Without Shame

Shame is a useless emotion.

In fact, I’m going to go one higher – shame is a harmful emotion.

Let’s take the following situation: I’m on the bus, and I see someone of darker complexion than myself sit down next to me.  I get a little nervous because, maybe this person is a bit thuggish?  Then I feel ashamed, because I’m not that sort of person to think those thoughts.

So what happens?  I think of myself as non-racist.  I feel bad … and then I promptly find ways to excuse my thinking and go on with my life.  Because I’m really a “good person,” and that was either a momentary slip-up or excused by the bandana I saw hanging on his head (because I don’t wear bandanas, so they must be dangerous.  You could put an eye out with one of those!).

What’s the grand sum of this situation?  I felt bad, I didn’t change my actions, and yet I somehow remain fundamentally “good” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

How about we reverse this.  I’m no longer a non-racist.  I’m racist – not in the sense that I condone it, but in the sense that it happens to be true in this actual world rather than the ideal fantasy world I want to live in.  When I get on the bus and have racist thoughts, I now see an opportunity to improve.  I’m not a good person with a lapse, I’m a flawed person who’s been confronted with those flaws, and as such can seize the opportunity to correct them.  A woodcut is crafted by chipping away one bit at a time.

So I can feel good about improving (I’m a step better – however small – than I had been before), and actually change my actions accordingly (since I don’t have to defend my ideal self any longer) – I’ll make eye contact and say hi perhaps.  So better feelings and better actions, because I let go of already being a better person.

We all mess up, and all are messed up.  We aren’t “good.”  But that’s ok, because we can work each day at what’s given to us.

Of course, the flip side is that every day, we *will* have work to do.  There’s no arriving at some point where we are without lack.  There’s no time we’ve “done enough.” But really, that attitude – that we’re really already good – is self-serving.  It’s to make ourselves feel good, precisely by disengaging from the world.  Which doesn’t strike me as actually being very good people.

So let’s be free of our fantasy selves, and relish the opportunities today to grow and improve, precisely by casting off who we were yesterday.  It’s of no matter – today’s self will be thrown into the garbage bin too.  But not until tomorrow.

Life Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions bore me. Lose weight, eat healthier, blah blah blah. Really cool things to do take more than a year anyhow. And at the other end of the spectrum, I find myself a bit annoyed at questions like “What do you want to do?”, as if the point of my life were to be summed up in one career.

I’ve got a lot of things I want to do, a lot of long-term projects. They don’t fit nicely into either a one-year span, nor into a single conception of how I pay rent in the meantime.

But the thing about the long-term is that it’s made up of the short-term. What am I doing now to start reaching those goals, even if the goals are stuff I want to have done in the next three or four decades?

So here’s my list of things that I want to start accomplishing with my life, with the intent to take concrete action starting now. Not on everything, but at least on a couple things. I put this out there not to brag about my life, but because I want to see what stuff other people have on their lists – so please write your own and share!

Travel

  • Live in East Asia for at least one month
  • See India and Brasil

Music

  • Comfortably play improv jazz and bluegrass on mandolin
  • Pick up at least one other instrument (either return to flute, or guitar or violin)

Science

  • Learn quantum mechanics, at least to the point of understanding field theories and string theory in detail
  • Pick up at least the basic notions (at a graduate course level) of macroeconomics

Math

  • Learn Category theory
  • Be able to understand the math of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
  • Write material on making the above more accessible; in general, provide more intuitive examples of higher-level math to motivate people to go into it

Physical

  • Get at least 2nd degree black belt in Ninpo
  • Learn at least one weapon to black-belt level

Language

  • Get fluent in one Indo-Euporean language (probably French)
  • Be comfortably conversational in one non-Indo-European language (probably either Arabic or Mandarin)

Other

  • Write a novel

On a Tangent

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You might be thinking, what is that?  And what does it have to do with me?  Or maybe you’re just thinking: Gosh, that looks beautiful – I wish I knew how to make such pretty pictures.

For the latter sort, you could get a math degree, or you could take a shortcut and read my tutoring blog, where I explain other marvels and will soon get into some more technical detail about today’s work of art.  But for the former, read on.

We start off with some really weird curve (read: I mashed a few keys in a graphing program and worked with what came up).  Now, if you were an ant on there looking close up, how would you visualize that curve?

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Maybe you’d think that it was just a line, a line heading off at that same angle that you currently find yourself.  Maybe, as you walk along, you’d constantly revise your view of the world:

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Such an ant could manage themselves just fine.  As long as they keep looking at where they are, they can make it around the curve.  But their conception of the world at large is completely off.  Almost every single judgement they would make about other points on the curve would be wrong.  The ant can live in the “now” as long as they keep it to themselves.

But our ant could be a little more sophisticated:

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This second ant is still using data merely from their local environment; they just estimate a curve of best fit, instead of a line (in mathese: they find a tangent conic, instead of a tangent line.  In worse mathese: they use a truncated Taylor series as calculated at that point, the general technique for all estimations in this post).  This curve still doesn’t match the overall pattern very well, but it does a darn sight better at making decisions about the neighbourhood.

A third ant might be a little more resourceful, and come up with this:

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Or this:

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Now, this ant can start making broader claims about the world.  The ant will still be off, but significantly less so than the previous two.  And finally, we have genius ant here:

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Again, this ant’s knowledge is not perfect – but she absolutely nails entire portions of the world, using just the information that is at her immediate fingertips.  She doesn’t have a larger view of the world, she has a deeper view.  Maybe she still lives in the “here and now”, but she doesn’t rest content with mere appearances.  She doesn’t just calculate how things are, or how they are changing, but how change changes, and so on (technically, up to 8th derivatives).  By assuming that everything is changing, including change itself, she can understand.

And as a bonus (which I’m not sure has any analogical value, but which looks cool), here’s all of the approximations together in one animation:

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Arbitrariness and Meaning

Why drive on the right side of the road?  The left works for the Brits.  Why start question-words with wh- instead of k-, as does Sanskrit, Farsi, and certain dialects of Ancient Greek?  Why read left to right?  We could go right-to-left, like Hebrew and Arabic, or even top-to-bottom as is sometimes done with Chinese.  Why is i the square root of -1, when (-i)² also equals -1?  Why does a clock go clockwise, when making it go anti-clockwise would work just as well?

All of these choices are purely arbitrary.  The alternatives would have worked equally well.  But refusing to choose one between equivalent choices would have left confusion; it would have erased the possibility of meaning and cohesion.

Meaning starts from the meaningless; from de-cision, that is, cutting something away.

The paradox of “Buridan’s ass” is about a donkey that is faced with two equal succulent bales of hay, both the same distance away.  Does the donkey starve since there is no reason to choose one bale over the other?  Al-Ghazali similarly writes,

Suppose two similar dates in front of a man, who has a strong desire for them but who is unable to take them both. Surely he will take one of them, through a quality in him, the nature of which is to differentiate between two similar things.

So the rational rests on the irrational; because without this symmetry-breaking, nothing happens.

Emotional Robots

Picture Data from Star Trek.  The quintessential robot: all reason and logic, no emotion.  Not that he’s heartless, but rather, he just doesn’t understand this side of human behaviour, no matter how hard he tries.  (Except when it makes for a better plot point otherwise.)

But what are emotions, other than our own preprogramming?  Those who are at the mercy of the passions are the ones blindly following their hardwiring.  Those who can’t take a step back and look at why they really are doing what they do, those who are wounded by the suggestion that we are organic machines with modules shaped by our biological and sociological histories, are those who end up being the most robotic.  Machines running on chemicals masked as “spirituality” and “humanity.”  It is at our most irrational that we are most programmed.

Even the cold logic of economists and engineers follows the same route: a search for logical efficiency and consistency, but stuck in the rut of an initial question that is not itself questioned.  The precision of gears, working toward an initial impulse to categorize, simplify, and control.  The dominance of their evolutionary firmware is less apparent, but ultimately the same.

Being human is neither revelling in feeling for its own sake, nor in mere logical analysis (which is much the same); rather, it consists in the ability to look behind the curtain at who we are and where we come from, to understand, to make decisions based on this; it is to be able to make sense of our own owner’s manuals and fiddle, reprogram, rewire, and, in the end, simply accept what sort of beings we are.

Because we are, after all, organic machines.  Our emotional operating systems are part of us, and must be taken as such; just as a computer cannot run without some sort of system to boot it up and manage resources, so too must we rely on our own frameworks, imperfect as they may be.

But we don’t worship Windows because we have to use it. Valorization of the emotions as distinctly “human” or as some royal road into reality is similarly misplaced.

Fiction and Fact

Currently in the middle of watching a Korean martial arts flick (Legend of the Shadowless Sword), and enjoying it.  But while watching people flying and fighting off entire armies, I started thinking about what sort of truth fantasy might be telling.  (Yep, welcome to my brain.  But honestly, do you expect to believe that talking about football and the weather is more interesting than epistemology?)

The genre is purposefully fantastic, not even trying to make the feats look realistic.  And yet, there is something lacking in a purely realistic film.  I’ve punched someone in martial arts, only to have them suddenly not be there.  It’s not that I registered them moving, so much as they were no longer in the way of my fist.  And suddenly, there was something striking my solar plexus, or hitting a pressure point and making my arm go numb.  I’ve watched someone dodge a sword strike – the assailant was attacking from behind, with no warning, and without letting the person know the specific strike they were going to use.  I’ve felt the force of a true martial artist merely looking at me with serious intent.

If I were to depict all of this in purely physical terms, to make it “realistic,” it would fall short of the actual experience.  By exaggerations, I can accurately portray what “really” happened.

Of course, at the same time, this only works because it’s on the level of human emotion.  It’s not reality by itself; it’s how human beings reconstruct events.  So maybe one sort of distortion is necessary to transcribe another sort of distortion.

Just some random thoughts.  Now, back to watching this confident, poised warrior chick kiss some a$$.