Archive for May, 2013


Stumbling on Wikipedia

Can be shockingly eye-opening. There is so much complexity in the world. Consider just this entry that I stumbled upon. What a concise and beautiful mathematic representation of life. Of course the simulation is just one way of seeing the intricate structure of life, and there are others (such as philosophy or theology), but nonetheless here it is, simple and fascinating.


Narcissism over time

Sometimes I get upset on this blog about narcissism. I thought I had license to do this because the work of Jean Twenge and others supports the idea that there is a marked increase in the narcissism of the current generation, when compared as an age cohort to other age cohorts. Thus, even though newspapers are constantly, i.e., in every decade, saying that narcissism was dangerously on the rise, I thought there was actually some data supporting the truth of that claims THIS TIME AROUND.

In an effort at fairness, some new studies have come out challenging the data used in making this conclusion.

This second one got cited in the Atlantic. It seems less powerful, but frustratingly, I just don’t know enough about statistics to understand most of what is said.


Secret Life of the “High 5”

It’s not secret actually, because it’s on wikipedia, but it’s just a classic case of how the richness of the world can really overwhelm you when bother to focus on any one part of it.

Just reading the bare facts of how the high five supposedly originated brings to mind all sorts of questions. It probably originated in sports — that seems likely, but then one wonders how essential the “high” part of the “high 5” is. Is the high five somehow different than the low five? Before you answer, know that the low five was an African American tradition that clearly came before white people. Did white culture have to make the high five “high” to sanitize it and make it uniquely white or appropriate to white people.

And how does this fit into a pattern of cultural appropriation (I would love to read some who seriously took up the issue of cultural appropriation, the world over, from the Elgin marbles to whatever else — embarrassing that I don’t have that many examples)? After all, think of the history of rap, jazz, and today, the question about the N* word. Is it ok if white people appropriate that too, even if they do in fact intend to use it in it positive valence?

Also, consider the SEXUAL history of the high five. One of the most documented claimants to be the first high five was between Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. Burke transformed the sign into a gay pride expression in San Fran.

In one sense, one thinks that its wonderful and happy that a cultural sign for gay pride is taken on by the wider culture. After all, this type of diffusion is how progress is made in respecting various groups. But when one uses the word “appropriation” one can see a different side to these things.

Endlessly interesting, was the high five taken from gays and blacks, or was it adopted as an affirmation of the activity and indirectly, those who generated it. Without knowing the whole history, I would wager its the latter. There is nothing better for progress then to have a disenfranchised group become “cool.” The risk is that the group will be exploited by cultural forces (im sure some black artists have had this happen to them), but on the whole, I think sex and cool often work for the better in these situations (think of how important it was for civil rights when the supreme court said that black people and white people could date. In history, nothing brings races together like physical attraction. This too can be abused, but on the whole I’m high on sexual and cultural mixing.)


The biggest possible number

This article is great. I understand like 5% of it and its still great.


Philosophy on bathroom stalls

Never thought I would write that title, but I was over at buzzfeed, indulging the juvenile proscratinator in me, and I looked at this. It’s pretty funny, but more importantly, there is actually philosophical value to this piece of vandalism. Written on a bathroom stall was the following:

Things I Hate

1. Vandalism

2. Irony

3. Lists

Whoever came up with this is pretty smart, because there are multiple layers of self-reference, recursion, and meta-statements. In fact, I’m not sure how to characterize them all.

Number 1 creates irony by introducing a contrast between the communication of a message (that the person hates vandalism) with the form of that message (a message on a bathroom stall, which is vandalism). Number 1 would not be out of the ordinary if it were written on government form or a school test.

Number 2 is meta-irony. If one sees something ironic, one can draw attention to it by labeling it as irony, “hey, that’s ironic,” and 2 is like that (we just saw irony with the vandalism case) but it’s better than that. Because the person is putting irony on a list of things that he hates, but previously just created, there is further irony. Does the fact that the person uses the word “irony” ironically, introduce further irony? Is it of a different type then what went before? One could say that 2 not only points out the irony of (1), but also exemplifies irony by itself.

Number 3 is an example of the same pattern. The person is writing a list in writing 3, just as he was vandalizing in writing 1. This similarity between 1 and 3 makes me think that 2 is the special one in this list. The person has somehow created an environment in which pointing out irony is itself ironic. Quite an achievement.

What if the inscription on the stall was

Things I hate

1. vandalism

2. ironic lists

3. self reference

Would this make 2 somehow more self-referential then before? I’m not sure what to think.


Two ways of doing something for fun

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that I’m interested in fun. However, there are two ways that we can do something in order to have fun.

Sometimes we do something “For fun.” When we do something for fun, fun functions very similarly to “for no reason,” or “on a whim.” One similarity is the way that this explanation for action (I did it for fun) compares to “I did it for no reason” in how they aggregate with other, more traditional reasons.

If I go to the store in order to get some milk, my reason can easily add to another one, say, going to the store to get some eggs. Putting these two reasons together, I can go to the store to get some milk and some eggs. The explanation of “I went to the store for no reason” does not function additively in the same way. I cannot say “I went to the store for no reason and in order to get some eggs.” The fact that I went to the store for no reason excludes going to the store for the reason of getting eggs.

Fun seems to sometimes work in this way. If I say “I went to the store for fun, and also for eggs,” then my feeling is that there is a contradiction. If I went for fun, then I went on a lark and so could not have gone for a purpose.

However, fun can be used to explain an action when it functions more like an ordinary reason. This is usually found with the locution “to have fun.” I went to the store to have fun and get some eggs” or “I went to the store because its fun, and to get eggs.” These reasons can combine in the usual way.

There itself a further wrinkle. I can do the same thing for the same reason, and pick a means that is not optimally efficient for reaching the ends because the action is itself fun. “I’m going to the neighbor’s house to get bread.” “why wouldn’t you just go to the store?” “because its fun to ask the neighbor.”

Notice also that one can append “fun” to any action, however finely specified. One can say “I went to the store because it’s fun” but one can further specify what is fun, as in “I went to the store to buy bread because its fun.” Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine why buying bread would be fun, but anything is possible in this regard. Sometimes we think the weirdest things are fun.


Other People are like Galaxies

I’m reading Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Emile, which is his lengthy text on how to raise someone to be a happy and capable adult. A lot of the advice is interesting. He thinks humans are happiest when their desires are in harmony with their needs so that they can get the things that they want.

Rousseau also thinks that society as we know it is corrupt and invites us to puff up our desires with vanity (Famously, Rousseau, being French, calls vanity “amour propre”) and attention seeking. This distorted form of society makes us get on a treadmill of desire fulfillment that we can never get off of. Permanent unhappiness is the result.

But Rousseau also has the idea that there is something shocking and difficult about “living in society,” i.e., interacting with other people. His proposal is that children should be raised far away from other people so that they have no notion of trying to please others or needing to be pleased by then.

There is something to this idea, though it may not be satisfactory in every dimension. Here is how it might be valuable.

Today I learned the life story of someone I had met before, but only briefly. It was quite incredibly, which is to say, no different than any life story (I find then all incredible). This guy had lived in an extremely violent environment as a young man. He saw his friends shot, random people beat up. Drugs and crimes of every kind. Yet he got out of his neighborhood and became a philosopher. He liked death metal as a boy, and almost couldn’t become a philosopher because of his fear of public speaking and flying. What a life, and so different than mine. And hence the title of this post. Whenever I meet someone new and learn a good deal of their history, I feel the same way that I feel when I look into the night sky. The feeling is one of wonder and awe. When I look at the stars, I think that I am a very small part of a very enormous universe. When I meet someone new, I feel that I am one sliver of the human experience.

This feeling, without the right training, can be daunting. How should one react to others? Tolerance of some type is a virtue, but how are we psychologically prepared for it. It’s not a given that we will be able to appreciate the life of someone else without losing our grip on our life. People who are xenophobic cannot handle the different ways that people things, and so demonize that way of life. This is a common reaction to difference. Others become relativists. After seeing difference, they reach the conclusion that their own way of living is somehow unimportant or not as fully justified as it was before. Others can become jealous (“you did that? How amazing…”) And so we can see that to appreciate difference for its vastness and immensity without losing one’s commitment to “me and my life” requires skill.

Rousseau’s idea is that part of a good upbringing is one that allows a person to remain in touch with his or her own way of life without forcing him or her to simply reject other life paths.