On a Tangent


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?


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:


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:


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:


Or this:


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:


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:



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$$.

One Eye Too Many

Der König Ödipus hat ein Auge zuviel vielleicht.
King Oedipus has perhaps one eye too many.

– Hölderlin, In lieblicher Bläue blühet

When do we know too much?  Oedipus was a figure who was insistent on finding out the truth, despite being warned repeatedly by the seer Tiresias that it would bring misery.  He had to know what was causing the plague on his kingdom; and upon finding out that it was himself, who had killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus blinded himself and ran off.  He went from having two eyes which searched too much, to having none.

And seeking understanding can bring suffering.  There is a wisdom that is woe.  But, at the same time, there was already a plague on Oedipus’ kingdom.  The objective consequences of his actions were already there; by refusing to confront the matter, he could have put off his own suffering at the expense of the world around him.  And in the play Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles tells of how Oedipus dies a blessed death after all because of this, despite his being the lightning rod of the gods’ wrath earlier.

Seeking the truth is not always rewarding. Dispelling delusions can rob us of comfort and alienate us from others.  But if those really are delusions, then they are already at work twisting us, warping us.  There is something natural about keeping that one eye closed; something tragic and heroic about the excess of light followed by darkness.  And who can say whether the natural or the heroic is the better path?

In Defence of Pessimism

I’m spending an awful lot of downtime right now, waiting on Peace Corps to decide that the paperwork is finished so that they can actually get around to taking care of me.  So I’ve been doing odd things; most recently, I picked up a mandolin and have been spending hours learning how to play it.  I’ll be a bluegrass star by the time I get back to South Africa, at this point.  But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking, about a million and one things.   So first thought, for this post: I’ve been told by various people that I need to be more optimistic, often by people who seem downright offended that anyone take a negative view to things.  And I’m kind of sick of it.

We all know the standard “glass half full/empty” scenario.  And in such a scenario, it may very well be rational to take the glass to be half full.  After all, one might as well be happy, all other things being equal.

But I, as a professional pessimist, don’t take the glass to be half empty.  Other things are *not* equal.  My claim, rather, is that the glass is darn well near gone.  The optimist might claim that the glass is half full, or even entirely so.  This is mere delusion.  It is an emotional security blanket that might give her peace and comfort, but at the cost of her ability to actually engage the world as it is.  Polyanna-ism is highly selfish.  

Other optimists might rather say that we should be grateful for the water we have instead of cursing what we lack.  As long as they also act on that latter knowledge, I guess that I have no serious quarrel with them; it is when they again wrap themselves up in “gratitude” to feel better while ignoring that lack that I have my concerns.

The pessimist claims that the world is actually in a bad spot.  She does not merely say that it can be viewed as such, but rather that things are actually messed up.  And recognition of this mess, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, is a necessity to doing anything about it.  She might be factually wrong.  In that case, give her facts and evidence to show her otherwise.  But to deride her for being negative and critical, as if such were in itself a vice instead of active engagement with the world, is to showcase one’s own emotional inability to cope rather than make any statement about the pessimist.

In the end, emotions don’t tell us about the world.  They tell us about us.  Feeling good, feeling bad, feeling something to be true or false, are mostly meaningless when we assume that they refer to something more than, well, how we feel.  Which is not unimportant, and is ignored at one’s own peril; but to take them as our compass to the world would be like me saying to myself: I am madly in love with that woman, therefore we will be together one day.  The fact that a view makes someone feel bad or out of place is not in the slightest bit a piece of evidence that such a view is wrong.

So please, I implore my readers, don’t put people down for pointing out the uncomfortable.    Thank them for having the courage to do so, and honestly assess whether they might be correct.  Challenge them in turn if necessary, but never let comfort and peace of mind seal you off from the world.

And speaking of being sealed off from the world, I’m still sitting here, playing music and writing blog entries, probably for at least another month (though who knows? It’s not like I’ve had any clue about what was going to happen the rest of this trip back).  Send me messages and emails and music and, I don’t know, funny pictures or something.

Ethics and Development Work

In an Ethics class a while back, the question came up of whether it is better to go out and do development work, making the world a better place, or stand around being a philosophy professor, who might perhaps persuade a couple students to examine their lives and live better.

At the time, this presented a rather large moral dilemma to me. Now that I’ve left philosophy for Peace Corps, though, ironically I see less force to the conundrum.

First, let’s not pretend like people doing development work are making a huge difference in the world. We make small differences, and hope that they take root. They may not always. But we do not necessarily change the world any more over here than doing something else. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot I can do here until South Africa changes from within.

Second, one must keep in mind one’s own strengths. I was reading something by Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen fame. I forget the details and am having trouble locating the post right now (it might have been in one of his books, anyhow), but the point was that he had been doing a job that was regarded as being all nice and humanitarian and what-not. And stunk at it, probably making problems for people instead of solving them. So instead he went and made monster movies; a “lesser” job, but if he could work his values into something he actually could throw himself into, this was better than forcing himself to do the “right thing” and doing it poorly. Being a half-arsed teacher out here isn’t helping anyone and might harden communities against making the changes they need.

Third, there are all sorts of ways to be effective. Seneca, tutor to the Roman emperor Nero, was asked why he didn’t spend more time in the public life doing something. He answered that his writings would last far longer than the political actions of his day. Considering that I read that from him almost 2000 years later, and yet there is no more Roman Empire, Seneca seems to be on to something. We need some people helping raise the standards of humanity around the world. We also need some people in scholarship to remember our past, some in more “normal” jobs keeping things running, and creative sorts showing us visions of what life could be like. If everyone were to become a PC volunteer, or otherwise go and give up their lives to “be good people,” society would crumble.

Sometimes, doing the right thing might be enjoying yourself where you are.