current prosperity is built on the concept that while physical things can be bought and sold in the market, the correct payment for an idea is credit, you give the author a citation and move on.

This seems to have worked quite well when most things were things. Even most ideas were things; while the Mona Lisa may be an image, it is also a painting. Nowadays, however, so many ideas are independent of their things. If I go to the used bookstore and buy a much loved copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, it is both a book and a story. However, if I download a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo to my E-reader, I still have, for the most part, the same E-reader, and now I also have the story.

Since the idea and the thing are no longer so closely tied, we decide that we must control how the idea itself is distributed, rather than just the thing, so that the people controlling the ideas may profit. Now people who use the idea, or share the idea, without rendering unto Caesar are branded thieves and punished; which, when you think about it, is akin to criminalizing reading a story aloud to an audience. While this, undeniably, allows some people to make a lot of money, it seriously limits the usefulness of the idea.

Even if we are permitted exposure to the idea, we are not supposed to take it and make it our own, leveraging it to create our new ideas. This is the problem of fan fiction, of reverse engineering technology, and of covering your favorite song. The cycle of creation, absorption, then further creation has been artificially severed, specializing people into creators and absorbers, or consumers, dramatically restricting the pool from which new ideas are likely to arise.

Some argue that if we did not allow the creators to make vast profits off of their ideas, we would no longer gain the benefit of them having these ideas. Whether or not this premise is economically true, and the creators are actually the ones gaining this vast wealth, it is false from a number of other perspectives. It is historically false, people have been striving to improve the Idea throughout history, regardless of whether they ended up scorned and forced to drink hemlock (Socrates), died penniless (Leonardo Da Vinci), or ended up a royal tutor dying from exposure to early morning cold (Rene Descartes). It is anthropologically false, there are not creators whom the rest of us must entreat to create, or creation itself will cease, for we are all creators. For every Newton whom we might tease out of the woodwork with the crass lure of lucre there is a Leibniz who will create for creations sake, for the Idea. And it is philosophically false, not only are we all capable of creation, we are all compelled to creation. Philosophers have likened creation of things and ideas to our creation of our self, so, without creation, we cannot exist as fully realized people. Thus we write Rowling/Tolkien crossover fiction, we work on accordion covers of Bad Romance, and we write our silly little blog posts.

Furthermore, we do not hoard these ideas, we upload them, we post to them, we link to them, we should them from the metaphorical mountains. Because they are our creations, they are ourselves, and we wish to go out into the world and to change it, and to be loved, but maybe most of all, to be recognized and known. No, closing the floodgates on the Idea and caging it to service commerce does not encourage creation, it cripples it. It cripples us, turning us into into receivers, lacking the confidence to synthesize and rebroadcast and complete the life cycle of the idea.

What is worse, there is no need to close the floodgates. If I have a book, then you take my book, I no longer have the book, although if I have read it I still may have the story. If I have a story on an E-reader, and you take my story and put it on your E-reader, we can both have the story. Yet, because we are developing our information to force it to reflect what we previously have known about economies, we are artificially attempting to shape the idea economy to act as the thing economy does. Penny Arcade commented on the utter ridiculous nature of this artificial scarcity, although the accompanying comic does so rather crudely. As I publish this post, I set it free, and you, and everyone in the world who has access to the Internet, can read it, and have it, and I still also have it, and we may all take it and add to it if we so wish, because the information singularity is here, we just need to wake up, open our eyes, and see it.


So, the premise of MoBloYoFoMo is that I write a blog post every day in the month of December. Of course, this is already not going to happen because I forgot a day or two back at the beginning. Which raises the question, what happens when I miss a day? Do I simply blog one extra day into January? (lame!) Do I have to do an entire extra week in January? (punishment, yes, but kind of harsh!)

I think it would be beneficial for me to have some sort of defined repercussion for failure to post on a given day. For one, it will help me decide to skip days when I need to, because then I will know what the atonement shall have to be. I was very much considering skipping today, because it is late and I really should head to sleep, but then I got to thinking, "well, what will happen if I do skip today?" and I thought I could eke a blog post out of that. Furthermore, since I have said, "this month I will blog every day," choosing not to post on a given day feels like willfully going back on my word, which is not to be done. If I have agreed ahead of time that there is a repercussion for not posting, there is already an acknowledgement that sometimes posts may not happen, so I can uphold my honesty and ALSO get some sleep! Win-win!

So, since my ideas switch between lame and harsh, do you have any thoughts as to what my penance ought be? Of course, no promise to adopt your suggestion, but I would like to hear them. Ok, it's short, but I feel this counts as a blog post.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Higher Standards

This post is not about standardized testing, as the title might lead you to believe. Actually, it is about the webcomic, Questionable Content. More specifically, this strip. I have decided that Elliot, the one is, presumably, wearing pants, would be my hero, if he were an actual person.

While I tend to hold myself to fairly high standards, in many things, I think, I often assume that other people do not hold themselves to such standards, nor should they be. Then Elliot comes and gently taps some sense into me. For one thing, it is just downright insulting to think that I should be held to higher standards than other people, so I should stop that. Also, if other people can't/don't live up to those standards, but still manage to live good lives, it bears questioning in what sense the standards are "higher". Finally, maybe I'm missing out on how much better than my expectations people actually are, if this is the case, I firmly blame Internet comment threads ;)

I wanted to write about another QC strip, but I think that post will take more thought, so it gets postponed until I'm trapped in an airport or have more time on my hands.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

You Go Gamer Girl!

I just read a very interesting article about male privilege within the nerd community. In fact, if you only have time to read one article, go read that one, it is much more interesting than this one. I agree with the post wholeheartedly for the most part, so, as is my practice, I'm not going to talk about what I agree with, because I believe the original author presents them well enough without my meddling. This is, of course, yet another reason to read that article.

The first place I started to truly disagree with the author was in the section entitled, "How Male Privilege Affects Geek Girls in Real Life," in the seventh paragraph, which is the first paragraph that is decently long. The author says, "A man, for example, who gets a job isn't going to... be shrugged off as a quota hire'." I think what we have here is an interesting intersection of male privilege with white privilege. While I agree that a man who gets a job is unlikely to be considered a "quota hire" qua his manliness, but there are other reasons, such as race, that a man could be considered a quota hire. So, I think this could be worded a bit better to avoid the implication that racism is no longer a problem. However, the author did, toward the beginning, note that, "men – most often straight, white men – as a whole, get certain privileges and status because of their gender," so the issues of racism and sexual orientationism are at least acknowledged.

Then, in the next paragraph, the author states that, "Men will also not be told that they're being 'too sensitive' or that 'they need to toughen up' when they complain about said sexual threats," referring to the content of trash talk in some video games. I would argue that men are "told" not to be sensitive or to toughen up, explicitly or implicitly, fairly often, and assuming that one wouldn't in this situation seems insupportable. This is not to say that men have it tough to so maybe we shouldn't worry about women so much, or to distract from the very valid main point of the article, I just want to reemphasize a point I have made before, that gender essentialism ends up hurting people of both genders and is probably responsible for much homophobia.

I think it is also worth considering the eleventh paragraph in its entirety:
Men are also not going to be automatically assigned into a particular niche just based on their gender. A girl in a comic store or a video game store is far more likely to be dismissed as another customer's girlfriend/sister/cousin rather than being someone who might actually be interested in making a purchase herself. And when they are seen as customers, they're often automatically assumed to be buying one of the designated "girl" properties… regardless of whether they were just reading Ultimate Spider-Man or looking for a copy of Saint's Row 3.
There are a couple of interesting things going on here. The first is some more gender essentialism, girls are expected to buy "'girl' properties," which maybe should be products, and, by logical extension, guys are expected to buy guy products. However the author does not note that guys are buying designated guy products, and this, I believe, is because male is the "default gender," similarly to how white is the "default race" in my first complaint. Things marketed to girls need an explanatory adjective, "'girl' properties" and are a "niche," whereas things marketed to guys are just treated as the normal fare for the shop.

That is everything critical that I can think of to say about the article. I thought that most of it was right on, and I thought all of it was an interesting read. Compare to this news post from Penny Arcade, about how the female version of the main character from the Mass Effect series was going to be portrayed be default. I link to the news post, but mainly because it serves as a repository for interesting links to other articles an the topic.

I am unsure that the Kotaku and Penny Arcade posts are at odds, because the latter seems to be saying that just because FemShep is given a specific appearance should not imply that we write her off as a "bimbo." However, insofar as it can be read as a defense for portraying women in video games as idealized objects of attraction, the Penny Arcade post may be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Semester is Done

I turned in my last homework on Friday, then I worked out and submitted final grades today, so I think the semester is finished. It has been moderately exhausting. This was my second semester teaching two classes, and teaching two classes always seems to generate a surprising increase in the amount of grading I feel like I am doing. Furthermore, one of those classes was at 9:10 AM. While I have been known to take the occasional 9:10 class, when one is a student, one can sleep through class when the sleep debt becomes too severe. When one is the teacher, this is not a choice.

I think I will be able to arrange not to teach at 9:10 next semester, which will be nice, as I was utterly exhausted toward the end of this semester. It also looks like my last class will be early afternoon, rather than a 4:10-5:30 slog. Although I am by no means a morning person, once I am awake and active, I tend not to slide back into sleep easily. But mid to late afternoon is long enough after I have woken up that sitting in a lecture is likely to allow me to fall back asleep. Between starting later and having my classes earlier, I am quite hopeful that I shall attend most of my classes and stay awake through all the ones I attend.

I didn't finish my comprehensive exam, the next big milestone on my way to finishing. This means I do not think I will be taking a philosophy class, as doing so was to be my reward for getting that done. However, I have been toying with the idea of taking a formal logic course. While this would technically be through the philosophy department, it is not the type of philosophy I tend to try to take, and is closely related to mathematics, as a broad subject.

Anyway, I am looking forward to next semester for a variety of reasons, but before it gets here, I guess I have to take a winter break, such tough luck ;)

You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'

Well, December 16th means that I am halfway through MoBloYoFoMo! And what better way to celebrate than with a clip episode? But, rather than highlight things that I have done, because that would be seriously self-promotional, I think I'll link some of my current favorite YouTube clips, because that sounds like a lot more fun for everyone involved!

I may have linked this one before, I certainly have on Facebook, but I love... er, thoroughly enjoy and derive great pleasure from, it dearly! In fact, I rather prefer this to the original version of the song. The acappella group is On The Rocks, a group from the "other" University in Oregon, but I can't even hold that against them, that is how good this song is:

As you can see, I am experimenting with embedding video, because I am just that fancy! Anyway, moving on we come to a pop mash-up which I found due to a link on Facebook from the eminently musical Tim Karplus of Sounds Like Japan semi-fame. I know I've said this before, but if you are interested in pop music, and enjoy hearing people who know what they are talking about do so in an amusing manner, then you should check out his blog. Regarding the video, I first heard it almost a year ago, and I was having kind of a tough time, I'm in grad school, you should not be particularly surprised. The upbeat energy and positive message put on repeat really helped me buoy my flagging spirits at times. Yes, I would lie on my office floor and listen to it on repeat. Considering it also contains some of my favorite pop music, some of which I didn't know was my favorite until after I listened to this, I think this is a real winner:

DJ Earworm, the guy who mashed, is that the right verb, this song also came and played a show at MSU last spring. I went for a while, but being by myself in a room of partying strangers has never been my native environment, and got to hear him play this before I left, definitely cool. In case you haven't guessed, I like reinterpretations of pop music. But, enough of that, now for something a little more folksy. This next song is from YouTube music sensation Hank Green, of Vlogbrothers fame. If you see me on Facebook you probably notice I quote and share John Green's videos rather more frequently than Hank's, but this is just because John tends to think about the type of things that interest me more often than Hank does, and has a more eloquent way with words perhaps. But, if you want a song, then Hank is definitely the brother to prefer, so here is one of my favorites from him. Warning, there is slight vulgarity:

Finally, here is a song which I just adore for the instrumentation, although I really like it as a whole. In fact, my only real complaint about this song is that it needs to be a minute or a minute and a half longer. I also wouldn't mind a bridge. I've heard covers that remedy these problems, but they lose the typewriter, and you can never have enough typewriter in a song. I also really enjoy the synthesized organ sound, I think it gives the whole thing a sharp, tightly fitting sound:

Well, I had fun giving myself an excuse to go back and listen to those again, as though I need one, and if you listened as well I hope you enjoyed them too!

It isn't exactly a YouTube clip, but there is a post over at Elf Army Writes that I really enjoy. In addition to containing a Hunger Games pun and being an enjoyable read, it also relates back to an old post about the importance of careful word choice. Ok, looks like I am going to be self-promotional anyway.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Some Fine Avocados!

I was curious how to store avocados, so I used the miracle of modern technology to ask all my Facebook friends, or at least the ones who bother to read my statuses. Of course, I knew that I could look the information up directly on the internet, so why did I ask people? To emphasize this point, as I was walking to school it occurred to me that I should figure out how to store the avocados, and I thought of asking FB, then I wondered why I wouldn't just look it up, and spent a few minutes wondering about that. So it was a thought out choice, even if I'm still not exactly sure why I did it.

One initial thought was that it helps one judge the reliability of the information. After all, how do I know if FoodFreaks dot net has any idea what should be done to store avocados? Note: I do not know what is at the url FoodFreaks dot net, so explore that at your own risk. On the other hand, people with whom I have interacted and will interact with again in the future develop some measure of trust, yes, even my sister.

On the other hand, I don't think that is entirely accurate. I actually have developed a relationship of trust with Google, through past associations and expectations of future interactions, much the same as another human. So if I were to get a site recommended by Google, I would feel fairly confident that the information was fairly accurate. The same could be said of Wikipedia, with which I have a fairly trusting relationship.

No, I think the biggest reason that I ask humans rather than internet sites is that, while we may have a relationship, there can be no sense of sociality with an internet site. When you ask a human they share information, which is fundamentally different than when you ask a computer and they simply present information. I am actually tempted hypothesize that we are not yet adapted to the sheer volume of information available online and we actually prefer it to come in by dribs and drabs from personal sources. This seems like it would be the start of a very interesting conversation with an evolutionary biologist or psychologist, or maybe a sociologist. But, more importantly, if I ever ask you something that I could definitely look up myself, it is probably because I want some human interaction with you. And, on a related note, I don't ever remember being irked when looking up information online to answer someone else's question.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Addendum About Standardized Testing

I am a bit tired today to want to fully flesh out a thought enough to make a blog post that I'd find satisfactory, so instead I'm going to talk a bit more about yesterday's topic, standardized tests, and leave it at that. As part of my preparation for yesterdays post, I read this Washington Post, which had been popping up repeatedly on my Facebook feed. While I liked the anti-standardized test message, I was a bit disturbed at the questions that were labelled too hard.

Of course, who can question that this upstanding administrator could be less than qualified to evaluate what an appropriate math exam might be, despite the fact that "[T]he math section had 60 questions [and he] knew the answers to none of them" After all, "[b]y any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities." I'm not sure if the mathematician in me is more outraged by the questions this administrator cannot answer or the philosopher by the limited methods for measuring success.

I do have to agree with the assessment of the reading test. Often it is not clear which answer is, "best." However, this related article is much more in line with my opinions from yesterday, in fact echoing some of them. Plus, the author is old! That means he must know that about which he is talking, right? Hmm, another reason I may have chosen to omit it yesterday is it seems to bring out the snarky side in me. Oh well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One Size Fits All!

If you are like me, you feel skeptical any time you see "One size fits all," on an article of clothing. If we question it when it comes to a piece of fabric we intend to drape over ourselves occasionally, why would we accept it when it comes to our education? Yet, is this not what we are doing when we advocate for standardized test and uniform classes?

It is getting to the point where it is difficult for me to talk about education here, simply because I have so many posts on the subject. While I don't wish to assume that you have read all my previous posts, although I egotistically wish that you had, I also don't wish to rehash old thoughts at length. So, in an attempt to compromise between competing necessities, I shall give an overview of a thought when I introduce it, sufficient to get through this post, then link to a more comprehensive post for your further investigation should you so choose.

Of course the idea of "standardizing" tests and making classes "uniform" appeals to our sense of fairness. Casual logic, it seems, supports the idea that if we make everybody do the same thing then we must be treating them fairly. Unfortunately, this seems erroneous. Setting aside more heady problems, like the exact nature of fairness, one might simply note that some people test better than others. Simply picking an arbitrary method of evaluation and then applying that rubric to everyone in no way guarantees fairness. If fairness is not the ultimate goal of standardization, what is then?

I would argue that it is interchangeability. I have previously introduced the idea that education is being industrialized, and just as identical, interchangeable parts make it easy to keep the literal machines of industry running, interchangeable workers make it easier to keep the metaphorical machines of industry running. If position P requires knowledge K to perform correctly and degree D signifies that the degree holder possesses knowledge K, then if the worker holding position P becomes inoperable, replacing them is as simple as finding candidates with degree D. If this all sounds cold, inhuman, and mathematical to you, then welcome to the Enlightenment.

Of course, arguing that something makes the economy run more smoothly does not a justified criticism make, even I will acknowledge that. Even arguing that it causes the devaluation of skilled labor because skilled workers are easier to replace only seems like a first world problem. However, I would argue that it is simply a bad way to educate people.

Consider what forms of thought lend themselves to standardization. Facts are quite standard; no matter who you are, the names and dates of historical figures remain the same, the main character of the Odyssey is unchanged, and the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter will be pi, local legislation notwithstanding. Procedures too remain unchanged; the quadratic formula will give you the roots of a second degree polynomial, one can construct a haiku if they know what a syllable is and have seven fingers, and soda will erupt in a bubbly gyser if a bunch of pills are dumped into it. What is lost is understanding. What a haiku means, what the message of the Odyssey is, even what the significance of the roots of a polynomial is will change from person to person.

Worse still, since we seem to understand that understanding is important, we attempt to brutalize it until it shapes up, gets in line, and conforms. When asked what the main message Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is the young might say it is about dying, the old that it is about living, and the naturalist about the enduring importance of nature. You cannot standardize understanding because it is as unique as the person doing the understanding, and people are not interchangeable, nor should we be.

So then, if one accepts my hypothesis that standardization is inherently bad and cannot be redeemed by making the tests easier or more relevant, what is to be done? I think a promising beginning would be to alter the nature of evaluation. When I simply talk with my students about mathematics I get a highly subjective idea as to their level of proficiency, which nonetheless is occasionally more accurate than the results I get from exam scores. I also like the idea of group examinations, where classmates are able to teach each other so the exam becomes both an evaluation tool and a learning tool. One could question students individually afterwards on the content of their answers to make sure all group members understood the groups method for solving the problem.

Even the traditional method of individual test taking could use serious reform. I wrote a rather lengthy post focusing on the fairness issues of giving timed exams. Left to my own devices I would prefer to give students whatever length of time they required on an exam. Personally, I don't feel that extra time is all that helpful, as one will generally know what one is doing or not, but if it would be helpful to the student, why not allow it? Even more radically, why not allow the student to attempt the exam as many times as they need? Of course, not the exact same exam, but one over the same concepts, this is how online tutoring programs such as the Khan Academy pace their students. A dismal exam grade should reflect a dismal understanding of the material, and why would one accept that a student has a dismal understanding of a subject and just move on? The only reason that I can see to move on would be if one had a predetermined goal which all students were supposed to meet by a common deadline, in short, standardization.

Of course, reforms such as these would require great bravery. We would have to trust that educators know what is important and how to determine whether their students have learned it. I think that even the first is problematic, but I can hardly fault them for that, as they themselves are products of a rote education more focused on memorization than understanding. I do believe that our educators are intelligent people capable of actually learning their subjects if given the chance, and I believe the same about their students!

Monday, December 12, 2011

I got the MoBloYoFoMo Blues

The problem with vowing to update a blog every day for a month, aside from the obvious one of forgetfulness, is that you are supposed to update even on days when you are dead tired from grading nearly all day. In fact, if I were one of those normal people who worked 8 hours each day (hmmm, ask fact checker if those people still exist), I would have spent more than a days work just grading exams today. There was a lot of grading, I am still haunted by the trauma llama from all the grading. Anyway, as you may have already guessed, due to these unfortunate circumstances, we shall not be saying anything of note here today. I was going to post some more thoughts about the standardization of education, but having spent the entire day grading uniform finals, I can't. I think that may be ironic, and not the Alanis Morissette kind.

The good thing with vowing to update a blog every day for a month is that you are supposed to even when it is three in the morning and you really should be going to sleep, because sometimes gritting ones teeth and writing a blog post into the wee hours of the morning produces something worth thinking about, but not today.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage

I feel that it is a good rule of thumb for me to take a couple of days to think about my post when I am going to write about gay marriage. Not so much because the subject warrants deep consideration, although it does, I have been known to dash off posts on other topics that also warrant deep consideration. In this case the enforced days of mulling give me not only time to collect my thoughts, but also time to mellow out.

I need such time, because I am angry about the nature of the discussion of gay marriage in our nation! While appeals to emotion, also called pathos, may be an effective argumentative strategy, I don't believe that they are the most ethical method of discourse (an interesting post from a friend I met through dancing on this subject, if you are interested). Furthermore, when discussing something as polarizing as gay marriage, I feel the vitriol that passion can bring out only impedes parties from coming to such common understandings as can be found. In fact, I have already begged off of posting about gay marriage once, on the grounds that I didn't wish to embitter my readers. I actually did post about Proposition 8 elsewhere, and my initial thoughts on the subject and what I actually wrote a day later were quite different in tone. That said, on to the post about gay marriage.

What I wish to address specifically is the religious objections to legalizing gay marriage. Or, even more specifically, how I can think of absolutely no reasonable grounds for a religious objection to legalizing same sex marriages... yes, I am staying calm. This is mostly directed at Christians, both because I hear the most objections from them and because I am most familiar with the content of their objections. If you have objections from a different religious tradition that do not conform to these generalizations I would be most interested in hearing them.

I really do not care what your religious stance on the righteousness of gay marriage happens to be, that is between you, your conscience, your deity, and your religious leaders, or some subset thereof. I don't want to try to argue whether homosexuality is a sin with you, I do not need to! Unless your religion is different than the vast majority of religions, it probably teaches that following another religion is less righteous, in some sense. I think this can even be said to be true of the Quakers and Baha'is, despite both being paragons of tolerance. As such, I think it is likely that you support immoral things being legal, because most Americans appreciate the freedom of religion, even though it allows those immoral "others" to indulge in their less righteous beliefs.

One might argue that it is a harmful lifestyle, both to those who practice it, although as freedom loving Americans this argument does not hold much weight, and to their children, a more compelling argument. While there have been many emotional counterarguments to this point, again, I do not need to refute you. Presumably you believe that being raised without a personal relationship with a loving Savior is also harmful, or a firm indoctrination into the Church's dogmas if one happens to be Catholic, or whatever the analogous benefit is to whatever religious tradition you prefer. Yet we do not try to legislate that Hindi couples, or Jewish couples, or Muslim couples, and so on, not marry and raise children.

You might object that marriage is a sacred religious rite and it cannot be performed on homosexual couples due to its very nature, whatever the laws in place may be. Here I will have to both agree and disagree with you. Yes, marriage is a sacred religious rite, and yes it is reasonable for you to believe that it cannot be performed for same sex couples, although I disagree with that. But no, that is not all that it is. Marriage is also a purely legal and entirely separate secular condition, which must be kept entirely separate if we are to maintain the separation of church and state that is one of the great institutions of our nation. And it is this second, secular form of marriage that I, and most advocates for same sex marriage, am calling for same sex couples to have equal access to.

Ah, and here you think you might find some traction for your slipping arguments against some sex marriage, but won't advocates for same sex marriage take permission to engage in secular marriage and use it to try to legally force churches to marry them in religious ceremonies? Sadly, I think that some will, and I do not think that to do so is right, by the same freedom of religion that I supported above. However, just because someone might take a warranted right and attempt to do something unwarranted with it does not justify withholding the warranted right. And, let me be perfectly clear here, I believe that churches should not be forced to marry gay couples, but I also believe that they should not be forced to accommodate inter-racial marriages, despite the fact that I feel their refusal to do so is morally disgusting, and I feel the same way about a refusal to acknowledge same sex marriages.

Furthermore, the right to refuse service for religious reasons should be restricted to religious institutions, in my opinion. A business has no more right to refuse a gay couple service for their identity than it would to deny a person service for their racial, or political, or gender etc. identity. And, since I cannot think of any more common objections to same sex marriages, I shall end the discussion there for now.

However, on a related note, apparently Lowe's is pulling an ad from a show because objections have been raised to the show focusing on Muslims in the United States. This is yet another example of the market not being guided inherently by a conscience, or anything else with moral relevance, but rather by what people want, or, more accurately, what will affect the bottom line. In response to this villainy some feel the need to legislate morality, forcing Lowe's to put run the ad using some form of anti-discrimination legislation. Again, while I agree with anti-discrimination laws, I do not believe their proper use is to force businesses to run ads on specific shows. However, despite the fact that some people will use said laws in a manner with which I do not agree, I am not advocating that we get rid of said laws altogether. But, if you happen to do business with Lowe's, I would advocate that you consider shopping elsewhere until they repudiate their cowardly and, ultimately, bigoted action and reinstate the ad!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Free Stuff!

Hmmm... I want people to read my blog. People read things they like. People like free stuff. I should give away free stuff! But I don't want to give away free stuff... I should tell you how to GET free stuff!

Somewhat more seriously, I am not feeling up to writing a long post today, so I just thought I'd let people in the Corvallis area know that you might be able to get a free massage by commenting on my sister's blog post. I guess I let people not in the Corvallis area know that as well, but you aren't likely to be able to get the massage, sorry! As a consolation prize, consider wandering around my sister's other blog posts, she says some interesting stuff sometimes, no matter what you find interesting.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Immanuel Never Hit With a Train

Today's title is brought to you by my feeling that I've already made enough puns using Kant's last name. It is also the last post focusing on running people over with trains for the near future, I think. I have written about Kant a number of times, and you are welcome to search my blog for his name if you want to read more of my thoughts regarding his ethical philosophies, but I think this post will be self-contained in that respect. However, I hope you are current on our conversations on Trains, Organs, and Liberals.

When last we spoke, we ran into the odd problem that taking someone's organs to save the lives of many other people seemed immoral, while directing a train to run over someone if it meant saving the lives of many other people seemed quite moral. I feel we can tie the difference back to Kant's categorical imperitive, which has been explained as an obligation to recognize other humans as moral agents, rather than simply tools to accomplish our own goals. When we harvest someone's organs to save the lives of others, we are using that person as a means to help those other people, if we divert a train into someone to avoid it hitting other people, the first person getting hit isn't a means, it is a consequence.

This highlights the interesting difference between intended and foreseeable consequences. If we do something in order for a certain result to happen, it is an intended consequence. For example, if we knock someone out and steal all their organs then taking their organs was an intended consequence, it is the reason that we did something. On the other hand, if we recognize that something must occur should we take a given action, but its occurrence does not lead to a desired result, it is a foreseeable consequence. Suppose we divert the train into the lone worker to save the lives of five workers. Although we know that the lone worker will die, their death does not lead to the desired result, saving the other five workers. If that worker had not been there we still could have saved the five workers by diverting the train. On a related note, this highlights the difference between the scenario where we divert the train into a single person to save five and that where we push a single person in front of the train to save five.

Thus we have a fairly reasonable explanation why the Trolley Problem and the organ donation scenario seem to evoke different moral responses despite the fact that in both cases the outcomes, who lives and dies, remains the same. This is possible because Kantian ethics, like liberal ethics, examines the ethics of actions in themselves, not just of consequences as Utilitarianism does.

So, to recap, initially we introduced the Trolley Problem and discussed the relationship between moral intuition and our critique of ethical philosophy. The second post examined the moral implications of inaction and the alternate organ donation scenario. The third post discussed liberal ethics, which came up as an ethical system in which looting people for their organs would not be the apparently moral thing to do. And finally we discussed why our moral intuition might see this distinction between hitting a person with a train and looting their organs.

While this entire discussion may seem totally tongue-in-cheek and not at all applicable to the "real world," I believe otherwise. Of course it is somewhat irreverent, I am writing it, however, it addresses issues that we as a society should consider, given that we do have the amazing ability to move organs from one person to another. I hope you found the serious amusing, interesting, or, at the very least, thought provoking!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Crazy Liberals

As I mentioned yesterday, when one refers to liberals in the context of ethics it means something quite different than it does in reference to modern United States politics. Liberal ethical systems are based on the idea that people have certain rights and the moral thing to do is respect those rights. Historically, the idea of liberal ethics can be traced back as far as the Magna Carta which codified protections that some people had from the power of the monarchy. By its nature liberalism is closely tied to the concept of "rule of law," which refers to the notion that the highest authority in government should be a stable, public, codified set of laws rather than the dictates of a leader or governing body.

On the other hand, I don't know of any liberal political philosophy that predates Thomas Hobbes. If you have ever heard the phrase, "nasty, brutish, and short," used to describe human lives you are at least minimally familiar with his philosophy. He is also the inspiration for the name of Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes, just one of the many reasons that it is my favorite comic! Anyway, Hobbes argued that left to our own devices humans live pretty miserable lives, see above "nasty, brutish, and short," and in order to avoid this barbarous conditions we cede our sovereignty to some central government which, in turn coordinates the actions of its citizens to minimize casualties. If you are familiar with the saying, "those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither," you have about the antithesis of Hobbes' philosophy. Of course, the freedoms that Hobbes asks us to sacrifice are those like our sovereign right to kill other people if we deem it expedient, and the security we gain mainly comes from the agreement of our fellows to sacrifice the same right.

More recently, and more recognizable in the United States philosophy of government, John Locke was another political philosopher. In contrast to Hobbes, Locke tends to focus on those individual rights in which the government ought not interfere for citizens to lead fulfilling lives, rather that which individual rights ought be forgone in order to lead fulfilling lives. This difference is quite understandable given their historical contingencies, Hobbes lived in an era of great turmoil and violence in England and, rather than trying to justify some existing despotic power, he was simply attempting to discern what form of government could provide safety to its citizens. On the other hand, Locke was a rebel sympathizer, and was attempting to provide philosophical justification for overturning the government.

One thing the two authors have in common is that rights take precedence over government. In Hobbes government is an essential outgrowth of the most fundamental right that each of us possesses, the right to protect our lives. On our own we cannot be assured that we will prevail against whatever threats, be they human or natural, assail our very livelihood. Grouping together in governments is the only logical course Hobbes sees to secure a modicum of freedom from all out warfare against all our neighbors. Locke, by contrast, sees the government as a threat to our rights, a perspective that also requires that rights be more important than the current government.

Of course, Locke sees rights as including much more ephemeral concepts than Hobbes, whereas Hobbes rights include things such as the right to do whatever is possible to protect one's life, which by its very nature cannot be taken away, as there is no way to prevent someone from exercising it, Locke includes things such as property ownership in his notion of rights. Whether or not owning property is a fundamental right, it is quite possible to prevent someone from exercising that right. I have always felt the phrase, "we hold these rights to be self-evident," to mean that the founding fathers couldn't really come up with good reasons to justify the rights that they were about to list. Taking liberty for example, even if I do have a right to liberty it is quite possible for liberty to be taken from me, so in what sense that right is "self-evident," is, in fact, not evident to me.

To bring it back to the topic at hand, mandatory organ "donation," it seems quite obvious that an ethical system that places personal welfare, as represented by rights, above communal welfare, represented by government, could effectively argue against taking someone's organs, even if would benefit many other people. Of course, liberal systems do not take this to its logical extreme, they are not libertarians after all, and permit individual rights to be infringed upon as long as it is a result of some infraction on the part of the person whose rights are to be curtailed. As such, it would not be incompatible with such a system to have mandatory organ "donation" from people convicted of some form of crime. Nor would it be incompatible for such a thing to be strictly forbidden to do to anyone of course, it would just depend on the specific code of rights.

The question then becomes how do we explain the divergence between the Trolley Problem and that of mandatory "donation" in a liberal system. I doubt anyone would say that by pulling the switch to divert the train away from five workers, to the detriment of one worker, in some way violates the workers rights. And, if it does, wouldn't leaving the switch as it is violate the rights of the five workers who died? If there is no way to satisfy all the rights involved in a situation, then the idea of a right based morality loses some plausibility, unless one ranks different rights in some order of priority. In an attempt to explain one possible difference between running a train into someone to save five other people and taking the organs from someone to save five other people I may talk a bit more about my man Kant tomorrow. However, are people bored with this rather lengthy ethical consideration of trains and organs? Would you rather I talked about something else, and, if so, any suggestions as to what that might be?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

You Really Decide Who Lives and Dies

Yesterday I discussed the Trolley Problem, and today's post will not make much sense if you are not familiar with the set up explained therein. Today I would like to address the 10% of the population that would not switch the track to save five lives at the expense of one.

It really is your choice, even if you do nothing and let five people die, that is a choice you made if you could have made it otherwise. I emphasize this because the only reason that I can think of for someone to choose to let five people die rather than letting one person die, excluding possible personal reasons for preferring specific individuals live or die, is the belief that by throwing the switch they are responsible for the resulting death in a way that they are not responsible for the five deaths should they refuse to throw the switch. It would be interested to test this assumption by reversing the situation, and requiring the participant to throw the switch if they want to divert the train away from the one person into the five, to test that it isn't the case that 10% of the population just wants to maximize carnage. I would also be interested in seeing the results of a situation where everyone will die unless the person on the lever chooses one group to die. I would not be surprised if some people let everyone die in order to avoid the responsibility of choosing a subset to save, dismayed perhaps, but not surprised.

I think that it is important for people to accept that, if it is within their power to alter the outcome of an event and they fail to attempt to do so, then they must bear some responsibility for the outcome. A popular quote whose provenance is not clear captures this idea, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." This emphasizes that one of the causes of the evil is the inaction of the good people who might have otherwise prevented it from coming to pass. So, even if one abstains from touching the track switch, the blood of the five dead workers is on one's hands as much as the single dead worker's would be if the switch were thrown.

However, this view of morality does chronically cause me problems when I consider the question of forcibly "donating" the organs from prisoners convicted of violent crimes to less sordid citizens whose lives would be ended without them. This is yet another example of ethical theories being critiqued based on moral intuition. I feel that it would be immoral for us to kill prisoners and harvest their organs for use by other people, yet I cannot find convincing differences between this scenario and the Trolley Problem. Because one can harvest multiple organs from one donor, it seems likely that many lives would be saved at the expense of one. Even more disturbingly, the Trolley Problem makes no reference to the civic contributions of the workers involved, leading me to wonder if a more apt metaphor would be choosing one citizen to provide organs for a group of other needy citizens.

One might object that there are quality of life issues and uncertainty about the outcome. We do not know that all the organ transplants will be successful, so we may end up saving fewer lives than we expect, and even after a successful transplant the recipient must live with a regimen of immuno-suppressors in order to avoid rejecting the transplant. However, if we put stock in these technical objections we must also agree that if transplanting techniques became so advanced that transplants were nearly always successful and the side effects of a successful transplant were minimal, then we would accept that mandatory transplantation would be the ethical thing to do.

On the other hand, perhaps they are. Is it more ethical to allow death to break families apart when we have the techniques to prevent it, merely lacking the supply of organs? Especially considering that we put prisoners to death anyway, with no noticeable benefit to society? Since we posses the technology, are we not choosing the life of a murderer over that of a loving mother when we fail to reallocate the murderer's organs to the mother?

The most obvious place to take the discussion from here is to the liberal notion of ethics, that is responsibilities based on human rights, as a notion that humans have sovereignty over their own bodies is the most obvious rebuttal to forced organ donation. One might also discuss the ethical implications of technology, as without the means to perform organ transplants we would not be presented with this quandary. Since either of these would probably fill up a blog post on its own, I shan't discuss either here, but I may address them at some later date, or not. Until then, enjoy your organs while society believes you are the best person to be using them!

You Decide Who Lives and Dies

Imagine this: A train is speeding toward a tunnel within which five of your co-workers are performing maintenance on the track. If the train goes into the tunnel there will be no where for them to be safe, and they will die. You cannot reach them, but you are standing by a lever to switch the track, which would divert the train to a side tunnel. However, another of your co-workers is preparing that tunnel for maintenance, and if you do that they will certainly die. What do you do?

Thought experiments of this sort are called Trolley Problems, and they come in a wide array of variations. They are an attempt to probe what we think is the right thing to do. For example, more people would switch the train to the side track than would push someone in front of the train, even if doing so would slow it down, so the end result would be the same, one dead to save five. On the other hand, when told that they knew the person they were pushing was responsible for sabotaging the train so that the five workers were placed in danger, people once again are quite willing to sacrifice the one for the many.

A recent article in MSU's newspaper, The State News, reported that a professor was using virtual reality technology to see what people actually decided in this situation. This is, of course, inherently interesting, but it is the response of Professor Lindemann, a professor of philosophy, that I truly wish to address. Of course, one must interpret it with a large dose of goodwill, both because who knows how accurate the story is to Professor Lindemann's actual thoughts and because newspapers are not the best forum for detailed philosophical exposition, perhaps to the detriment of our civilization. Professor Lindemann is said to have raised two main objections to the nature of the experiment.

Her first objection is that the evidence from this study is not valuable since the subjects were college-age and, "don’t have much life experience," to quote the article, not the Professor. I am unsure exactly what this means, to be honest. Unless we happen to be ethicists, what relevant life experiences do we gain as we age that would significantly help us make such a decision? I'm significantly older than the average undergraduate, but I don't believe myself any more qualified to make that decision than I was four years ago. Of course, I am still fairly young, at least that is what I keep telling myself, so maybe I still lack the relevant experience. Which brings me to my furthermore. If even people in their late twenties lack this information, then a fairly large portion of the population does not have it, so why are we uninterested in their moral position?

However, this first difference of opinion is merely a pedantic point compared to the second. Professor Lindemann goes on to say, "the trouble with the trolley problem is that if you actually test people with it, you only know what their instincts are. It doesn’t tell you much about the right thing to do." Prima facie this seems reasonable. The study tests what people do, ergo the results might tell you what people think is the right thing to do, but not what the right thing to do actually is. This overlooks one quirk of ethics that has, on occasion, irked me. Our attempts to codify a system of ethics tend to be primarily guided by our intuition about what is right and wrong. That is to say, aside from the accusation of logical inconsistency, about the only criticism which one can level against a well defined system of ethics is that it holds certain actions to be ethical that one feels should not be ethical.

For Kantian absolutism, which holds that one should choose moral rules to which one would wish everyone to adhere and then follow them in all situations, a common objection is that if a scared person ran into your basement then an angry man with a deadly weapon ran up asking after them one would be prohibited from lying to them, because the rule against lying should be respected at all times. For Utilitarianism, the ethical system that advocates maximizing the good, which we can call the happiness for simplicity, an analogous objection is that the system would condone murdering someone as long as they were universally disliked and caused a significant amount of grief for everyone with whom they interacted. Moral relativism is criticized because it cannot condemn sociopathic serial killers or the Nazis, depending on whether you are discussing personal or cultural relativism. In fact, the only trick to avoid this type of criticism seems to be remaining vague as to what the system actually requires of a moral agent, such as social contract and caring ethics do. Because we use our own moral intuition as the guide by which we calibrate our ethical theories, it does seem of some practical value to know what our moral instincts are.

Of course, it is certainly possible that this is entirely the wrong way to go about things. If ethics are supposed to codify what the right thing to do, and we are trying to obtain a system that tells us the right thing to do is the thing that we think is right to do, one might well ask of what use is the actual system. This is a valid concern, which unfortunately runs afoul of some pragmatic considerations. Namely, what else is there to consider? Any method for evaluating the value of different systems of ethics must, by its very nature, contain judgement about what is good in order to assess the systems. Once you have set what good is, you have already instituted, at some level, a system of ethics which, as it is integral to the judging process, cannot itself be evaluated using the judging process.

So, hopefully we can all agree that knowing that about 90% of people will throw the switch is interesting information. But what about the other 10%? Since it is late, and they are quite interesting in their own right, I think I shall leave berating them as a task for another post.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rueda y Rueda

I got to road trip down to the U of M today to dance salsa rueda with their club today. For those of you who are not aware, and do not feel like taking the time to YouTube it, rueda is a style of salsa where all the partners form a circle, then perform moves as directed by the caller. People switch partners in the course of different moves and everyone has a grand ole time!

I really like rueda! Anyone who reads my Facebook statuses probably already knew that. Part of the attraction lies in having the moves called. For me, a lead, that removes a great deal of the pressure to come up with interesting things to lead. I am told exactly what to lead and, as long as I know what the move called entails, which can be problematic when one goes somewhere new to dance and has a ton of new moves tossed at one's self, I know what I'm doing is what I am supposed to be doing.

The odd thing is that I am pretty sure that my worries about boring the follow by leading the same move a few times in a song, not in a row, are unfounded. Not only have follows told me that because they are working to interpret what the lead is indicating rather than planning what to do they are unlikely to even notice a bit of repetition, I have also experienced this first hand those few times I have tried following. I was much to busy trying to make sure I was doing what the lead wanted me to do, or at least something similar, to worry how much I was doing a certain move. Of course, I'm a pretty bad follow. But still, rueda provides a nice respite from this worry, irrational as it may be.

Which makes me wonder, how many of the things that we think others expect of us are actually just our own, incorrect, expectations? But really, go look at a YouTube video of rueda, it looks amazing!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Best Policy?

A while back it occurred to me, the obligation to be honest might be the most basic moral obligation. Consider theft; while we are told that it is wrong, in most cases we have never explicitly agreed that we would not steal something. On the other hand, whenever we make a non-coerced statement, we are asserting of our own free will that it is true. As such, lying is a more fundamental offense against our own moral agency than any externally induced moral obligation.

However, a couple days later I wondered if we owe everybody honesty, or whether it must be in some way earned. If a casual acquaintance asks me how I am, I am likely to answer with a simple, "ok," which exists in a sort of honesty-grey zone. But, does merely asking me how I am entitle them to the answer? One might respond that I could instead respond that I don't want to answer, but that seems likely to provoke further inquiry rather than discouraging it, or at very least seem moderately rude.

So, do we only owe honesty to those who have earned it through payment in kind? Or to those to whom we have debts of affection? Or is honesty owed to all as the most fundamental expression of our moral autonomy? This is why I much prefer conversation to exposition, I'm sure there is more interesting to be said on the topic, but I would much rather hash it out in dialogue.


One of the beautiful things about the Internet is how mutable the truth is. I could backdate this post to yesterday, then it would look like I didn't miss a daily post. Or I could go ahead and remove all references to MoBloYoFoMo so people might not even know that I was supposed to be making daily posts. Or I can admit that I didn't post Friday, apologize to anyone who feels that it is shocking and/or scandalous, and try to do better in the future. I think I'll go with the second option, just kidding!

Have you ever been composing an E-mail or text message and put in something that you later realized was wrong, then instead of changing it, just mentioned that you'd made a mistake ang gave the right information. I cannot decide if that is honest or not. On one hand, you are accurately representing your thought process as you move from the error to the realization of the truth. On the other hand, because it would be possible to simply edit out the error, leaving it in to create the appearance of spontaneous revelation of the truth is a pre-meditated decision, which is about as far from spontaneous as one can get. Sometimes this bothers me.

I hope to write a more in depth post about the ethical dimensions of honesty tomorrow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

MoBloYoFoMo Ground Rules

Well, here it is. A month where I'm supposed to put up a new blog post each day... why did I choose a month with so many days again? Since I will be producing prose at such a prodigious rate, I cannot guarantee, in fact I don't even suspect, that what I write will be up to what I consider to be my normal standard of interestingness and thought-provoketivity. Take this post for example.

In fact, I still have a little over a week left in the semester, so for that time I shall be scrambling to post something each day. However, I promise not to fall back to updates about my life too often; I get bored writing those and I can only imagine how bored you must be reading them. One of my favorite things about this blog is how much enjoyment I get out of going back and re-reading things I have posted. When I was searching for my favorite posts to list in my 100th post I saw a lot of interesting things that I had forgotten that I'd written. Of course, my absolute favorite thing about this blog is the discussions that will occasionally pop up in the comments, but looking back and realizing how clever I am is up there.

After school gets out I should have a bit more time to put into my posts. There are various topics that I have wanted to talk about, but have yet to find the time and or motivation to put together the polished post that I think they deserve. Maybe I'll crack open my cache of blog ideas and get some use out of that. Then I head out for adventure! Or, maybe just on vacation to visit family and friends. Either way, I'll be busier, so maybe back to the inane, "this is what I am doing," type posts, but at least they will be slightly more interesting.

I did not write up a bunch of posts so I have one on standby in case I get too busy to write one on a given day, both because this doesn't seem in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and because it seems ridiculous for me to stop publishing in my blog to save up for a plan that is supposed to get me to publish in my blog more. However, now that December has begun I reserve the right to write posts ahead of time and publishing them as needed to keep on schedule. Doing something that prepared doesn't really sound like something I would do, but stranger things have happened. I'll see you tomorrow!