Thursday, July 17, 2014

Books Read: June

Well, I didn't do as much reading in June as I'd have liked to.  Actually that's a bit misleading.  I read a lot, but not many books.  There is just too much on the internet that catches my attention and keeps me from reading all the books I'd like to.  There's a surprising number of good articles out there.  Sturgeon's Revelation may be true, but 10% of the internet is still quite a bit.  I also got a lot read in a book I've been working my way through for a while, but probably won't finish for another month or so.  It's not an easy one.  Here are the books I read in whole in June:

The Limits of Science, Peter Medawar.
Really I wanted to read Memoirs of a Thinking Radish, but since the neither of the two libraries I have easy access to had it on hand I read this instead.  I think I read this one too fast and without enough thought.  He's an easy and accessible writer and a good anthropologist of science, but I think that made it easy to miss what he was saying in some cases.  I kind of stopped reading after he dismissed induction by way of an apparent paradox; a paradox that I think has been reasonably solved.  Not only that, but I don't think that, understood properly, that particular paradox bears on induction one way or the other.  Because of that rather trivial mistake I kind of skimmed the rest of the book so I may have missed what he was getting at.  I read him as saying something like Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion are separate domains and never the two shall meet.  Of course hardly anyone believes this, not even Medawar or Gould.  Their religious beliefs were heavily influenced by their scientific worldview.  Still, a great scientist who I happen to think got the philosophy wrong is still worth listening to on the topic of what science is and how it works.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain.
As a self-identified introvert I object to the hamster ball theory of introversion.  I find it insulting to both the introvert and the extrovert, as though introverts are somehow fragile and special care needs to be taken or that extroverts are boorish and annoying and ought to back off, neither of which is accurate or useful.  I had hoped to find some alternative understanding in Cain's book, but it wasn't to be.  I don't think it's a bad book, and it certainly isn't as narrow-minded as the hamster ball theory, but it doesn't do much to explain introversion/extroversion.  The problem, I think, lies with trying to force the concepts to do more work than they are prepared to do.  For instance, Cain makes the case that introverts have trouble in school because schools encourage speaking up.  On the other hand Cain also makes the case that introverts do well in school because they can focus better than extroverts.  So which is it? Do introverts do better in school or worse?  I think the answer is that the I/E continuum doesn't have much to do with it at all.  There's a lot more in the book trying to reduce I/E to some other function like sensitivity or openness to experience, but these seem to be different traits that are at least partially independent of I/E.  Open/closed, sensitivity/insensitive, introvert/extrovert, liberal/conservative, fox/hedgehog. Once we cram everyone into some sort of simple dichotomy that purports to explain so much we end up losing what explanatory power the concept had to begin with.  Still, the concept does have some usefulness.  By knowing that I'm an introvert you know whether I'd generally prefer to go to a large exciting party with lots of people or talk one-on-one with someone.  Leave it at that and it's fine.  Then again the real case that Cain wants to make is that we ought to value the opinions of those who aren't outspoken or dead certain of their beliefs and that thesis seems entirely reasonable.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

You can make it, (only) if you try.

There are a few things about pop-philosophy that really get to me.  What do I meant by pop-phil?  I mean aphorisms, mostly about how to succeed, what we ought to do with our lives, what we should value.  It's not meant to be rigorous, it's meant to provide some guidance; to reassure or inspire us.  Pretty obviously there's some spillover from/to pop-psych.  Mostly, I don't mind it, Epictetus' Enchiridion (hardly new) is probably the best of the bunch, but unfortunately some of the aphorisms in other works or oft cited on social media are just plain wrong.

The big one that bugs me is getting conditionals mixed up.  I suppose it could be affirming the consequent, but I don't even think that it's obvious what the antecedent and consequent are intended to be in many of these cases.  Usually it's something like:  If you work hard you will be successful.  If this is true then what do you know about someone who is not successful?  Well, they must not have tried.  But of course that isn't true.  People work hard and still fail all the time.  And what do you know about someone who succeeds?  Not much.  Maybe they worked hard, maybe not.  But flip it around, take the inverse and you get: If you don't work hard, you won't succeed.  That seems much more true to me.  And what do you know if someone doesn't succeed?  Not much.  Maybe they worked hard and something got in their way.  You don't know.  You can't point fingers.  You can't blame every failure on a lack of trying.  But at least you know what you ought to do if you want to succeed.  You ought to try.  You ought to work hard.

Another one is getting feelings mixed up with facts.  Confidence, fear, and epiphanies are some of the big offenders here.  One might consider these to be semantic disagreements, sometimes yes, but we still ought to be careful not to get too much spillover from one meaning to another.  Being selfish or judgmental is different from having self-interest or being discerning (respectively) even though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

I remember back in middle school someone claimed (in the gym locker room) that they weren't afraid of anything.  I answered back that I was afraid of lots of things.  I was justifiably afraid of falling from heights, getting in a car accident, disease, and the like.  Now maybe I'm getting fear and respect mixed up here, but I don't think the other guy was claiming that he had respect for heights, etc., it was a brag.  Of course being afraid here doesn't mean that I stayed in bed all day.  It meant/means that when I briefly worked as a rigger I clipped in, I do my best to drive responsibly, and I wash my hands, among other things.  Of course since we're talking about feelings versus facts here there are plenty of cases where it is unreasonable to have fear and fear is distinct from panic.

Confidence is a similar case.  If you are confident that you know what you are doing it doesn't mean that you do know what you're doing.  If you know what you're doing it doesn't mean that you're confident.  Well placed confidence is great.  It means you can apply your knowledge appropriately, but in many cases misplaced confidence is worse than no confidence.  Well placed confidence comes from long experience; from successes and peer evaluation.  If you think you're a great poet, but no one likes your stuff maybe you ought to take a step back (working hard couldn't hurt though).  Hedging bets and being unsure of oneself is a really great thing when it is called for.

I don't trust epiphanies or “ah-ha” moments either.  Just because I think I understand something doesn't mean that I do.  Just as with confidence, understanding is something that is proven through experience, not emotion.  If I read something and think, “yes, I got it,” I can't really be sure until I've checked my knowledge and believe me, many times I haven't “got it.”

“Do or do not, there is no try,” is still pretty cool however.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Be Careful

In my last post I mentioned that two of my professors had cautioned me to “be careful”. I think it's good advice and something I need to work at, especially in the field I've chosen. It's easy to take shortcuts and wave off mistakes with a, “you know what I mean.” Much of the time of course it's perfectly reasonable to be close enough or approximately right. Much of the time it doesn't matter. But then there are times when it does. Here are a few:

I try to be careful on this blog. I'm not always. Of course it's a personal blog and not a professional blog. The point isn't that I argue convincingly or am precise in all that I say. It's more important that I get across what I'm up to, how I'm feeling, and what I'm thinking. There's a balance to be struck here of course. Too careful and I write too much about too little. Not careful enough and I make unsubstantiated claims that deserve to fall. That said, in two of my posts of this year I have written about someone whom I don't know and been (at least a little) critical of them. In both cases one of the first responses was from the person who I was critical of! Its always a little shocking when someone I don't know reads my blog. I don't think that my criticisms were wrong, but if I had known they were reading I might have chosen my words more carefully and made weaker claims. I guess the internet really is a small place. All the more reason to be civil.

I've been taking an online logic class. Last night I took the first substantial quiz over the material. I missed a few questions. I didn't do poorly, but I really wanted to ace it. My first reaction to those questions that I missed was, “hey, that's a trick question,” or “that's just being pedantic.” True of course, but it's a logic exam: trick questions and pedantism are just exactly what the test is over. The real lesson is: be careful.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to play a game of Pente. For those who don't know it's a game somewhere between othello and connect four with a little go thrown in. I'm always a little leery of playing strategy games, somehow I think that if I don't do well it reflects poorly on my intelligence and thus my character, but knowing my lack of care, my need to improve, and remembering my “learning attitude” I decided to join in. I didn't win, but I did once force a loss. I'm actually looking forward to playing again.

Over the past couple of days I've seen some pretty heavy Facebook arguments get going. It starts with a post or shared link with some uninformed or ill-formed arguments in it. Then some other party, with a differing opinion comments and gives their own uninformed or ill-formed argument for the other side. In particular these arguments seem to get down questions of what is science, how does explanation work, and how do we know things. These are just the questions that I am most drawn to in philosophy. They're where I want to do work. But I do not feel qualified to butt in, even when the questions are exactly the ones I am working on. Why not? These are difficult issues. I don't know what the answers are much of the time. When I do have an answer or an opinion Facebook is not generally a good forum to discuss it. It's pretty much impossible to be succinct and yet get across an argument for why I believe something. I hardly want to assert that I know the truth because I took a class (one!) in it.  To really get something across I need to sit down, discuss, and think about it.  Thinking clearly isn't something that happens in 140 characters.  Devastating arguments don't happen in a three minute video.  


In sum: The more I learn, the less I know.   

Monday, June 09, 2014

Books Read: May

I'm in a bit of a quandary here. I read a book that wasn't exactly assigned for class, but does relate directly to what I'm studying in school. Actually I'd say that the book has gotten me in a little trouble. It caused me to go off on a tangent in a paper I was writing. In any case since I'm a bit fussy about what I say about what I'm studying I don't think I ought to write much about it here. When I do say something I want to get it right or at least have thought carefully about it. As more than one (two!) of my professors has admonished me, I need to “be careful.” So if you came here for a review of Pursuit of Truth by W. V. Quine you've come to the wrong place.

That said, I have done some less than academic reading this month. I won't try to justify it too much, but I do believe there is such a thing as 'marginal time'; time that isn't worth as much in terms of getting stuff done, but is well spent in entertainment or napping. Sometimes watching TV, reading celebrity autobiographies, or schlock fantasy really is the best use of your time. So with no further ado, here are the books I read in May:

Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
A well written fantasy novel. No dragons, but a few dungeons. It's pretty classic low fantasy fare, but Lynch does a good job of fleshing out the characters and giving some plausibility to their hi-jinks. I also appreciate that while this book is a part of a series it is also stand-alone. I like series, TV, movie, book, etc., that are either episodic (this book, Star Trek) or have a complete arc (LOTR, Babylon 5), but I can't stand those that are soap operas, that aren't going anywhere, but like to trick you into thinking they are (Game of Thrones, Lost, anything by Orson Scott Card). Lies hints at deeper back story, but doesn't make it essential to understanding and appreciating the story.

Singled Out by Bella DePaulo
I picked this one up while I was 'researching' my last blog post. I was looking for a single people's support group online, but there doesn't seem to be one. Or at least not of the sort I was looking for. The cursory search that I did pointed me to DePaulo's work and website. Apparently she's the big name in research on single people qua single people. That is, not single people who want to become coupled as their primary life goal.
The first few chapters are occupied with taking marriage researchers to task for sloppy and misleading studies and headlines. I think she does a pretty good job of demonstrating the problems that plague the field: conflating single with divorced, widowed, or coupled-but-unmarried, cross-sectional versus longitudinal studies, leading survey questions, biased funding sources. None of these problems are fatal, but they must be carefully parsed. What do the studies really say? DePaulo's own studies, however, seem to run into some of the same problems. She sometimes conflates categories when it suits her and her website sports a blatantly leading survey.
The second part of the book is more about the stigma and discrimination that single people are subject to. In large part I agree with her. Coupled people and even more so married people are given privileges that single people are not. Tax breaks and health care discounts on the more tangible side and a perception that they are less responsible and more selfish on the less tangible. Unfortunately she sometimes goes too far by suggesting that coupled people are in fact the less responsible and more selfish ones.  We'd best settle on what it means to be responsible and unselfish before we try and point fingers on those topics.
As I read it DePaulo is trying to make two different points in the book. First that single people are happy, healthy, and productive. Second, that they are but ought not be discriminated against. She uses the first point to bolster the second. I don't see the need for the first point though. It seems clear enough to me that even if single people were less productive, happy, or healthy in general that they ought not be discriminated against just for their 'alternative lifestyle.'

Test of Metal by Matthew Woodring Stover
Yes that's really the title. Sorry. It's a Magic: The Gathering novel. I've only played the game a few times (okay, only twice) and I had no idea that there was actually some sort of back story for the game. Apparently there is, or at least there is money to be made in selling novels with the name slapped on them. In fact this is a very well written fantasy novel. I've read a few of Stover's books in the past and true to form he elevates what can be a very painful genre to thoughtful and introspective heights. It might be that early on he lampshades a Gettier problem or that he talks in some detail about the consequences of the existence of many worlds (I'm a sucker for that stuff), but I really thought it had something going on. Stover is also well aware that he isn't writing a literary novel. He has no problem throwing in anachronistic phrases and acknowledging that he's writing for an editor and a shared world. It seems like he has fun messing with other people's characters. Also there are dragons in this one.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Being Single

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to reflect on being single. I needed someone to drive me to and from a surgical appointment and I didn't know where to turn. For a moment I was envious of those people who have someone special in their lives. Who know exactly who they are supposed to turn to in times of need. I don't have anyone like that; anyone who is my everything and who will do anything for me.

I have never really felt the need to be in a relationship. I've tried dating. I've had one relatively serious relationship that didn't work out. Other than that I've been single my entire life.  But I am perfectly happy on my own. In fact I was much less happy, much more uncomfortable, in a relationship. I felt as though I was always performing for my S.O. and never quite like I was myself. I told myself that it was just because I wasn't used to it, I would get used to including someone in all of my plans, and that eventually I would be able to be myself again. I would become comfortable. That didn't happen. I should have realized, I did realize, just two months in that the relationship was not going to work out. Still I continued, sure that I simply had to get over my misgivings.

Eight months later I finally called it quits. It was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. I was upset about it of course. It probably took me two years to get over the disappointment. No one likes failing at something, especially something that everyone is told they ought to do. Something we are told that we need to be truly happy. More than that though I was relieved. I was able to do what I wanted for the reasons that I wanted. (What I wanted was to race ultras, but I've already told that story.)

Still, there I was: low wage job, no car, no house, no kids, over thirty, and single. It looked like a recipe for no life.

Then a few years ago I was talking with a good friend who was also single. She asked, when are we going to get to real life? When do we start? I hadn't really thought about it, but the answer just came out of my mouth: Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. We already had lives and our lives had meaning. I was a bike mechanic who liked his job and loved to race ultras. Who cares what other people, or even I, thought I needed to be happy? I was happy!

Since then I've tried dating a few times, but it hasn't worked out. Usually when I felt that someone else was interested in me.  I haven't been on a second date though and, largely, that's my choice. For me the costs simply don't outweigh the benefits. There is nothing special that a romantic relationship offers me that I need or particularly want. I am perfectly satisfied being single and the longer I stay single the more I think it suits me.


The realization I have come to is that I was being too narrow minded when I thought that I needed an S.O. to help me. I have relationships that work for me. Marriage or a coupled relationship is no guarantee that someone will be there for you and neither does being single guarantee that there is no one there for you. I had two great offers from good friends, people whom I trust, to drive me to and from my appointment. It was humbling to realize that I needed someone and more humbling to realize that someone really was there for me. My view of relationships was too narrow. I have friends to have intellectual discussions with. I have friends to bike or run with. I have friends to have deep personal discussions with. I don't need someone to be my everything when I have so many someones who are something.   

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Some thoughts on going back to school

I'm two semesters into my return to school. I've managed to achieve my GPA goal (even if those weren't the grades I deserved). I'm off academic probation for the first time since I don't know when. So what have I learned?

I had to start out in community college because I had been kicked out of ISU back in 2000. I honestly didn't know whether or not I could hack it. I kind of figured I was an irresponsible know-it-all who was really not cut out for anything remotely academic. While I can't say for sure that I'm not an irresponsible know-it-all (I can think of one or two people who might describe me that way) I do know that I managed to pull off a 4.0 at DMACC. Honestly it's a little bit disappointing when you want to work on improving your writing and you get a paper back with a perfect score and a “Great job! Loved the Wittgenstein quote.” If anything makes you look like a know-it-all it's a Wittgenstein quote. Worse than perfect scores with banal comments though are A- scores with no comments at all. It's tough to improve if I don't know what to improve upon.

So anyway, I got back into ISU with the help of a few recommendation letters (thank you!). I still wasn't sure I could handle it. After all were my grades at DMACC just a reflection of my peers? It wasn't too hard to set the curve in those classes. Add to that jumping straight into 400 level philosophy classes after taking 100 level survey classes. Whatever one may say it is not true that philosophy is just bullshit. If it is bullshit it is very specific bullshit. You can be wrong, very wrong. I hadn't really bounced serious ideas off of someone else in a very long time and I know how bad it is to work in an echo chamber. What if my ideas were way off, stoner philosophy, or just plain crazy?

It didn't take long to figure out that school is not that hard. It is embarrassingly easy. Do the work, show up for class, ask questions. That's it. Occasionally I felt like I was cheating when I saw more talented students skipping class and turning in assignments late or not at all. Why should I get a better grade than someone who understands the material better just because I followed instructions? What is a grade supposed to reflect anyway?

I did pick up a few other lessons along the way: Don't worry about not understanding something or not doing as well as you'd hoped. This is what I have come to call a "learning attitude”. Why are you in school? To learn. If you already knew it you wouldn't be in school so don't be surprised when you get something wrong. Rather take that as an opportunity to improve. If you do think that you already understand then check your knowledge. I made sure to ask questions and try to restate my understanding of what we were learning. My motto became: Dare to be Stupid. If I said something in class and got it wrong I counted that as a victory. I had learned that I didn't understand. I knew where I stood and could move from there.


I can't say that I've learned these lessons perfectly. There is a (large) part of me that thinks I ought to get everything right and if I don't it's simply because I am not smart enough. I have to constantly remind myself how to succeed. Even though I have now managed a 4.0 at ISU I am still afraid of the echo chamber. Even though a (deeply flawed) first draft won me a scholarship for best paper I know I have a long way to go.   

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Summer Break: Semester's Reading

Sorry it's been so long, but if you're a follower you know that I've been busy. Specifically I've been back in school. Now that I'm free for the summer I can go back to blogging in full force. Actually right now I'm feeling a little eager to blog, but that might just be because for the last semester I've been writing 2+ short essays per week. As I noted on my very first blog post though I started the blog (in part) to work on my writing in the hopes of going back to school. So that happened.

Anyway, hopefully I'll be back at it for the summer. 2-4 posts per month is the plan. I'll start with an easy one: Books read Fall and Spring semesters.

I'm not going to recount the books I read for class, though since I did take a sci-fi lit class in the Fall I certainly could. I'm just going to talk about the books I read for “fun”. (It has been a while though so I may have missed a few.)

-A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
(Almost) Exactly the same as the movie. Extremely well written and a quick read. I had been intimidated by it as it is one of those “classics”. I ought to know better by now. Books do not generally become classics if they are poorly written and unengaging. It isn't as shocking as the movie, I don't see how it could be, but it is worth the read. It's not for everyone and if it's not for you you probably know it. Still, if you read it or watch the movie you must commit. Watch the whole thing and don't dismiss it until you've thought about it a little.

-The first 200 or so pages of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Some books you just feel obliged to read (ironic, no?). I have been trying to read something, anything, by Rand for about 15 years now. This is the most I've managed. Some of you will ask, “Why do you even bother.” Others will ask, “What is wrong with you that you did't get it?” To the first question: I want to take it seriously and get beyond the caricature. Some people whom I really respect cite her as a major positive influence. One thing I don't like doing is simply dismissing someone's opinion without understanding why they hold it. I don't like saying, “You like/believe this because you're stupid.” It is condescending and stifles any meaningful conversation that could have been had. To the second I can only say, I don't get it. I have a basic understanding of the philosophy and I can see ways in which it makes sense. I can also see some problems with it. But really that isn't why I stopped reading it. Her prose is awful. It's like getting hit with a sledgehammer and not in a good way. She could have written a book on any of my favorite things and I still would have hated it.

-A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
A pretty darn good sci-fi novel. There's a lot to think about in this novel, mostly on the subject of what a mind is and how information moves. There is some fun sci-fi alienness, but that doesn't excite me much unless it's tied to an idea. Here just about every alien has a different form of mind and asks the question of what it means to have/be a mind. How does technology form a part of our mind? Is a community a mind? Is a mind a community? How do we get a detailed picture of the world with only the very little information that our senses give us? Good stuff.

-The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
I thought I needed a little introduction to Bayes' theorem and this looked like a good way of getting a taste without getting too technical. It's a good story of how, where, and why the theorem works. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the competing frequentist view however. One thing that I was grateful for was the appendix that shows (with actual numbers!) what is going on with Bayes. Working (struggling mightily) through the problems made me understand much better than I would have if it had just said: Bayes=Good (the text comes close to being a hagiography). Still, I'm not a committed Bayesian yet. I don't think it solves all the world's problems, but I do think it is a useful tool.

-The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
Have you heard of utilitarianism? Yes. Then you don't need to read this book. A cogent defense of utilitarianism, but nothing new and fails to solve the old problems (if you consider them problems).