Monday, April 3, 2017

Books - Latour Interpretation

The niche most of my books hold, materialistically speaking, is that of shelf jewelry. All they really are is folded, pressed, and inked trees bound with string and glue. Objectively, they seem almost insignificant. But they are also constantly alive. If you flip open your favorite book, you will see the characters are still doing the same exact thing in the same exact places.   

Books are created to convey and preserve information. The job of telling and retelling stories, and consequently the effort taken to have the stories committed to memory, is delegated to the book. This is very easy to understand. But what is more complex is the prescription, which is as Latour defines it: “the behavior imposed back onto the human by nonhuman delegates” (Latour 301).

In general, the easiest answer to “what behavior is imposed back onto a book reader?” is that now we (book readers) have to hold onto all these books. We have to turn the pages, read the words, and store the books once we are done.


For example, I have a shelf in my room for books. It is divided into eight squares, each deep enough for two rows of books. Four of these shelves are underneath my desk, so I put “non-important” books on them. In the top left corner of the top four shelves are all of the texts I have from IB; Kafka on the Shore, Battle Cry of Freedom, The Stranger, Biology for the IB Diploma, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and an unfinished copy of the The Lords of Discipline are all lined up very nicely.


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Underneath this shelf is a shelf full of books I want to read but haven’t yet. Casual Vacancy, Once There Was a War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many many others wait for me to read them. And this is where a stranger kind of prescription happens: when I am sitting at my desk doing homework, I look over these books and I feel a soft wave of identity crisis coming on.

In a huge way, books prescribe back on their readers an identity that they cannot part with. When I read The Lords of Discipline, I gleaned a little character in me named Will McLean who reacts to the events in my life the way Pat Conroy wrote him to: with serious and selfish consternation. After I read Siddhartha I was left with a miniature ferryman in me who only ever wants to sit by a river and listen to the voices of nature hum “Om.”  The books we read, or even simply hold onto, are an extension of our minds and hold with them a power to influence and change us.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Final Synthesis

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard explores her own relationship with God and nature, and the associations between the two. Dillard makes plenty of religious references throughout the text as a whole, exploring different facets of God. Among these are many intriguing references to Christian doctrine. Dillard begins the book with a via positiva outlook of God and creation, and eventually slides down into the via negativa - taking a harsher look at nature.
One of the largest themes found while reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was the meta-textual reference to Noah’s Ark.  In Chapter 9, Flood, the reader is introduced to the idea of a God of Wrath in Dillard’s volatile description of the high creek during a flood: “It smashes  under the bridge like a fist, but there is no end to its force; it hurtles down as far as I can see till it lurches round the bend, filling the valley, flattening, mashing, pushed, wider and faster, till it fills my brain” (Dillard 172). This is a fascinating description of the power of water, and in a symbolic way, the power of God.
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In the Christian Bible, there are two versions of God: that of Forgiver, and that of Judger. The God of Love versus the God of Wrath. God is believed to be both, leaning more towards one over the other in different scenarios. Noah’s Ark and the Flood as accounted in the Bible would be a prime example of the God of Wrath: God decided to destroy the entire Earth and all of its inhabitants (besides two of every species loaded up on a boat built by his last faithful follower, Noah and his family) in an effort to rid the world of the nastiness it had become overrun with.
Dillards version of this flood is to recount watching the rising creek destroy and conquer.
In previous chapters Dillard does explore the God of Love: she starts Chapter two, Seeing, with a cute childhood story about hiding pennies along the sidewalk and drawing chalk arrows for strangers to follow to find the penny; “I was greatly excited, during all the arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe” (Dillard 16). She’s describing something very close to miracles and blessings in the Christian religion. She connects this story to make the claim that there are many things to be seen, and that there is a gift given to the seer, “regardless of merit,” through this simple process of actively seeing.
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This is reminiscent of Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Dillard says, “The world is fairly studded and strewn with  pennies cast broadside from a generous hand” (Dillard 17). In my copy of the text, I underlined “generous hand” and wrote in the margin “God?” Her entire argument is so perfectly set up as a Jesus parable I couldn’t help but notice it.
Although I have only drawn parallels between the text and western Christianity, there are plenty of parts of the text that lend themselves to more Eastern connotations. Dillard is not solely teasing out the Christian God. The story of the pennies could easily be read into an example of the Tao, meditation, or could even be used for atheistic interpretations of the text. What I took away most from the text as a whole is the distinction between pretty nature and ugly nature, Wrath versus Love, and Dillard's blatant investigation into both sides.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Knowledge = Sense of Self?

“Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge?

Knowledge offers the knower the unique ability of self-evaluation with the tools given to them in the knowledge they have attained. In the statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are,” the pull for a binary opposite is heavy. More knowledge becomes viewed as the positive, and less knowledge viewed as the negative. However, knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor, that denotes a person’s perception of his or her inner self, but rather can be seen as one of many things working together to shape a person.

The statement “knowledge gives us a sense of who we are” sets itself up to be turned into the positive half of a social binary. From the phrase, it is easy to assume that knowledge equals the ability to understand oneself. Understanding oneself (“sense of who we are”) is a positive thing, and so inherently knowledge is seen as a good thing. From the structuralist point of view, meaning (“a sense of who we are”) is derived from creating opposites, or binaries. In a binary interpretation, anti-knowledge, or the opposite of knowledge, correlates with a negative (or decreasing) sense of who we are. And therefore a lack of knowledge is seen as a bad thing.


The danger of this binary is that it implies that UN-knowledgeable people will be UN-able to develop a sense of who they are. This is not necessarily true. There are many other factors that impact a person’s understanding of him or herself. In The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, Hoff speaks of the members of Western Academia: “Far from reflecting the Taoist ideal of wholeness and independence, this incomplete and unbalanced creature divides all kinds of abstract things into little categories and compartments, while remaining rather helpless and disorganized in his daily life” (Hoff 25). The words “incomplete and unbalanced” suggest a lack of identity with one’s self, or an absence of sense of one’s self. This directly contradicts the binary set up by the prompt. Hoff seems to suggest that the academicians have got it wrong: they are chasing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and in so doing lose the ability to have a whole life (“a sense of who we are.”)

On the note of knowledge and experience, Hoff writes later in the same chapter: “But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. In other words, Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language. But isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t? It seems fairly obvious to some of us that a lot of scholars need to go outside and sniff around - walk through the grass, talk to the animals” (Hoff 29). Knowledge does offer the knower the ability to improve or analyze their position in their world, and Hoff argues here that knowledge gained through experience is more beneficial than knowledge gained for the sake of knowledge. The thing lacking in the academicians knowledge is that he or she is not gleaning it from personal experience, and so therefore it doesn’t carry the same weight. The experience is the conduit that knowledge must use to shape a person’s sense of self. If knowledge does not have experience to assist it, it will not make an impact.

This discovery inhibits the binary created by the statement. Knowledge is not the sole factor, or even the largest factor that denotes our understanding of ourselves. Knowledge alone does not bring about a whole understanding of one’s self. This statement leaves a gap for a dangerous interpretation; it is not safe to simply say that knowledge equals a decent sense of who we are. The development of a person’s understanding of him or herself weighs heavily on many more things than knowledge; faith, emotion, and sociological factors all affect how we perceive ourselves.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What's up with Political Satire?

Just this morning I listened to one of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcasts about "The Satire Paradox."

Malcolm Gladwell started with a story about Harry Enfield, a comedian and political satirist back in the 1990's, during the Margaret Thatcher administration in England. Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, another writer and comedian, created the character of "Loadsofmoney" to satirize the way Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had "unleashed American style capitalism on the UK." Thatcher was changing England, upending British socialism and creating an environment where characters like Loadsofmoney were the norm. Loadsofmoney was an obnoxious and ignorant character, constantly flashing his wads of money at everyone.
Loadsofmoney

The interesting thing is that people on both sides of England's political spectrum reacted positively to the Loadsofmoney sketch. The people who supported Thatcher used Loadsofmoney as a reference to how England was progressing, and those who did not support Thatcher referred to Loadsofmoney with disdain, sighting him as an example of how Thatcher was corrupting England.

Gladwell asks Harry Enfield what impact he thought the sketch has, and his response was: "Generally it's just about questioning what's there because we're allowed to question what's there. But it doesn't ever change anyones mind." And this is where Gladwell introduces what he calls the "Loadsofmoney" problem: political satire makes no real difference. Social scientists have discovered that politically motivated comedy tends to actually reinforce people's prejudices and opinions. It doesn't change any minds, just entertains the audience.

Listening to the story of Loadsofmoney reminded me that I've seen this sort of satire in the recent election: in Alphacat's "Back to Back" political parody video Alphacat impersonates Barack Obama and, with the help of Drake's soundtrack, satirizes Trump. Phrases like "Back to back like Trump's divorces" and "Trumps the kind of dude who mocks the worlds poor. But is the world poor or your soul poor?" implies that Obama is not a fan of Trump.

Evidence to the power that political satire carries is that this video is more memorable to me than anything Obama might have really said on the topic.


The political scene has become this ambiguous environment, where politics is humorous and comedians use political situations as tools to get the audience to laugh. Those who create characters to satirize politicians understand the intellectual background and purpose of their creation, but we don't. We lack the same intellectual backing to understand exactly what is meant, and we interpret it with the influence of our own viewpoint. I see this in myself, there's a gap in between my knowledge of the political scene and my knowledge of the jokes about the political scene.

This raises the question if Malcolm Gladwell is right in saying that satire is not shaping or enhancing our political views, are we devolving into people who laugh off real issues? Is this sort of mass media communication system keeping us from seeing the intellectual stuff behind it all, the stuff that really matters?





Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sorry I'm Venting

During this year, I've been pushed to do way more research into minute things than ever before. This is because I've had to do a lot of writing, and I have to have good information to back-up everything I write down. More often than not, this is very hard, because I can't get to the right information.

I want to write this blog about a dilemma that I've found within myself: how internal thoughts not only translate to physical actions, but also the relationship or disconnect between how a person thinks others think of him and how people actually think of him, and how that uninformed internal voice blocks a person from opportunities. A good example is when I was a freshman and new to the school, I automatically told myself that everyone already had their friends, and that I wasn't who anyone would want as a friend. And now, as a junior, I can see that I was not only mistaken, but that I've been ridiculously rude to people around me because my internal mindset convinced me that I wasn't enough to be friends with them. With a little more courage or confindence, I could have had plenty of friends, but I didn't, and I don't.

My internal voice was subduing my external possibilities. So I tried to research this concept, and came up in a field of philosophy and psychology I couldn't hope to understand. There is one guy, Franz Brentano, who somewhat mapped this relationship between the internal and external forces in his concept of intentionality. He basically says, in much more eloquent words, that our thoughts have objects that they are directed toward. Our thoughts have content, as he said: "Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on." My thoughts that I was sub-par to all the other 14 year olds around me led me to create content that influenced my external world poorly. This idea of intentionality connects to my mind-body problem, in that the content I create in my head is sometimes completely unfounded in the external world.

But I'm not trying to write a blog about how sad I am that I don't have thousands of friends, and I can't find much more scientific words to label this dilemma smartly. In Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, Nakata and the truck driver are  searching for the "entrance stone" in Takamatsu, but they (like me) can't find the information they need. I'm only half-way through the book, so maybe they find in the coming chapters, but in chapter 26, the scene where Hoshino scours the library for information of the entrance stone, "But what he really wanted -- a decription of this entrance stone -- was nowhere to be found" (Murakami 259). I need to hone my researching skills, because I have so much to say and I can't find the smart labels to explain what I'm thinking. And that problem is exactly what creates pointlessly frazzled blogs like this one.

Perhaps I am in a good place though, because even if questions aren't answered, asking them is a better alternative than not seeing that there are questions to be asked.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Responsible Statistics?

"The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility."

It has become increasingly common for emotional appeals to contain statistical reasoning. When arguing that there is an issue between the police community and the black community, people vaguely reach for statistics like "black unarmed men are killed at three times the rate of whites and other minorities." When arguing that there is still unjust sexism towards women today, statistics are used like how 1 in 3 woman are sexually assaulted by a partner during adulthood, or how women are ten times more likely to be victimized than men. This statistical name-dropping is binding individuals up in numbers in an effort to make an impact on the ethical conscious of the audience.

This act of processing victims in the form of numbers, shuffling them like all they are is data, seems to lead to an ethical dilemma: to represent individual tragedies by a number feels like it's dehumanizing the injustice. But that isn't what is meant by the speaker who crutches on statistical appeals; statistical reasoning is used to prove the validity of an issue.

It's an odd quark in the system because mathematics isn't usually associated with empathy or ethics.

The interesting thing about any statistical evidence is that there is undoubtedly large amounts of statistical bias floating around in this field. Statistical claims are more or less simply probabilities. Data is collected and processed, but unlike the theories Laplace's scientific determinism, there is no way to access all the data relating, especially when it's data relating to human relations. These weaknesses in statistics aren't common knowledge. The field of mathematics is viewed entirely objectively, and seen as something without loopholes or shortcomings: more or less, it is seen as an undeniable fountain of knowledge.

Statistical reasoning, when used to appeal to emotional reasoning, can easily become dangerous. Faulty statistics, or even justified statistics, can be twisted and bent to serve specific purposes in an argument. This deceitfulness can be said for most anything though. Evidence can always be cut and pasted to be interpreted any multitude of ways.

Ethics can get muddled, but if ethical responsibility means maintaining honesty and transparency, statistics easily fails. It is agreeable that it is the responsibility of citizens to view their fellow compatriots as real, valid, and not bound up in a number, sure. But furthermore, into the mathematical realm of these numbers, it is the responsibility, whether ethically beneficial or not, of people to question mathematical reasoning. Because having an ethical conscious extends beyond emotions and moral compasses, especially when the field of mathematics overlaps the field of ethics.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How do predictions affect results?

Upon my first Google search, this question cracked open an immediate and oppressive flood of statistics.
Which was not something I was attempting to look into when I asked how predictions affect results. My mind was thinking in the humanities realm: how self-fulfilling prophecy seems to jeopardize the future or create an excuse for future actions.

I got my knowledge question from a situation I couldn't grasp: Trump claims that the election will be rigged in Hillary's favor. When I heard this, I thought how incredibly unfair of him to cry wolf before voting even begins. Just saying that he'll be defeated gives him lee-way to be able to walk away from the election no matter the results with his pride still intact. And that to me seems completely unjust. He is predicting that he'll lose, so when the results come out his victory will be glorified or his loss will already have it's blame on Hillary.

But when this question was discussed in TOK, most people leaned towards a mathematical interpretation of it, just like Google did. While sifting through articles on Google I came across the term predictive
Linear regression, showing a predictive model. 
modelling
, which is basically the statistical process of predicting outcomes. The goal of predictive modelling is to determine the probability of an outcome when given certain data inputs. One interesting application of this methodology is uplift modelling, also known as incremental modelling. This technique looks at how different input variables would change the model and change the outcome. So we can see how different actions taken can cause certain results, and we can set up actual models to run through different predictions over and over.

Statisticians use these things to analyze a whole slew of different things, but that's all still looking at
predictions and results in a linear, objective way. My question remains unanswered, because it calls for
something more than mathematical probability.

On a second Google search, I found something that hints a little nearer to an answer in an article about the psychology of self-prediction. The article discusses the psychological tracking of self-predictions and the actual results of them, based on a theoretical framework presented by Koehler and Poon in 2006. They said that people have a natural tendency to predict their future actions with an optimism-bias, to where the higher their intent the moment they predict, the higher the probability they will actually complete the task. But with that optimism-bias comes the risk of under-weighting possible obstructions, such has a loss of intent or situational barriers.

The deeper I read, the more and more I saw the same thread of statistical reasoning within the brain. It seems as though you could almost take a skeleton predictive model, and plug in our brains to one end, and out the other end you could see the psychology of self-prediction. Incredibly interesting, but still not exactly talking about how this thing happens and what it affects.